The Taliban victory in Afghanistan is a tragic side effect of a larger and necessary shift in US foreign policy. Much criticism of the US withdrawal has rightly focused on its shambolic execution, but many have gone on to make exaggerated claims about the shredding America’s international credibility and the end of the American era.
But Biden is not planning a global retreat. He laid out his ambitious plan for renewed US international leadership only six weeks into his term. The White House Interim National Security Guidance is notable both for its frank assessment of international challenges and the scale of its ambition.
In the face of a “a global pandemic, a crushing economic downturn, a crisis of racial justice … a deepening climate emergency … rising nationalism, receding democracy, growing rivalry with China, Russia, and other authoritarian states” the US does not plan to pull back and hunker down.
Rather it will “promote a favourable distribution of power to deter and prevent adversaries from directly threatening the United States and our allies, inhibiting access to the global commons, or dominating key regions; and lead and sustain a stable and open international system, underwritten by strong democratic alliances, partnerships, multilateral institutions, and rules.”
The big question this raises is how can a weakened US advance such an ambitious agenda? Although the administration is yet to answer this question in any detail it has signalled to two major shifts. The first is geographic, away from the Middle East and towards the Indo-Pacific. The second relates to means; the US intends to make less use of its expensive military tools and more use of diplomacy. Washington aspires to work more with allies and partners to defend and advance a rules-based international order.
The US military commitment to Afghanistan was never going to survive these shifts. The claim that a smaller US force could have maintained a sustainable stalemate in Afghanistan ignores most of the conflict’s history and the major recalibration that Biden is driving.
Still, many questions remain about how the extent to which the United States will manage to extricate itself from the Middle East and adopt a new form of international leadership that is based less on raw power.
Biden often promises that the US will henceforth “lead with diplomacy”. But diplomacy is not just a low-cost tool for producing the same outcomes. It requires compromise. To succeed in the international environment, Washington must do more than engage. It must do deals, with friends and foes alike.
The next test for the emerging Biden doctrine could come from an increasingly belligerent Iran. Iran has responded to Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action –JCPOA) by steadily advancing its nuclear program. At the same time it has escalated its shadow war with the US and its partners, especially Israel.
To constrain Iran without getting drawn into another Middle East war, the US will need to forge an international coalition and perhaps reach an interim deal with Iran. Biden would be in a stronger position if he had, at the outset of his presidency, agreed to return the US to compliance with the JCPOA.
An early US return to the JCPOA would have boosted the administration’s deal-making credibility, especially given that many members of the Biden team personally negotiated the JCPOA. Instead, the US has become bogged down in fruitless negotiations with Iran over who should comply first.
By announcing an immediate US return to the deal, Biden could still put the onus back on Iran while conceding little in substance. Iran will realise economic gains from the lifting of sanctions only slowly. Undoing sanctions takes time and doesn’t, on its own, overcome private sector aversion to commercial risk in Iran.
Elusive at the best of times, multilateral arms control agreements are becoming harder to achieve as rules-based order erodes. The extent of Obama’s achievement in concluding the JCPOA has become clearer over time.
The US did not achieve all its objectives and critics argued that Obama could have extracted more Iranian concessions if he had applied more leverage. But Donald Trump tested that theory by withdrawing from the deal and applying “maximum” – and then “super maximum” – pressure.
The US will need many more JCPOA-like deals. It must find common ground with its adversaries to manage strategic competition, reduce threats and address global challenges. Reinvigorating US alliances and partnerships will similarly require compromise. The key to building a stronger regional coalition to balance Chinese power is the opening of the US economy to its friends in the Indo-Pacific.
Much commentary on the consequences of the US defeat in Afghanistan continues the longstanding tendency to identify America’s reputation with its willingness to use force and the credibility of its threats to do so. But if the Biden administration is to succeed with diplomacy, it will need give at least as much weight to the credibility of US undertakings to compromise.
The Trump administration did lasting damage to Washington’s reputation. Other states must now factor in the possibility that he, or someone like him, could be back in the White House in less than four years. Redressing this credibility deficit will take more than declarations that “America is back”.