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Understanding the foreign policy doctrine of the Biden era

Ashutosh Varshney writes: Democracy and human rights will continue to be key drivers, but economic tools and diplomacy will be the main methods for achieving these goals, not military power.

Written by Ashutosh Varshney |
Updated: September 7, 2021 7:41:08 am
US President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times)

The Afghanistan war has formally ended. Its end has led to a new foreign policy doctrine for the Biden era. In a speech of clarity, conviction and force, President Biden laid out the principal components of the doctrine.

First, containing China and Russia will be the focus of US foreign policy under him. Second, cyber security is a new mode of warfare and must be given prime attention. Third, America’s counter-terrorism project will not be pursued via boots on the ground. Instead, “over the horizon” capabilities, meaning satellites and unmanned drones, will be the predominant instruments. Fourth, nation-making or democracy-building will not be the purpose of external military deployment which, if used, will have clear and achievable goals strictly limited to security, not extendable to larger politics. Security will not include counter-insurgency, meaning long-term military involvement in a civil war. Fifth, democracy and human rights will continue to be key drivers of foreign policy, but economic tools and diplomacy will be the main methods for achieving such goals. Countries cannot be forced to be free via military means.

This doctrine is different from how Biden’s two predecessors viewed foreign policy. For Donald Trump, bringing the military back home, withdrawal from alliances and unilateralism were important goals. Biden would strengthen alliances, but bring the armed force back from areas where they have ceased to serve “vital national interest”. Though this was not explicitly stated, the implication is that American military deployment in Japan and South Korea will continue, for these “military theatres”, aimed at balancing China, are much more important than Afghanistan.

The Biden doctrine also departs from how President Obama, his former boss, viewed foreign policy. Obama remained quite torn about military deployment overseas and might even have believed that disengagement from Afghanistan was vitally important. But he could not fully take on the security establishment, and left the troops in Afghanistan.

Going against much of the security establishment, Biden has pulled the military out. For over a decade, certainly since the killing of Osama Bin Laden (May 2, 2011), Biden has favoured troop disengagement from Afghanistan, but first Obama overruled him and then Trump did not complete the withdrawal, though he did prepare the ground for it, however controversially. As President, Biden finally had power to act on his beliefs, and he ended the war. It was also an election promise.

Criticism, especially from an important segment of the security elites, is likely to continue. The principal critique centres on Biden’s framing of the choices — escalate or leave. If America did not withdraw now, said Biden, the only other choice was sending thousands of troops for a third decade of war. Critics disagree. They say that the option of keeping a small force in Afghanistan and maintaining air support for the Afghan National Army was available. It would have at the very least kept the stalemate going, and not handed a victory to the Taliban. The Afghan army collapsed not because it had no will to fight, but because US support, critical to military combat, was abruptly withdrawn.

Scholars of Afghanistan’s internal politics disagree with Biden’s security critics. For them, the fundamental flaw of America’s security approach was its concentration of power in Kabul, whereas Afghanistan’s historically rooted tribal and ethnic differences required a decentralised mode of governance and power-sharing. The more power was concentrated in Kabul, the more the nation-building was undermined. Add the sanctuary provided by Pakistan to the Taliban, and the whole system became vulnerable to the Taliban’s penetration and capture.

Biden’s security critics have also run up against an important political reality. For years now, America’s public opinion has been turning against the Afghan war. The recent popular frustration was about how the military withdrawal was executed, not about the withdrawal per se. Moreover, this frustration is likely to ebb, for an estimated 90 per cent of Americans living in Afghanistan have been evacuated. That thousands of Afghans, who worked alongside the Americans, remain trapped in the country appears to generate some regret, but no overpowering emotion. Biden barely touched on this morally significant matter in his speech.

Twenty years after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, there is no popular appetite left in America for prolonging the war. Afghanistan is simply too far away from the national imagination. Even if the Afghan war did not take too many American lives, it was consuming enormous resources — $300 million a day, as Biden put it. Moreover, in recent years, terrorist attacks on US soil have come from home-grown groups, not from Al Qaeda or the Taliban based in Afghanistan. The end of the war thus meets the test of domestic popular endorsement. But what about its international implications?

Two interconnected issues are relevant here. First, the Afghanistan intervention was a NATO-supported military enterprise. It is not clear that Biden consulted European allies before deciding to withdraw. Biden’s explicit endorsement of multilateralism sits uneasily with his unilateral withdrawal.

Second, and more important, thousands of Afghan allies were left behind in a situation all too vulnerable to the Taliban’s naked aggression. This is bound to create great uneasiness in Taiwan and Japan. Both face Chinese hostility, which in Taiwan’s case is especially vigorous.

China’s Taiwan preoccupation is not adequately appreciated in India’s intellectual and political quarters, which remain understandably concerned with China’s border plans. But in the wider intellectual circles, it is well known that Chinese security policy has a relentless Taiwan obsession. For Beijing, the border with India is a much less significant game. China has never given up its ambition of capturing Taiwan, which it views as a “renegade province”. In 1895, Japanese colonialism took it away, and then, in 1949, those who lost the Chinese civil war made a home there. China views the return of Taiwan as just revenge for its historic humiliation.

Taiwan’s security functions under an American umbrella. Biden says that withdrawal from Afghanistan was necessary because the US must now concentrate on China (and Russia). But will the US provide firm support if Taiwan is mortally threatened by a surging China? Or, is America too war-weary, and Taiwan also too far away from the popular imagination? After Afghanistan, this is a scary question in world politics. There are no clear answers, only doubts about America’s plans or capabilities.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 6, 2021 under the title ‘America after Afghanistan’. The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University

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