JIIA Strategic Comments (2021-07)
Papers in the "JIIA Strategic Commentary Series" are prepared mainly by JIIA research fellows to provide commentary and policy-oriented analyses on significant international affairs issues in a readily comprehensible and timely manner.
The Debate over the United States' International Standing after the Fall of Kabul
Opinions in the United States are divided on the impact of the fall of Kabul on the United States' standing in the world. On the one hand, there are those who believe that the US' international reputation has been damaged beyond easy restoration. This group, led by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, is harshly critical of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan that went against the plan of the Biden administration and was marred by confusion. As a result of the unexpectedly rapid collapse of the Afghan government and military, two decades of efforts by the international community, led by the US, for state-building in Afghanistan have gone up in smoke, and many Afghans who had cooperated with the US, NATO, Japan, and others have been left behind, unable to leave the country. They argue that these blunders have raised strong doubts in the world about the credibility of the United States.
On the other hand, there are those who believe that the withdrawal from Afghanistan will, in the long run, lead to an improvement rather than a decline in the international standing of the United States. This group, led by Georgetown University professor Charles Kupchan, emphasizes that the fall of Saigon in 1975 did not lead to the decline of the United States as initially touted. What actually happened, they say, was a recovery of the US' power. After pulling out of an unnecessary war, the US was able to rebuild itself domestically, conduct more successful diplomacy with the Soviet Union and China, and ultimately win the Cold War. It is their view that the fall of Kabul is likely to lead to a similar outcome. By ending the war in Afghanistan, which was not in the US' national interest, and concentrating on China and Russia, its "real strategic competitors" (US President Joe Biden), the US will be able to overcome the damage to its international reputation brought about by its mismanagement of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and, in the long run, strengthen its position in the world by winning the support of its allies and other countries, they argue.
US Will as a Determinant in the US' Future Global Status
In reality, however, the direction in which the US' international prestige will move is yet to be determined. The US' future position in the world will largely depend on what its future intentions will be regarding its engagement with the rest of the world, and it is precisely this point that the international community is watching more than anything else in the wake of the fall of Kabul.
There is no doubt about the former group's point that the fall of Kabul has given a major blow to the international prestige of the United States. This loss of prestige may not be irreparable, however, depending on the future intentions and actions of the US. It is not appropriate to talk about the loss of US prestige as if it is already a settled fact. Besides Afghanistan, there are numerous other challenges in the world today, many of them more pressing than Afghanistan for the United States and its allies and partners. If the US pulled out of "the longest war in US history" to focus on those issues, it would be a legitimate reason for withdrawal. Since taking office, President Biden has emphasized that the goal of his diplomacy is "not to meet yesterday's challenges but today's and tomorrow's challenges". In his speech just after the completion of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, he declared, "It's time to look to the future, not the past". If the US can keep demonstrating to the world that it has the will to back up these words, the way the international community looks at the US can change.
Here, the key issue is China policy. Among "today's and tomorrow's challenges," President Biden places particular emphasis on the issue of China's challenge to the US-led, liberal rules-based international order. This challenge has become acute now because the US has overlooked China's growing assertiveness in the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, during the two decades that it has spent so much money and manpower on the "forever war". Moving forward, if the US is willing to divert a significant portion of the resources that were used for the war in Afghanistan to responding to China's challenge, and to exercise more leadership than it has been to enhance collaboration with its allies and partners for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, there is a good chance that the international prestige and reputation of the United States will improve. In this sense, the latter group's argument has some validity.
However, this possibility will only become a reality if the US actually takes such actions. It is also inappropriate to talk as if an increase in US prestige is a foregone conclusion. A matter of serious concern for the US today is that there are not a few voices in the international community that doubt whether the US will actually carry out its stated intentions, despite the fact that President Biden and other US leaders have repeatedly expressed their willingness to do so. If these doubts are not dispelled, the United States cannot hope to improve its international standing.
International Doubts about US Will (1):
Will "Foreign Policy for the Middle Class" Be a Hindrance to Biden's Diplomacy?
There are three reasons for the international community's suspicions. The first is the concern that the basic principle of "foreign policy for the middle class" advocated in Biden's diplomacy may serve as a stumbling block to conducting active diplomacy toward China and the Indo-Pacific region.
"Foreign policy for the middle class" implies that foreign policy decisions will be made solely from the perspective of the benefits that the US foreign engagement would bring about for ordinary US citizens. There have been concerns in the international community that diplomacy pursued under such a principle could become something akin to Trump's "America First" policy. The recent withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan has reinforced these concerns. This is because President Biden's stance of pushing to complete the withdrawal on time, without heeding the pleas of allies to extend the deadline for withdrawal, was strongly tinged with an "America First for the middle class" attitude: the only way to end a war that ordinary US citizens no longer find profitable is to end it as soon as possible.
So what does the future hold for US foreign policy? While it is true that the end of the war in Afghanistan means that the money and manpower invested in the war will be available for other purposes, it does not necessarily mean that they will be used for diplomacy toward China and the Indo-Pacific. As the problem of economic disparity in American society becomes even more acute due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are likely to be growing calls for the surplus resources generated by the withdrawal from Afghanistan to be used to solve problems at home rather than abroad. In the face of such calls, can the Biden administration really insist on investing significant resources for its China and the Indo-Pacific policies? This is the first concern that Japan and the rest of the international community have about US diplomacy in the post-Afghanistan era.
International Doubts about US Will (2):
Can the Biden Administration Conduct Consistent Diplomacy?
Second, there is a smoldering distrust in the international community about the consistency of US foreign policy. The Trump administration's diplomacy has impressed upon the world that US foreign policy can change course completely, depending on an administration's policies. The abandonment of the Paris Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) upon Trump's inauguration shocked the world, and Trump's disregard for alliances gave the world the impression that even the alliance structure that has been the foundation of US foreign policy for decades may not be maintained in the future.
In fact, though, this distrust has not been brought about solely by Trump's diplomacy. For example, Indo-Pacific countries have not forgotten that during the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, who had been a strong proponent of the TPP during her tenure as Secretary of State, suddenly turned against ratification of the TPP in the face of domestic public opinion. The same can be said of President Biden. As vice president under the Obama administration, he had actively promoted the TPP with Secretary of State Clinton and others. But after the US withdrawal from the TPP, Biden, also conscious of domestic public opinion, shifted to the position that the US would not return unless the TPP was improved.
The recent withdrawal from Afghanistan has amplified the international community's distrust in the consistency of US diplomacy. In particular, the fact that President Biden, who is supposed to be committed to a diplomacy that emphasizes human rights, rushed to withdraw from Afghanistan without paying attention to the human rights situation of the Afghan people who would be left behind, impressed on the world just how capriciously the US can change its diplomatic policy at its own convenience.
Moreover, under the banner of the Biden administration's "foreign policy for the middle class," foreign policy goals that are not supported by ordinary American citizens will be de-prioritized and pressure will be applied to amend these goals. Hence, even if post-Afghanistan US foreign policy is once focused on strategic competition with China, there is no guarantee that this will be sustained in the long term. Also, when the middle class calls for better relations with China for economic reasons, the Biden administration may be easily swayed by those voices. These are also concerns for the international community.
International Doubts about US Will (3):
Is the Biden Administration's Multilateralism a "Unilateral Multilateralism"?
Finally, there is also anxiety among US allies and partners about whether future US diplomacy will truly value cooperation with them. Since his inauguration, President Biden has emphasized time and again that US diplomacy should return to the one focusing on multilateral cooperation and rebuild ties with allies and partners. However, US behavior, especially in the final phase of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, has raised doubts and concerns among US allies and partners about what the Biden administration means by multilateral cooperation.
From the perspective of US allies and partners, it is not true multilateral cooperation if the US simply sees acting with them as more advantageous than acting alone. There must be sufficient coordination between the US and them on what actions to take together. However, the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan was grossly inadequate in this regard. The Biden administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan proceeded without sufficient consultations with NATO members and Japan, which had been working together in the Afghan state-building efforts. The request for an extension of the deadline for the withdrawal of US troops at the online G7 summit on August 24 was rejected, and allies and partners were forced to evacuate their own citizens and Afghan collaborators in the midst of chaos.
After the fall of Kabul, President Biden reemphasized the importance of cooperation with allies and partners such as NATO and Japan. However, there is a growing suspicion on the part of allies and partners that what the Biden administration means by coordination may be a unilateral attempt to gain the cooperation of other countries for actions that the US considers desirable. To put it another way, the Biden administration's multilateralism may be a "unilateral multilateralism" in which the interests of the United States, especially "the interests of ordinary US citizens," take precedence in the content of actions to be taken in cooperation, and the interests of other countries are not given much consideration. This is the cynical view that is emerging.
In Lieu of Conclusion
Some see the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan as symbolizing the end of an era of the US being the "world's policeman". It is true that the days when the US could shoulder the sole responsibility for maintaining international order are gone. There is however no doubt that US leadership is still indispensable in dealing with the many challenges of today's world.
What will determine the international standing of the United States after the fall of Kabul is whether the United States is willing to exercise such leadership in the future to engage with the world, to lead international cooperation, and to confront the challenges of the world, especially China. It is encouraging that President Biden has repeatedly emphasized that he intends to do so. There are however doubts in the international community about his words. In order to dispel these doubts and to make the restoration and improvement of the US' international standing a reality, the Biden administration will be required to back up its verbal declarations of intent with action. The world is watching with both hope and anxiety to see whether this will be done.