A Tale of Two Foreign Policies

4 things to watch as the country debates the impact of events in Afghanistan on the Biden administration’s overall foreign policy

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom it was the age of foolishness…” begins A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, written more than a century and a half ago about a much different time than today.

The stark contrasts at the start of that classic tale in many ways reflect America in the late summer of 2021:  economic growth bouncing back strongly even as millions are still left behind in a country with deep inequalities, and growing numbers of people vaccinated just as infections from a new variant of the COVID-19 virus are on the rise as well. 

These sharp contrasts were on display in U.S. national security this week – the split screen of the Biden administration’s foreign policy showed two very different images. 

One half of the screen has the Taliban overrunning cities across Afghanistan and killing government officials, innocent civilians, and even a popular comedian; the second half has the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivering a speech at a university engineering lab in suburban Maryland about investing in America’s research, development, and infrastructure so that the country can compete with other countries in the world. 

Domestic renewal as a foreign policy priority,” was the theme of the Blinken speech, all with an eye to the future. Blinken’s speech was timed just at Congress debated measures to step up public investments in the country’s infrastructure and social safety net, all aimed at helping America regain strength at home in order to compete overseas.  This effort has broad public support in America – about 6 in 10 Americans support the investment measures before Congress, a similar level of strong support Biden enjoyed for the spring 2021 stimulus. The point of Blinken’s speech was to reinforce a top Biden administration priority: connecting its domestic renewal agenda with a new type of U.S. global engagement in the world. 

But the other side of the screen, Afghanistan, risks intruding and complicating this proactive agenda to reset U.S. foreign policy, much in the same way that the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria complicated the Obama administration’s foreign policy priorities in its second term. At the time, some Obama officials called the future-focused policy initiatives its “long game” – things like forging a new trade pact with Asian countries, hosting a summit of African leaders, and an international climate accord were more important in the long run than the immediate crises like Syria’s civil war or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was the big idea.

One challenge in trying to stay focused on the so-called “long game” is that events in the short run can end up forcing a president to adopt a reactive, crisis management approach on issues like Afghanistan.  These short-term crises – the actual threats they pose to the real world as well as the domestic political firestorms they generate – can force U.S. administrations to spend more time than they originally planned and upset the so-called long game. 

In other words, America may never get to the long game part of its strategy if its not tending to the immediate crises that could ultimately erode America’s position in the world as well as the weaken broader international security environment. 

The grim situation in Afghanistan contains a lot of uncertainty and the next few weeks will prove to be tumultuous. Here are four things to monitor when it comes to the possible impact of events in Afghanistan on Biden’s overall foreign policy.

1.  How bad will things get in Afghanistan and will events there directly harm Americans on the ground?

The events of this past week don’t bode well for long-term security in Afghanistan, with Afghan security forces folding pretty quickly in the face of the rising Taliban.  The Biden administration is planning to send more troops into the country temporarily to help facilitate a safe exit.  

But unless U.S. troops or citizens over there are directly harmed by the fighting, it seems unlikely that the Biden administration will shift its plans to complete a military exit from the country.  America continues to lack any semblance of unified public support for continued military engagement, and a strong majority of Americans support Biden’s decision to pull troops out.  That can change quickly.

Public attitudes can shift dramatically on national security questions, like they did from 2011 to 2014 from supporting the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq swinging back to strong support for U.S. military operations against the Islamic State.  But the Republican Party is not in a strong position to come out strongly against Biden’s moves because they were based on a template set by the Trump administration, and former President Donald Trump remains the dominant political force in the GOP. 

2.  What will other countries in the region and around the world do in response to events in Afghanistan?

Countries neighboring Afghanistan, particularly Pakistan and Iran but also some other countries in the broader region like India, China, Russia, and Arab Gulf states, all are also impacted by events in Afghanistan.  Most of these countries have a history and sets of relationships in Afghanistan that they can use to try and shape events there. 

In America’s foreign policy debates, we often fixate on narrow questions like what the U.S. military will do or who a particular U.S. diplomat is meeting on a particular day.  But the reality is that many other countries besides the United States are more directly impacted by events inside of Afghanistan, and they will likely use their own security measures and diplomacy to deal with the fallout.

3.  How will the continued declines in basic freedoms inside of Afghanistan impact the Biden administration’s efforts to prioritize democracy in the world?

As Peter Juul noted in April, Afghanistan presents some complications for the Biden administration’s goal of promoting a global democracy renewal.  The Taliban’s dramatic seizures of territory and power were preceded by a longer campaign of targeted assassinations of journalists, civil society leaders, and political leaders. Afghanistan was never a fully free democracy, but its people had some voice in choosing their leaders, and a whole generation of Afghans have grown up without the Taliban in power.

Watching the collapse of another country’s freedoms before our eyes, in part as a consequence of U.S. actions, may raise questions about America’s true commitment to human rights and democracy around the world.  If the going gets tough and America walks away from the toughest cases like Afghanistan, some of those fighting for human rights and democracy around the world may ask, “what good is a summit of democracy?” 

The almost pre-programmed retort to this in America’s debate is almost inevitably: why should the U.S. military fight for democracy around the world?  But this inane exchange ignores the reality of a broader range of policy options that don’t solely involve the U.S. military.  America’s standing as a supporter of those fighting for democracy and human rights could be further harmed by what may come in Afghanistan.

4.  How are things going with the economy and pandemic at home? 

This fourth, broader factor is key to include – because it will inevitably shape U.S. foreign policy in bigger ways than any other singular set of events in places like Afghanistan.  The Biden administration’s central theory of the case is that it needs to help rebuild America at home in order to compete more effectively in the world.  If things continue to move in the right direction on the economy and pandemic response at home, then there will likely be more political support and capital to do the sorts of things Secretary Blinken outlined in his speech earlier this week.

But to get to that place, a more effective response to the events in Afghanistan is required.   President Biden was clear this week in assigning responsibility for events inside of the country to the Afghans themselves, and that’s a sentiment that reflects where most Americans are today.  But if a parade of horrors continues to unfold inside of Afghanistan, things could shift quickly inside of the United States. 

More than six months into the Biden administration, the United States stands at an important crossroads on many fronts – in the economic recovery, the pandemic response, and relations with the broader world.

One key to seeing progress in the coming months on the bigger picture and building support for a “long game” foreign policy that looks to the future is to tend to some of the immediate crises without being overwhelmed by them.  A balanced approach, both in terms of policy response and fostering a debate that informs the policy response, offers the best hope. 

That balanced approach is difficult today in America because of the dynamics that drive political and media debates, incentives that push more strident voices to the forefront.  As Dickens wrote at the end of his opening paragraph to A Tale of Two Cities, “in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”