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The US’s retreat from world affairs presents tough choices for the UK

Joe Biden is following Barack Obama and Donald Trump in seeking to detach his country from Europe.

By Stephen Bush

Will Joe Biden pay an electoral price for the withdrawal from Afghanistan? The president struck a defiant note in his speech yesterday, defending the American decision to withdraw and reiterating his opposition to continuing the United States’ 20-year involvement with the country. 

The first polls of the American electorate since the withdrawal show that most voters still support Biden’s policy, albeit down from 60 per cent to 49 per cent. There are two ways to read this. 

The first is to say that the number who support the US’s exit will fall further as the Taliban’s takeover dominates the headlines in the coming weeks. 

The second is to remember that what people say in a poll and how they vote aren’t the same thing. You can draw a very clear line from Barack Obama’s second inaugural speech in which he told Americans that “a decade of war is ending” to Donald Trump’s first inaugural speech in which he said that the US “spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay”, to the election of Biden, a long-standing sceptic of the US’s involvement in Afghanistan.

People may say they wish things had worked out differently, but I wouldn’t be at all shocked if, at the next presidential election, American voters once again reward the candidate who most explicitly presents themself as the candidate of American withdrawal. 

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[see also: Joe Biden needlessly abandoned the Afghan people – and Britain stood idly by]

The US’s decreasing reliance on oil, the political defeat of neo-conservatives both nationally and within the ranks of the Republican Party, Obama’s triumph over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, to which Iraq partly contributed… taken together, it appears the centre of gravity in American politics is moving away from involvement in world affairs, particularly in the parts of the world that have generally been of British and European interest. 

The US, like the UK and the rest of the democratic world, does have a moral obligation to everyone who wants to flee the Taliban. But the difference is that even if the UK and EU countries try to shirk that responsibility, the problem isn’t going anywhere. Our immediate neighbourhood will feel the pressure of any refugee crisis; a large-scale displacement of people will inevitably become Europe’s problem, whether we choose it or not.

For more than ten years, American presidents have been signalling that they want less to do with Europe and its immediate neighbourhood. The response in the UK has been to believe that the right combination of actions – be it a close security relationship with Obama, a state visit for Trump or a successful climate conference with Biden  will change that. It didn’t, it hasn’t, and it won’t.

Now the quiet hope among the UK’s foreign policy elite is that American voters will apply the pressure instead. It’s unlikely that approach will work much better. A new way of thinking about British foreign policy may well be required.

[see also: Joe Biden passes the buck over the Afghanistan crisis]