Published in Foreign Affairs
President Joe Biden was supposed to return U.S. foreign policy to its pre-Trump path. A septuagenarian with a half century of experience in national politics, he was the presidential candidate who most clearly embodied the American establishment. Surely, the expectation went, he would bring back the United States’ pursuit of political and military preeminence designed to reshape the world in its own image. Biden even presented the restoration of U.S. leadership in global affairs as his hallmark: “America is back,” he proclaimed after taking office.
But Biden’s decision to terminate the U.S. war in Afghanistan has revealed another side of the United States’ 46th president. In ending the two-decades-long war, Biden rejected every “liberal internationalist” premise of the enterprise, including the notion that building a democratic Afghanistan and transforming the region served U.S. interests or advanced universal values. He repeatedly argued that the United States had only one valid reason to use force there: to “get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11” and might attack again. Once that objective had been achieved, the United States had no business waging war. It was for “the Afghan people alone to decide their future,” he said, including whether they would live in a Western-style democracy or under Taliban rule.