By Mark Lowen
At a Nato summit in May 2017, the French president dug his fingertips into Donald Trump’s hand, staring him in the face. “It wasn’t innocent”, Mr Macron later said. “In my bilateral dialogues, I won’t let anything pass.”
Roll forward four years to the recent G7 summit in Cornwall, Joe Biden’s first as US president, and again Mr Macron grasped the moment. As the cameras snapped, he walked across the beach with his arm around Mr Biden. The body language shift was clear: the two sides arm-in-arm once again.
But in capitals across Europe, from London to Berlin, Afghanistan has soured the sweetness of Joe Biden’s honeymoon. It’s not the fact of the withdrawal itself that has rankled but the US’s lack of coordination with allies, particularly since the Nato mission at the time of the drawdown comprised troops from 36 countries, three-quarters of whom were non-American, leading to an international scramble to evacuate.
The German deployment in Afghanistan was its first major combat mission since World War II, so the frustration at how it ended runs deep. Armin Laschet, Germany’s conservative candidate for chancellor ahead of elections later this month, called the US withdrawal “the greatest debacle that Nato has experienced since its foundation”.
Czech President Milos Zeman labelled it “cowardice”, adding that “the Americans have lost the prestige of a global leader”.
“Expectations were very high when Joe Biden came in – probably too high, they were unrealistic,” Carl Bildt, Sweden’s former Prime Minister, told the BBC. “His ‘America is back’ suggested a golden age in our relations. But it didn’t happen and there’s been a shift in a fairly short period of time. The complete lack of consultations over the withdrawal has left a scar.”
A Pew Research Center poll last year found that the percentage of Germans who had confidence in the US president to do the right thing in world affairs jumped from 10% under Donald Trump to 79% with Joe Biden. The rise in France was almost identical.
But, says Nathalie Loiseau, France’s Europe Minister until 2019, “many EU countries were in a state of denial. They thought they should wait until Trump was gone and we’d go back to the ‘old normal’. But that ‘old normal’ isn’t alive anymore. I hope it’s a wake-up call for us.”
For Europe’s leaders, the manner of the American withdrawal – and Joe Biden’s comments that the US would no longer send troops to “remake other countries” – has echoes of Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.
But while there’s frustration here over Washington’s lack of communication with EU capitals – particularly since three-quarters of Nato troops in Afghanistan at the time of the drawdown were non-American – it is perhaps too early to tell how much that will dent the widespread relief over the change of US administrations.
“The main rift under Trump had less to do with specific foreign policy decisions and more that we didn’t share the same values all of a sudden,” says Nathalie Tocci, an adviser to the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, and a visiting professor at Harvard.
“The real trauma of Trumpism was not only ‘America First’ but that he seemed to get on more with the Xis and Putins. That we’re on the same side hasn’t been questioned with Afghanistan. What has changed is the growing preoccupation in Europe that as the US withdraws from the world, it may be very committed to protecting values in America – but what about elsewhere?”
Indeed, some see in the Afghanistan issue simply a continuation of the long-standing American tendency to go it alone. “Is this new?” asks Mrs Tocci. “It’s always been the European complaint about the US. But now it’s the Americans acting without coordinating their leaving, not going in.”
That feeling – that Europe has been here time and again – has thrown the debate about “strategic autonomy” back into focus: long a goal of EU foreign policy, particularly from France, which often craves a more equal geopolitical balance with the United States.
“Some other countries, such as the UK and Germany, always thought they could rely mostly on the US for security,” says Mrs Loiseau, the former French minister. “So of course they’re fearing times have changed. But we’ve often said we should rethink how Nato works. We should not remain in a state of denial.”
The Afghanistan chaos comes on top of other simmering transatlantic rows, which are deepening the sense that Europe’s warmth towards Joe Biden is cooling off. His administration’s failure to fully lift Trump-era trade tariffs on European goods, his call to wave patents for Covid vaccines – again seemingly made without consultation with the EU – and his refusal to lift pandemic-related travel bans on EU countries have raised hackles.
The European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas says he’s cancelled his planned trip to the United States next week “because I do not find the lack of reciprocity on travel rules fair”. The EU has now removed the US from its travel “safe list”: seen by some as an illustration of growing tensions.
The EU’s concerns are now two-fold. First, that the Afghanistan mayhem spurs another migrant crisis, reawakening echoes of 2015, when more than a million people fleeing Syria and elsewhere arrived in Europe.
And second, whether an America more focused on itself, combined initially with a Germany without Angela Merkel and a France whose president faces imminent re-election, leaves a power vacuum that Russia and China are already filling. And that it will spur actions, such as Beijing’s increasing threats to Taiwan, without fear of western reprisals.
“There was a time when the US talked about upholding the global order,” says Carl Bildt.
“But that is not the language now coming out of the White House. Expectations for a revival of the transatlantic relationship have been deflated. And one is resigned to an America that does it its own way.”