If the US’s allies thought the era of Trump-style populism was over, the last few weeks have shattered that impression. When he became president, Joe Biden – elected under the premise of being a calm and experienced statesman – declared, “America is back”. But it hasn’t felt like that.
Trump’s term as president was deeply damaging to international relations, with many world leaders finding US policymaking unpredictable at best, and reckless at worst. This was most prominently seen in the random and chaotic way policy decisions were announced via social media, the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the scrapping of painstakingly negotiated agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal and the way many previously trusted allies and institutions, such as the EU and NATO, were alienated.
Trump’s policies set the bar very low for his successor to reassert the country’s status as a global superpower. So Biden won early praise for his soothing tones of unity and for returning the US to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris Climate Accord, both of which Trump had withdrawn the US from.
‘Not listening to sensible advice’
However, the Afghanistan debacle has offered a reality check, with Biden’s approach bearing a striking resemblance to his predecessor’s. While US presidents have been looking for a way out of Afghanistan for years, the way Biden handled the withdrawal has belied his reputation for steady competency and inclusive coordination with close partners.
This may be because Biden, like Trump, has heaps of self-confidence – or, as his detractors would more likely have it, an arrogant streak that stops him listening to sensible advice. Both his secretary of state and secretary of defence are thought to have been against an abrupt departure from Afghanistan.
Joe Biden’s top generals recently testified under oath in the Senate Armed Forces Committee that they had recommended keeping 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan, directly contradicting Biden’s statements that he received no such military advice.
The US also barely consulted their allies when, after 20 years, they withdrew from the country, despite there being 7,000 NATO allies wholly reliant on US infrastructure there. The sudden abandonment of the strategically important Bagram airport overnight is an example of this unilateral decision making, with the US leaving its biggest base in the country without even informing its Afghan partners, who woke up the next morning with no electricity. This lack of communication no doubt contributed to plummeting morale among Afghan forces, thus helping to accelerate the Taliban takeover.
Biden’s Afghanistan plan eerily echoed Trump’s.
While the timetable moved by a few months, the US government insisted upon following Trump’s departure blueprint, which had been negotiated with the Taliban. This is strange, considering the general tendency of most politicians is to quickly disown previous administration’s plans, as is often politically convenient.
As the security situation rapidly deteriorated, Biden, having stayed quiet for days, eventually emerged and used Trump’s humility-free rhetoric to justify the withdrawal, dodging his own mistakes and squarely placing the security collapse on the lack of will from Afghan partners. These untruths were heavily criticised by veterans who praised the courage of local troops.
Biden has continued to follow in Trump’s footsteps in antagonising partners, recently infuriating France, a key NATO member, after quietly signing a new security partnership “AUKUS” between the UK, the US and Australia, which will include collaboration on Artificial Intelligence, nuclear-powered submarines and innovative defence technology.
This led to Australia ending a $66bn submarine deal it had signed with France, wrecking the latter’s geostrategic plans for the Indo-Pacific region.
France was so livid that they withdrew their ambassador to the US, a first in the history of the two countries, and also recalled their top diplomat from Australia. Their foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, accused Biden of behaving in a “brutal and unpredictable” manner reminiscent of the Trump era.
While the UK, freshly independent from the European Union, must be delighted at the strengthening of ties with the US, the EU is being forced to rally support for their member state France. EU calls for greater “strategic autonomy” have grown louder, as some member nations fear Biden is acting as dismissively as Trump did, fracturing Western unity in the process.
Despite having hugely benefitted from this deal, Australia was not spared Trump-style embarrassment, with Biden seemingly forgetting the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s name during a critical summit, referring to him as “that fella Down Under”.
Many countries lean heavily on the US for protection so the lack of an inclusive approach with traditional allies has implications for broader global security policy.
The US is one of the two biggest contributors to the NATO alliance, providing just more than 16 percent of funding. And it has tens of thousands of soldiers deployed in Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, and until recently, Afghanistan. Will Biden keep their long-term security guarantees intact, or will he continue to follow Trump’s path of loosening commitments, just as he has done with Afghanistan?
Targeting blue-collar voters
Biden has adopted Trump’s approach on economic issues, too, having retained much of the previous administration’s protectionist policies. For example, Biden has pushed reshoring initiatives such as “Buy American” and kept tariffs on steel and aluminium to protect the US’s domestic heavy steel workers.
These policies clearly target the same blue-collar voters who made the difference in Trump’s surprise win in the 2016 election but also help entrench anti-globalisation, and ignores calls from international institutions such as the IMF, to scrap them.
Despite this, the US will remain a global player. It is too wealthy, networked and militarily powerful to ignore. And with his personal poll ratings sliding, Joe Biden may learn from his early mistakes and turn his inclusive rhetoric into reality. But with US politics more polarised than ever, allies will have to decide whether America can be a reliable partner in the long term or whether the spirit of Trump will continue to be felt in the country’s policies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.