Neal Ulevich/AP/File
South Vietnamese civilians try to scale the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in an attempt to get aboard evacuation flights April 30, 1975.

Saigon and Kabul: A connection that will shape the US global role

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

If Vietnam was the beginning of the end of the old unifying principle for U.S. foreign policy, the pullout from Afghanistan looks like its final punctuation mark. More significantly, it seems to signal a new vision of America’s role in the world.

The defeat in Vietnam disrupted America’s post-World War II national consensus about its identity as an indispensable defender of democracy, uniquely placed to champion that cause politically, economically, diplomatically – and, if necessary, militarily. Now, Afghanistan signals a key shift: Barring a direct threat like 9/11, the prospect of American “boots on the ground” overseas appears increasingly remote.

Under former President Donald Trump, this was framed as “America First.” President Joe Biden calls it “a foreign policy for the middle class.” The underlying assumption is similar: America’s overseas commitments, especially militarily, must ultimately benefit ordinary Americans. The key question now will be how the new test will affect other potential conflict areas. One clue: the degree to which the Biden administration frames the threats faced by smaller allies like Ukraine and Taiwan as a matter of ordinary Americans’ national interest, especially given the importance of the U.S. rivalry with Moscow and Beijing.

Why We Wrote This

The searing images of the U.S. retreats from Saigon and Kabul inevitably spark comparisons. But a deeper connection between these wars may hold significant sway over how the U.S. addresses overseas commitments in the future.

The stark images of America’s final dash for the exit in Afghanistan, with Taliban forces streaming into the capital, have made the comparisons inevitable: Kabul 2021, Saigon 1975. But there’s a deeper connection between these two long, finally abandoned, wars, with potentially major implications for the future role of the United States in the world.

The defeat in Vietnam marked the beginning of the end of America’s post-World War II national consensus about its political identity and place in the world: as an indispensable supporter and defender of democracy, uniquely placed to champion that cause politically, economically, diplomatically, and, if necessary, by force of arms.

In the intervening decades, successive presidents have made occasional efforts to revive it, most recently, and disastrously, in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

Why We Wrote This

The searing images of the U.S. retreats from Saigon and Kabul inevitably spark comparisons. But a deeper connection between these wars may hold significant sway over how the U.S. addresses overseas commitments in the future.

Yet if Vietnam was the beginning of the end of the old unifying principle for U.S. foreign policy, the pullout from Afghanistan looks like its final punctuation mark. And more significantly, it seems to signal a new and different vision of America’s role in the world. The key shift: Barring a direct threat to homeland security, like a Pearl Harbor or a 9/11, the prospect of American “boots on the ground” overseas now appears increasingly remote. 

Under former President Donald Trump, this new mindset was framed as “America First.” President Joe Biden’s phrase of choice has become “a foreign policy for the middle class.” But the underlying assumption is broadly the same: America’s overseas commitments, especially military commitments, must ultimately benefit – and, for domestic political reasons, be shown to benefit – ordinary Americans. 

Or, in the Afghanistan context: Less tangible, old-style achievements, such as the historic empowerment of girls and women, which is now under stark threat from the Taliban, are not sufficient grounds for a lasting U.S. commitment. If Afghanistan is going to protect those advances, it’s up to the Afghans. 

Committing U.S. troops to go after the Taliban for hosting Al Qaeda might still pass muster, as it did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Yet when it comes to promoting democracy, that’s a job for American diplomats, not soldiers. 

The nature of the U.S. retreat  

The nature of the retreat from Afghanistan has dramatized this shift for American allies.

Mr. Biden entered the White House pledging to reengage on the international stage, repairing key alliances which Mr. Trump had openly disdained. The message of “America is back” was warmly welcomed by U.S. allies. But the message from Afghanistan is that it’s a different America that is back.

Reuters
A man lifts a girl as people struggle to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 16. The airport has been overwhelmed with people trying to flee after the Taliban entered Kabul.

Mr. Biden is keen to emphasize real, and important differences from the Trump years: Washington is reengaging diplomatically with allies. It has moved to reclaim a leadership role on major international issues, especially climate change. And in one aspect of the old postwar consensus that does still seem to survive, Washington is again consistently raising its voice on human rights issues worldwide. 

When it comes to the most difficult foreign-policy decision any government must make – committing military force – America’s political calculus has changed.

And with it, American allies will be reassessing the degree to which they can rely on their security ties with Washington going forward.

Until the final Afghan withdrawal, and the Taliban advances, the rumblings were largely private. European members of the NATO military alliance – especially Britain, which committed, and lost, more troops to the 20-year war than any other country except the U.S. – let it be known they were surprised, and disappointed, at being barely consulted over Mr. Biden’s decision to pull out all American forces within a matter of weeks.

But as the situation on the ground worsened, Britain’s secretary of defense took the extraordinary step of publicly denouncing the U.S. decision. Though careful to lay the ultimate blame with Mr. Trump, criticizing the “rotten deal” he did with Taliban negotiators last year as part of an initial, even earlier withdrawal plan, Ben Wallace didn’t hide his displeasure at what Mr. Biden did with that inheritance.

“I’ve been pretty blunt about it publicly,” he told a TV interviewer last weekend, “and that’s quite a rare thing when it comes to United States decisions. But strategically, it causes a lot of problems. And as an international community, it’s very difficult for what we’re seeing today.”

The key question now for U.S. allies is how the new test for overseas military commitment will affect other potential conflict areas in the world. That’s especially critical for smaller allies who could find themselves militarily threatened by Washington’s main geopolitical rivals: Ukraine, on Russia’s border; and the island democracy of Taiwan, which China has vowed ultimately to reabsorb into the mainland, by force if necessary.

Diplomatically, the Biden administration has been unequivocal in its support for both, and in warning against any encroachment on their territory. But how far would Washington be willing to commit militarily if these warnings are ignored or tested?

The answer is likely to become clearer over the months ahead. And one clue: the degree to which the Biden administration frames the challenges and pressures faced by Ukraine and Taiwan, especially given the importance of the U.S. rivalry with Moscow and Beijing, as a matter of ordinary Americans’ own national interest.

In other words, as an issue that chimes with a “foreign policy for the middle class.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Saigon and Kabul: A connection that will shape the US global role
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/World/2021/0816/Saigon-and-Kabul-A-connection-that-will-shape-the-US-global-role
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe