At the G10 Meeting in Rome 1971, US Treasury Secretary John Connolly proclaimed to his (mainly European) counterparts: “The dollar is our currency, but it’s your problem.”

President Joe Biden in 2021 might as well have expressed himself to his European allies in similar terms on the Afghan withdrawal: “The US military is our resource. What we choose to do or not do with it is your problem.”

Shock and dismay have been the European reactions to the chaotic, rushed and unedifying US pullout from Afghanistan, without much consultation with NATO allies. No amount of cajoling from Britain or France could shake President Biden’s determination to be out of there by today – and damn the consequences.

It is easy to paint this as a post-Trump America continuing to disengage from the world, despite Biden’s warm words following his election. That the US has started to pursue, above all else, what it believes to be in its national interest and what plays well to a domestic audience. But the reality is that the US, like all other countries, always has and always will pursue its national interest. Governments are elected in the expectation that they will do just that for their citizens. And foreign policy is about advancing one’s national interest abroad. It is downright foolish to expect otherwise.

It was perceived national interest that drove the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. It was perceived national interest that led 18 European Union countries to buy into China’s Belt and Road initiative. None of it was driven by concern for US sensibilities.

Are there lessons for European countries from the humiliating Afghanistan debacle?

Maybe the first is that European (or any other) countries should expect US support only when their own national interests align with those of America. This was clearly the case during the Cold War. A shared fear of Soviet expansionism (and the spread of communist ideology) aligned US and European interests.

As a result, the US spent billions, almost single-handedly providing Europe’s military shield against the Soviet Union. Its fear of expanding communist ideology also trapped it in a draining and exhausting war in Vietnam. One that ended with a withdrawal from Saigon that was not dissimilar to today’s harrowing scenes in Kabul.

If European countries and the US are to revitalise their alliance, the first task is surely to work out those areas where national interests align. If US support and a strong alliance are seen as essential (which, in my view, they are), how far is everyone willing to bend national policies to seek alignment?

The second lesson from Afghanistan is that it has brought us face to face in the most brutal way with the diminished power of European states. Afghanistan was nominally a NATO operation and included the participation of a number of European countries. But, as the withdrawal has shown, NATO action is largely dependent on American resources, with European countries struggling to take their own actions if they conflict with US priorities.

By its own choice, Europe is militarily weak and, therefore, inevitably diplomatically weak on the world stage

By its own choice, Europe is militarily weak and, therefore, inevitably diplomatically weak on the world stage. Neither is Europe particularly willing to use its sharp powers. It shies away from confrontation.

President Trump’s aggressive rhetoric on Europe carrying its weight within NATO and living up to its spending commitments was, unfortunately, delivered as a rebuke − and received as such. As a result, it largely fell on resistant ears – particularly in Germany. Yet it is in the interests of European countries themselves to be able to project power individually and collectively. Instead, we largely frittered away the post-1989 ‘peace dividend’.

European countries cannot individually hope to come anywhere close to matching US, Chinese or Russian military capabilities. Yet collectively, they can have some heft. After all, the five largest European countries combined have a military budget that is of the same order as that of China – which is still a fraction of the US budget.

But there are two elements that hinder European collective action.

The first, fuelled by European pride, is that such collective action is all too often framed as being necessary to become independent of the US and US-dominated NATO. That is a poor framing as a number of European countries do not, and will not, see themselves as being in competition with the US. Collective action needs to be framed as something that will strengthen rather than undermine NATO. That it will form the basis of a less uneven, better shared, and therefore more durable, trans-Atlantic alliance. That it will enable a more effective alignment of interests. That, over time, it will better balance the relationship – something that all sides would welcome if done in the spirt of building a durable alliance rather than something that is intended to seek greater trans-Atlantic separation.

The second is that many efforts at building joint military capabilities through the institutions of the EU have not been successful. And they are unlikely to be successful going forward. EU member states have different histories and often, conflicting views and interests. Some have neutrality built into their constitutions. Few will buy into military command structures that are out of the control of individual nations’ governments. Attempts at shoehorning 27 member states into a single military framework are doomed.

Maybe a more promising template comes from the Franco-British Lancaster House Treaties on defence and security cooperation. Neither country has had to abandon its sovereignty on military or foreign-policy matters. They have not undermined NATO. Yet a deep and useful bilateral cooperation continues to be built. There is nothing to stop this kind of approach from forming the basis of a multilateral coalition of the willing among Europe’s nations. Over time, it might also help align foreign-policy goals among the participants, more than is the case today.

The Afghan withdrawal has brought European countries face to face with both their relative military weakness and interests that risk an increasing divergence from those of the US. Both these realities could become ever more harmful to Europe if allowed to continue or grow. Or if the scenes in Kabul are miscast as some fundamental change in US attitudes towards the rest of the world when America is doing what, like others, it has always done – looking after what it perceives to be its national interest.

The opportunity lies in European countries taking this chaotic episode as a much-needed moment of reflection. One that accepts today’s realpolitik and urges them to enhance their military and diplomatic heft, and to rebuild a stronger and more durable trans-Atlantic alliance. Both these objectives can be achieved only if they are pursued in parallel and through realistic means.   

Joe Zammit Lucia, founder of the RADIX network of public policy think tanks

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