Little sign of revived relationship between US and EU

Biden’s priorities are domestic, his foreign policy set for his home audience

It was the moment that marked end of the American century. It was the death knell of the Atlantic alliance. It was, as Francis Fukuyama put it, "a major juncture in world history". Big, premature claims have been made for the historical significance of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan – an outcome that we knew was coming for over a year and which many believed was inevitable from the day the war began 20 years ago. It was of course the manner of the US troops' departure rather than the fact of it that seemed to imbue the defeat with world-historical weight – the ignominious and chaotic retreat from Kabul airport, the horrifying images of Afghans losing their lives while desperately trying to join the exodus, the sense of disarray emanating from a White House whose botched execution of the withdrawal left it seeming powerless in the face of its own humiliation.

All wars are fought twice, the Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen has written. "The first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory." It's hard from this vantage to believe that historians will remember America's longest war any more positively than we do today, but its wider significance depends on what follows. How the Taliban rules. How the Afghan people – and their neighbours – respond. What global jihadi networks do next. What Russia and China read into Washington's show of weakness. Whether Joe Biden recovers.

Fall of Kabul

But the fall of Kabul is already guaranteed its status as a metaphor for deeper shifts. For Europe, Washington's cut-and-run symbolises a slow estrangement from the United States, or at least a growing sense, building since the end of the cold war and accelerated by recent political trends on both sides of the Atlantic, that this once-indispensable partnership can no longer be counted on. Joe Biden's unilateral decision to withdraw troubled Nato allies who, after all, originally joined the international coalition in Afghanistan not because it was a particularly vital strategic interest but out of solidarity with Washington after 9/11. When European leaders pressed Biden last month to extend his deadline for departure in order to get their own citizens and vulnerable Afghans out of the country, the US president refused. His administration's failure to show any contrition for the debacle compounded the sense of "betrayal", as Czech president Milos Zeman is said to have called it.

On a range of issues, from climate to trade, the US is still going its own way

European states each have particular reasons to worry about all of this. Eastern capitals fret about whether this fickle, more insular America will have their back in the event of Russian aggression. Britain is still grieving the loss of what it thought was a special relationship. Nordic governments with big aid programmes know they will end up shouldering a heavy responsibility for the inevitable humanitarian response on the ground, while others, like France, are fixated on the prospect of increased westward migration. What unites the continent, however, is alarm at how little their voice is heard in Washington these days.


Rise of China

Biden took office seeking to repair relationships in Europe, which had frayed under Donald Trump. He says all the right things about co-operation and shared values, but he has made it clear that US foreign policy must shift its focus towards countering the rise of China. That shift was one of his stated reasons for leaving Afghanistan. Writing in Foreign Policy last week, Stephen Walt argued that, for America, Europe's relative importance has declined sharply since the Soviet Union collapsed. With the rise of China, the collapse of Soviet communism and the post-9/11 counter-terrorism campaigns, US priorities have shifted elsewhere. Donald Trump's dismissal of European concerns made that clear. But this wasn't an aberration: Barack Obama frequently bemoaned Europe's free-loader attitude to its own security. Now, Walt argues, "what really bothers [European leaders] about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is what it might reveal about America's willingness to keep subsidising allies who aren't pulling their weight." Certainly, it has suited European advocates of "strategic autonomy" to portray the Afghan debacle as the end of the American era.

Relations with Washington

Yet even if that’s an exaggerated view, Europeans can see with their own eyes that the longed-for return to the pre-Trump era in their relations with Washington is not on the cards. Trump was a symptom of a new political climate as much as he was its progenitor. On a range of issues, from climate to trade, the US is still going its own way. Biden’s priorities are domestic, and his foreign policy is finely tuned for his home audience. That much was clear in his decision not to reciprocate when Europe reopened to US travellers; in his unilateral announcement, to European consternation, of a suspension of global vaccine patents; and in his spurning of new trade deals that could play badly among his voters. America may be back, as Biden told the world. But its priorities are back home.