Nathalie Toccie is a Pierre Keller visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, a board member of ENI and the author of POLITICO‘s World View column.
Why are Europeans so upset about Joe Biden?
In the wake of the United States’ shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Continent’s leaders have done little to conceal their frustration with the U.S. president’s foreign policy.
But while genuine distress for the plight of Afghans, especially women and children, is understandable, their broader concerns are overblown. Were they to listen carefully, they would realize that Biden sounds, if anything, quintessentially European. They’d discover that while there may be problems with the U.S., those problems are just as present at home.
At the center of European concerns are fears about the return of U.S. isolationism. When Biden took office, announcing that “America is back,” Europeans, traumatized by four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, had replied suspiciously: “For how long?” Since then, Biden has taken a series of moves that suggest the question is still an open one. If the U.S. so readily turned away from Afghanistan, could it do the same in the Balkans — and perhaps in the Baltics too?
This existential worry is misplaced. There is nothing the Biden administration has said or done that suggests a diminished commitment to European security. The president’s foreign policy doctrine is that of a great power that understands its resources are finite and is strategically choosing to channel them where it matters most: against its major adversaries — China and Russia — and toward its liberal democratic allies, notably in Europe. The withdrawal from Afghanistan, chaotic as it may have been, does not undermine but rather reinforces that point.
Spelling out his foreign policy in the wake of the debacle in Afghanistan, Biden declared that “human rights will be the center of our foreign policy. But the way to do that is not through endless military deployments, but through diplomacy, economic tools and rallying the rest of the world for support.”
That’s as European as it gets.
Europeans are also deeply frustrated about the lack of coordination in Afghanistan. That is a fair criticism, but it is not new. Lack of consultation has been an age-old irritant in the transatlantic relationship, across Democrat and Republican administrations alike.
America’s allies have long been presented with its decisions to intervene militarily as faits accomplis, with participation expected nonetheless. In the 1990s and the 2000s, from the Balkans to the Middle East, many in Europe felt that Americans did the cooking, while they were left with the unhappy chore of washing up.
There is, however, one good reason for Europeans to be upset about Afghanistan. It runs counter to an important trend in Western foreign policy: the return of liberal values.
After a decade in which the West was consumed by the financial crisis, forever wars, democratic setbacks in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the rise of nationalist populism, it has slowly been rediscovering its raison d’être.
The looming confrontation with China and Russia is being interpreted as a clash between political systems and ideologies. And so, liberal democracy and authoritarianism have once again become the dominant signifiers — and abandoning Afghans to the Taliban feels like a retreat from the very thing the West stands for.
But while the return of values to Western foreign policy should, of course, be welcomed, that does not mean we should return to the past. Gone are the days of democracy promotion through military interventions and nation building — as Biden’s foreign policy doctrine rightfully states.
Humanitarian interventions, sanctions, development and trade conditionality, the socialization of elites through diplomacy and civil society — these may have worked at the height of the liberal international order. Today, they’re unlikely to deliver.
These methods might still have a chance of working in places like Georgia or Ukraine, but in most others they’re likely to be ineffective. It is not just Afghanistan. Think of Belarus, Serbia or Turkey.
The question then becomes how to square that circle. If values cannot be ignored but also cannot be promoted abroad in the way they once were, then how can they be applied?
Part of the answer is internal: Given democratic setbacks on both sides of the Atlantic, there’s plenty of work to do building better liberal democracy at home.
But there’s also a need for an international component — and it’s this that is causing so much discomfort in the U.S. and Europe, as policymakers and leaders struggle to find a way forward. It may not be possible to spread Western values at the point of a gun, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t find other ways to do so.
Successfully promoting Western values in our multipolar age will require new policy instruments and methods, blending principles and pragmatism. It will require Europeans to take on greater responsibility and risk taking, not just on paper but in practice too. And it will entail devising new multilateral formats to support liberal values, whether through new institutions or more informal settings, like Biden’s plans for a summit of democratic countries.
Most importantly, it will require Europeans to put themselves at ease with Biden’s approach and work together with the U.S. in the mutual interest of both sides of the Atlantic.