Robert Madsen is a smart guy. A renowned economist who’s been affiliated with MIT and Stanford, he regularly advises investment groups, businesses and government agencies on geopolitical issues.
We agree more than we disagree on such matters, but he is also a competitive weightlifter, so I proceed gingerly when we differ. That resolve is being tested as we debate the debacle in Afghanistan.
Madsen, like many analysts and observers, is convinced that U.S. credibility in the world has been badly wounded. This isn’t just a function of the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. Rather, he links that mess with the refusal to do more when Russia annexed Crimea and acquiescence to China’s crushing of Hong Kong. Throw in Washington’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China’s growing influence via the Belt and Road Initiative, its growing presence in international forums and organizations, the ceding to Moscow of the traditional U.S. leadership role in the Middle East, Syria in particular, and he sees “a larger pattern: three presidencies in a row that were introspective and skeptical of international cooperation.”
Europeans see that too, as well as a broader shift in public opinion: U.S. public support for what Washington has done in the past is waning and that reorientation will last longer than Biden does.
Worse, this retrenchment is occurring as China and Russia flex their muscles and take decisive action on their peripheries. They are cooperating more closely than at any time in half a century. The contrast between their activism and U.S. indifference, or inward focus, is stark and feeds a belief that Washington is prepared to cede regional dominance to Beijing or Moscow. As Madsen puts it, we are talking about whether China gets to set the rules in the South China Sea and Central Asia.
And, he adds ominously, whether those views of U.S. resolve “are factually correct doesn’t really matter since our allies’ commitment to us depends on their perception of our commitment to them.” He reluctantly concludes that “the era of globalism and American leadership is over because our allies think it is.” (Madsen doesn’t welcome this outcome. He is a big fan of Biden and a leading U.S. role in the world. Both are now imperiled.)
Virtually all the academic literature rejects the assertion that a U.S. withdrawal and resulting questions about its credibility would hurt its reputation and standing or that it “encourages allies to back away and adversaries to rise up,” as journalist Max Fisher summarized.
When assessing the decision to defend South Korea against North Korean invasion or accepting the Crimean annexation, U.S. resolve was a peripheral consideration for Europeans in the first case and Russians in the second. Fisher cited Jonathan Mercer, a professor at the University of Washington, who corrected the record: “Broad and deep evidence” dispels the belief that leaders assume that other leaders who have been irresolute in the past will be irresolute in the future.
Fisher also notes Dartmouth professor Jennifer Lind’s argument that U.S. allies are opportunists when they talk about credibility. It’s a priority when they want Washington to fight on their behalf, but not when a U.S. president is contemplating military action elsewhere or for reasons that they don’t support.
Madsen wasn’t impressed with that counter, arguing, not without reason, that he prefers his sources — which are pretty good — and his conversations to academic musings. Fair enough. So I reached out to friends and acquaintances across the Indo-Pacific for their views. I am likely guilty of selection bias — they are my friends and thus inclined to a similar worldview — but anecdata will have to suffice until there is more compelling survey research.
Brendan Taylor, professor of strategic studies at Australia National University, is right to call events in Afghanistan “something of a Rorschach’s test in this part of the world. Strategic observers have seen what they want to see. For alliance skeptics, it is a signal of U.S. weakness and unreliability. For alliance supporters, it show’s Biden’s laser-like focus on U.S. vital interests in the Indo-Pacific.”
Overall, though, the reviews are cautiously positive. Even though the withdrawal itself has been poorly handled, Biden’s intent and strategy are applauded.
Typical is the view of a Japanese diplomat who welcomed a decision that allows the U.S. “to spare more resources and attention to the Western Pacific as a result of the withdrawal.” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, concurred. “If getting out of Afghanistan makes the U.S. more focused and coherent elsewhere, it’s not a bad thing as long as terrorist expansionism stays under control.”
Chung Min Lee, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an adviser to conservative presidents in Seoul, conceded that U.S. credibility would be hurt but quickly added that developments in Afghanistan aren’t a bellwether for alliances that have been sustained for decades. That distinction was common. “Totally different,” sniffed the Japanese diplomat. “We are treaty allies. We work together in so many areas.”
Lee spoke for other South Koreans and other treaty allies when he added that “An ally is only worth defending if the ally is ready and able to spill blood for its very survival.” In conversations with allies and partners, they have distinguished themselves from the Afghans and are almost offended by the comparison.
Those sharp lines make sense for U.S. treaty allies, especially those in Northeast Asia. I thought there might be a distinction between Northeast and Southeast Asia in assessments of U.S. policy, reasoning that Southeast Asian governments would associate themselves more with Afghanistan than a treaty-bound ally.
But Southeast Asian analysts, even those that aren’t part of U.S. alliances, back Biden’s decision to withdraw. Shahriman Lockman, a researcher at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, a government think tank, applauded “Biden’s cold-blooded discipline in pulling U.S. troops from Afghanistan. At a time when resources are scarce and America’s relative decline is sometimes taken as a given, a more focused America would be welcomed.”
Given Southeast Asian governments’ indifference to the values component of security policy, that should be obvious. That ranking of priorities also elevates the region in U.S. thinking, eliminating the “distraction” of coups or dodgy human rights practices.
Biden’s realism has advantages. It reminds allies of the need to do their part. The Japanese diplomat highlighted Biden’s statement that, “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” adding that “this applies to all the allies including Japan, and we are fully aware of it.” A South Korean security researcher made the same point: “South Korea has more capable military and police forces that will not flee from crises.”
Geography could be a weight on the scale. Europeans have both a regional security institution and national politicians who want to invigorate it to reduce reliance on Washington, for prudential concerns and a desire to create a security counterweight to the U.S. Asia does not. If the U.S. is not reliable, then the other plausible alternatives in this part of the world are to bandwagon with China or to strengthen national defense. Madsen dismissed that argument: “If it’s an Asia vs. Europe thing, then Asia is wrong and will figure that out over the next several months.”
Or not. Given his beliefs, Madsen might secretly want to lose this argument. That does not mean that the U.S. doesn’t have real work ahead, that it doesn’t need a hard, clear-eyed assessment of what went wrong in the last month and why, along with strenuous efforts to communicate with allies and partners to ensure that expectations are clear in the event of future crises. A failure to engage after a debacle like this will undermine U.S. credibility, proof once again that the coverup is often worse than the crime.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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