Francisco Seco/AP
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at a NATO foreign ministers' video meeting. The U.S. ended the war in Afghanistan by a unilateral decision on a unilateral timetable, leaving NATO allies largely in the dark.

Ignored in Afghanistan pullout, NATO allies fear ‘America First’

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America’s exit from Afghanistan left NATO allies that had fought alongside the United States for 20 years largely in the lurch. And it has prompted U.S. friends around the world to ask a deeply unsettling question: How far can we rely on Washington to help safeguard our security?

To many allies, it is looking as if the strength of their ties with Washington will depend on American domestic political considerations. They worry that the traditional bipartisan consensus that ensured U.S. security ballast around the world may now be a thing of the past.

Why We Wrote This

Washington’s hasty exit from Afghanistan was barely coordinated with its NATO allies. Many of America’s friends around the world wonder if its domestic politics now trump international alliances.

Europe is suffering an especially strong case of the jitters, but American allies in the Middle East and Asia see cause to worry, too. Even the president of Taiwan, where the Biden administration has recently strengthened its commitments, has drawn an unnerving lesson from the Afghanistan pullout.

“The only option for Taiwan is to make itself stronger,” said President Tsai Ing-wen. It was not realistic, she added, to rely “on the momentary goodwill” of another country.

It’s not so much America’s exit from Afghanistan, as the manner of it. And it has left U.S. allies – from Europe through the Middle East to Asia – asking themselves a deeply unsettling question: How far can we rely on Washington to help safeguard our vital security interests?

The core reason for their concern is that a war launched and prosecuted for two decades alongside America’s partners in the transatlantic NATO alliance was ended in a matter of weeks – by a unilateral U.S. decision, on a unilateral U.S. timetable, with little consultation and virtually no meaningful input from the allies.

Clearly aware of allied angst, the Biden administration is insisting that the Afghan withdrawal was a special case – an overdue end to a “forever war” – and that, in the words of national security adviser Jake Sullivan, America’s bonds with long-standing partners are “sacrosanct.”

Why We Wrote This

Washington’s hasty exit from Afghanistan was barely coordinated with its NATO allies. Many of America’s friends around the world wonder if its domestic politics now trump international alliances.

But there have been growing signs that such assurances are unlikely to prove sufficient to allay allied concerns. 

The broader message being drawn – not just by NATO’s European members, but by allies further afield – is that the strength of their own ties with Washington could depend on American domestic politics, over which they have no control. On the heels of Donald Trump’s presidency, when he openly questioned the value of U.S. alliances overseas, they worry that the traditional bipartisan consensus in Washington, which ensured that the United States would unquestionably provide security ballast worldwide, may now be a thing of the past.

More European autonomy?

Europe is suffering an especially strong case of the jitters. In Germany, Armin Laschet, the man most likely to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel when she steps down next month, called the pullout “the greatest debacle that NATO has experienced since its foundation.”

In Britain, the NATO country that contributed the most troops in Afghanistan after the U.S., Washington’s behavior has left a particularly sour taste. That was clear in Parliament a few days ago, when former Prime Minister Theresa May asked, “What does [the pullout] say about us as a country? What does it say about NATO, if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral decision by the U.S.?”

John Macdougall/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a news conference in Berlin, Aug. 24, 2021, after a virtual Group of Seven summit on the crisis triggered by the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan. Washington turned down pleas by European allies to extend the Aug. 31 deadline for a U.S. withdrawal so as to allow their nationals to evacuate.

The position of the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, was made no easier by President Joe Biden’s initial public defense of the decision to leave Afghanistan, framed in exclusively U.S. domestic political terms without even mentioning NATO. And this past weekend, British newspapers reported that the White House took 36 hours to return Mr. Johnson’s call last week.

No one in London is suggesting that this means NATO is finished, or that its own often-trumpeted “special relationship” with the Americans is over. But there have been calls for a new, more sober assessment of security plans – and suggestions that French President Emmanuel Macron is right to suggest that Europe needs to invest in greater “security autonomy” from the United States.

Nor are the Europeans alone.

One of Israel’s leading security commentators wrote a few days ago that “the real effect on America’s allies, especially Israel and the pro-Western Arab regimes, is that America, now and for the foreseeable future, has a heightened awareness of its own limitations,” and that this meant the allies would have to be readier “to fend for themselves.”

From Ukraine to Taiwan

Such concerns are being felt most acutely by allies bordering Washington’s two main strategic rivals: Russian neighbor Ukraine and the island democracy of Taiwan off the eastern coast of China. While Mr. Sullivan’s remarks were clearly intended to assuage their worries, both Moscow and Beijing have wasted no time in trying to stoke them.

A Russian security spokesperson and a commentator in the Chinese state media struck a strikingly similar tone in their statements last week. “Pay attention to Afghanistan,” their message ran. “That’s what happens when you rely on Washington.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is due in Washington later this month, was already nervous. He is frustrated by what he feels is insufficient U.S. support against Russian encroachment on his country, and support for Kyiv’s bid to join NATO.

Taiwan has less reason for immediate concern: The Biden administration has moved to strengthen both its political and security commitment. But that didn’t stop President Tsai Ing-wen from drawing a lesson from the Afghanistan pullout. “The only option for Taiwan is to make itself stronger, more united and more determined to defend itself,” she said last week. It wasn’t a realistic option, she added, to rely “on the momentary goodwill” of another country.

The key question now is how far allied worries are justified, and how Washington will respond.

That may prove a delicate, high-stakes challenge. While President Biden’s eagerness to get out of Afghanistan was in keeping with Mr. Trump’s “America First” agenda, he has also stressed his determination to restore U.S. international leadership and to reinforce U.S. alliances. They are critical, he says, to curbing Chinese and Russian autocratic ambitions, and to addressing global challenges like climate change.

Now, will America’s allies trust Washington enough to follow his lead?

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