Main Image Credit US President Joe Biden addresses the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly on 21 September 2021. Courtesy of Office of President of the United States/Wikimedia Commons
The Biden administration has yet to address the tension between what it defines as the US national interest and its global commitments.
President Joe Biden’s address to the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York this week provides an opportunity to draw breath and reflect after a tumultuous, pivotal, definitional few weeks for US foreign policy.
The president was keen to rebalance perceptions and present a cooperative picture of US engagement and leadership on the great global challenges of the moment, including the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. It takes some effort to reconcile this vision with preceding events.
National Interest First
Compare the president’s remarks on 31 August on the end (for the US at least) of the war in Afghanistan. The decision to withdraw was crystal-clear, explicitly rooted in national interest, and reflected the brutal reality of events on the ground. Biden left no ambiguity about his intent, or how he wished his decisions to be viewed in the moment and remembered later: ’I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit’; the US had ‘no vital national security interest in Afghanistan’, other than to prevent an attack on the US homeland or its friends. And, lest there be any doubt about wider policy: this decision ‘is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries’.
At the UN just three weeks later, the president took pride in having turned the page on 20 years of US involvement in conflict and offered a period of ‘relentless diplomacy’ to replace one of ‘relentless war’, with US military power a tool of last, not first, resort. Again, Biden emphasised defence of vital national interests, and only those.
A strong vein of national interest also ran through the Australia–UK–US AUKUS defence and security partnership, unveiled in dramatic fashion on 15 September. The three parties committed to strengthening the ability of each to support their security and defence interests, starting with joint development of Australian nuclear-powered submarines.
National interest was an even stronger motif in reactions to the initiative: predictably so from China; furiously from France, where defence, security and commercial interests and loss of governmental face created a potent mix. Pity the French Ambassadors recalled for consultations from Washington and Canberra. France, mistress of hard-headed diplomacy and the pursuit of national interest, had been left in the dark and outmanoeuvred.
But What is the National Interest?
Countries have to be hard-headed about their national interests and equities, including what matters most to the people at home, whose tax dollars are being spent and whose kids may be sent into danger. Each country has to take its own view of its interests, and how it prioritises between them. Any given country’s choices may look odd, counterproductive or potentially hostile in the eyes of others.
The AUKUS initiative reflects strategic prioritisation. First, of region: the US and UK underlined the importance to them of security in the Indo-Pacific. For the US and Australia this is a no-brainer; for the UK it is a choice. Second, especially for Australia, it reflects the prioritisation of operational need and commercial imperative. Third, it represents a prioritisation of relationships: three Anglophone countries, who retain something of a shared value set, banding together.
AUKUS makes sense from a US national interest perspective, even allowing for collateral damage to relationships with other international partners.
It is harder, however, to see the US national interest in the Afghanistan withdrawal. The president asked rhetorically on 31 August what the US’s vital interest in Afghanistan was now, and answered: ‘we only have one: to make sure Afghanistan can never be used again to launch an attack on our homeland’. That may work as a benchmark of vital interest. But the bar does not have to be set at an all-or-nothing level. For the US and its allies surely have a direct interest in the future of Afghanistan, not just its past.
The Afghanistan of 2021 is different from that of 2001 as a consequence of the Western intervention. In part this is about the exportability of a Western idea of statehood, founded on democracy, rule of law, good governance and respect for human rights and human development, including rights and opportunities for women and girls – however imperfectly all these things were advanced in the 20 years of engagement.
Indeed, Biden’s UNGA remarks acknowledged the importance of democracy, freedom, equality, opportunity and universal rights, which he committed the US to championing.
There is a national interest too that Afghanistan should not again become a launching pad for terrorism or a destabilising force in its neighbourhood, or be enlisted by competing powers. The Director-General of the UK Security Service has warned of a potential increase in the domestic terrorism risk as a consequence of the Taliban’s success. In addition to their ties with Pakistan, the Taliban have quickly identified China as a principal international partner. These challenges should be admitted and addressed, not wished away.
We should remember too that, even though it was not apparent at the time, the US had a vital national interest in Afghanistan in 2001 because of the menace lurking there. Governments need to be vigilant across a broad front, showing the benefits of having an extensive international presence, information picture and reach.
For now, the jury must be out on the prospects for the president’s determination to end an era of country-making military operations. His decisions left open other forms of assistance and intervention, and Biden was clear that the US would take action if it identified a terrorist threat. But the withdrawal from Afghanistan was undoubtedly a setback for US and Western interests, and should be acknowledged as such.
At the UN, the president was clear that US foreign policy was not just about national interest. His emphasis this time was on shared global challenges, cooperative endeavour and a renewed US commitment to multilateralism and leadership. The president advocated a rules-based international order, government by and for the people, and the importance of international commitments and obligations.
That sense of commitment should apply to Afghanistan too. First, and most importantly, there should be a continuing commitment to the people of Afghanistan – not just Afghans who worked for Western countries, but wider society. Two decades of Western engagement had started to change the country and raised expectations, not least for women and girls. On 21 September Biden said that ‘we must all advocate for women’, including in Afghanistan. Early signs under the Taliban are troubling.
Second, there needs to be a commitment to those who served. A welcome aspect of President Biden’s 31 August remarks was his repeated references to the skill, service and sacrifice of US military personnel, diplomats and intelligence professionals throughout the 20-year engagement in Afghanistan. The tragic, unavoidable question, especially from and to military veterans, has been: ‘was it worth it?’ International development professionals and diplomats who put their professional lives into – and risked their personal safety for – supporting the creation of a better Afghanistan are entitled to ask the same.
So Which America is It?
Reputations matter, even for a superpower. Perceived strength, reliability, consistency and generosity influence other actors, state and non-state. American predictability was in short supply under the previous administration. US allies and rivals alike expected something different from Biden.
The president’s UN speech may be the start of getting things right. It sets a template against which US deeds will be judged, and an expectation of ‘relentless diplomacy’: jaw, jaw, not war, war. But, reflecting on recent actions as much as recent words, countries who are not among the US’s primary strategic partners may be wondering how much the US will be concerned about them.
National interest and global commitment can be pursued in tandem. But they require cool analysis and honest self-reflection, and that includes not airbrushing Afghanistan from history. US and Western interests there remain, as does a debt of obligation and commitment.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Peter Jones CMG