Boris Johnson’s Global Britain exposed as helpless and friendless by Afghanistan | Andrew Rawnsley
When a newly elected Joe Biden had his first transatlantic phone conversation with Boris Johnson, number 10 boasted that the prime minister was number one on the call sheet for the new US president. Downing Street flourished as proof that no matter how different the two men were in the past, the “special relationship” was as warm and deep as ever.
Now we know differently. On important calls involving Afghanistan, Mr Johnson’s ability to influence Mr Biden was less than that of the President’s dog. The withdrawal of what remained of NATO’s presence in Afghanistan was dictated by abrupt and unilateral decisions taken in Washington. The ministers privately admit that not only did they not see a Taliban resurgence coming, they were left to guess what the United States will do next.
A callous and cynical Donald Trump has struck a terrible deal with the Taliban. Mr Biden foolishly chose to continue and in such a catastrophic way that he returned Afghanistan to the murderous extremists that Western forces went to expel two decades ago. This miserable outcome was etched into the consciousness of the world with images of frantic mothers throwing their babies over barbed wire fences at Kabul airport and desperate souls clinging to the fuselage of planes in Kabul. American transport departing before losing grip and dying. The UK and other NATO members only had the power to protest to the Americans after the tragic event.
There was a well-deserved mockery from the prime minister for going on vacation even as the Taliban marched on the gates of Kabul. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dominic Raab, attacks his lounge chair. It was certainly a dereliction of duty to be on the beach at such a dire time, but behind it lies a much more brutal truth, which many Brits, and the Conservative Party in particular, find it difficult to digest. If the two men had been chained to their desks, it would have made little essential difference to the bigger picture. Even though Mr Johnson was a sufficiently competent statesman figure to draw the President’s attention to the disastrous path he had chosen, the UK had little moral or practical authority over it. which one to appeal, because virtually all of our combat troops were withdrawn seven years ago.
Britain’s helplessness was the subtext of the Prime Minister’s heartbreaking speech during the emergency Commons session. He essentially conceded that the ability to shape events in Afghanistan, or even to predict them with precision, was beyond the British government. Theresa May vehemently asked the man who supplanted her: “Where is Global Britain in the streets of Kabul?” There have been moving words about the sacrifices made over the past 20 years and passionate words about betrayal, especially from MPs who served in Afghanistan as part of the NATO coalition after the attacks against the twin towers. Never have I heard so much fury expressed so fiercely by Conservative MPs over the behavior of the United States. Behind their searing anger was a cold fear: the foreboding of a helpless, friendless Britain in a frightening world.
Since 1945 there have been two main streams of British opinion on the complicated relationship with America. Most of the foreign policy establishment and almost all prime ministers have taken the Atlanticist point of view. This argues that Britain is maximizing its influence over the United States and its weight in the world by sticking with whoever occupies the Oval Office. There were a few exceptions, such as Harold Wilson’s astute choice to stay out of the Vietnam War, but “hugging them” was the rule. It was this impulse that prompted Tony Blair to declare that he “would stand shoulder to shoulder” with America in the aftermath of 9/11 and to promise George W Bush later that he would be “with you until”. in the end ”in Iraq. Britain’s investment of much of its own blood, treasure and reputation in US-led interventions is why the West’s humiliation in Afghanistan is felt so keenly by so many. of deputies.
The other body of opinion, which has become particularly strong after the debacle in Iraq, is that the United States is an unbearably dominant power that is throwing its weight away with reckless arrogance. This view has been particularly vehement on the left. Almost none of those on the left who lament what will happen to Afghanistan under the renewed Taliban rule had previously been heard urging Washington to deploy more of its firepower there. Although apparently opposed, the Atlanticist and anti-American visions have one fundamental point in common: they assume American power and the will to exercise it. A more introverted United States will confuse the core assumptions of those who look to America to rule the free world and those who hold America responsible for all the ills on the planet.
Jihadists will be encouraged by the Taliban takeover and there is a clear risk that Afghanistan will become a breeding ground for terrorism as it was when it housed al-Qaida. Mr Biden has cast doubt on the bankability of US security guarantees to other allies and undermined his hopes of coordinating democracies to take a united stand against autocracies. China and Russia will be emboldened in their belief that the West lacks the stamina or determination to successfully defend liberal values or to come to the aid of those in danger. When Chinese generals play war against an invasion of Taiwan, they will be all the more likely to take the gamble that the United States will not step in to stop them. The Kremlin will be inclined to think that it can play more of its murderous games at its borders. The resurgence in Afghanistan of one of the world’s most viciously reactionary sects will encourage dictators and wannabes around the world to behave more badly towards their neighbors or their own people, or both.
Those who wanted less of America will find it can be alarming to get what you want. Those who have looked to America for world leadership will need to seriously think about the alternatives. Emmanuel Macron argues that Europe must recognize that it can no longer depend on the United States to ensure its security and protect its interests and must strive to achieve “strategic autonomy”. This idea came to life when Barack Obama turned to Asia and gained traction when the Trump presidency so undermined the presumption that America is a reliable ally. In theory, European democracies are rich and populous enough to have the capacity to confront Russian adventurism and resist Chinese aggression. In practice, European leaders have failed to muster the will, make the difficult choices or mobilize resources.
Ben Wallace, Secretary of Defense, says he tried to assemble a coalition of NATO states ready to continue in Afghanistan. The French and the Germans weren’t interested and I’m very skeptical that the British government was really serious. Mr Johnson suggested they were not when he told MPs it was an “illusion” to think the mission could continue without the Americans and expressed doubt that voters or Parliament would support the sending of large numbers of British troops to Afghanistan.
If we enter an era of American disengagement, the questions are acute for a Britain which has chosen to move away from liberal democracies in its neighborhood at the same time as the United States has become a less reliable partner. Some plausibly speculate that the future is a new global mess in which major powers scramble for dominance and international standards of conduct are trampled upon. It will be a tough place for a North East Atlantic country with many vital interests around the world, but no means to protect them on his own and no one he can count on as a friend to all. time. Cuts in defense spending have left Britain with its smallest armed forces since before World War I. Our country’s former reputation as a “soft power” superpower has been weakened by Brexit and its weakening influence in Washington and further undermined by brutal cuts in the aid budget. Britain does not have the power to act on its own, but has diminished its ability to persuade others to act with it.
“Alright, Alone” served Winston Churchill well as a wartime rallying cry in 1940. Britain’s powerlessness in Afghanistan demonstrates that this is an utterly desperate strategy to survive the 21st century.