A year after the start of Joe Biden’s administration and most countries of the world have accepted two realities. First, America is not back, and despite Biden’s slogans, there is simply no return to the pre-Trump era. Second, whether America is keeping troops in various parts of the world or bringing them home, America’s will to fight is usually no longer there. Its implications for the transatlantic relationship will be profound. Europe would do well to proactively adjust its defense policies accordingly.
American policymakers have long warned their allies and partners that the United States needs to reduce its security obligations, lighten its military footprint in some regions, and that greater burden-sharing is inevitable. But U.S. allies have largely ignored these warnings and calls. Perhaps because the United States itself has sent mixed messages: when Europe begins to talk about strategic autonomy, Washington collapses. As Europe continues to rely on the US security umbrella, US leaders blame Europe for freeriding.
Until Donald Trump became president, there was a balance between American complaints about insufficient European defense spending and European rhetoric about strategic autonomy. The Trump presidency has turned the scales upside down. Trump has lambasted America’s wars in the Middle East, saying the deserts of Syria are not worth fighting – or dying for. “They have a lot of sand there”, he said in 2019. “So there’s a lot of sand out there that they can play with. “
When Saudi oil refineries were attacked by drones (probably by Iran), Trump chose not to retaliate on behalf of the Saudi Kingdom. “I am someone who would like not to have war”, Trump said, prompting many in the Washington establishment to accuse him of abandonment of the Carter doctrine. Europe did not fare much better, with Trump openly questioning the usefulness of NATO and leaving his European allies uncertain whether he would honor US Article V obligations.
The American people want a new foreign policy
Understandably, many American allies wished Trump was just an aberration. A statistical nightmare that would soon be over. What many allies failed to understand was that decades of unjustified, unsuccessful, and endless wars had pitted the American electorate against the idea of the United States playing the role of policeman of the world. Trump did not initiate this trend and did not necessarily strengthen it. He did, however, channel the electorate’s frustration with the direction of American foreign policy and the lack of accountability of those who had drawn the United States into these wars.
Americans have become increasingly skeptical about the use of military force for matters other than the defense of the American homeland.
Numerous polls show that the American public has turned dramatically against America’s adventurous foreign policy and in favor of putting its many problems at home first. According to Eurasia Foundation Group (EGF), which has polled the American public on these issues annually since 2018, a plurality of Democrats and Republicans believe that peace is best achieved and maintained by “keeping the focus on domestic needs and health of American democracy, while avoiding unnecessary intervention beyond the borders of the United States. In addition, twice as many Americans want to decrease the defense budget than increase it. This opinion is particularly strong among young people Americans.
Tellingly, Americans have become increasingly skeptical about the use of military force for matters other than the defense of the American homeland. In the FEM survey 2020, only about 20 percent of the American public supported the United States acting unilaterally and militarily to stop human rights violations abroad. “A majority is skeptical of humanitarian intervention and opts instead for military restraint or recourse to multilateral organizations, or does not intervene at all,” writes EGF.
As a result, the Doha deal between the United States and the Taliban has enjoyed significant support among Americans of all political persuasions, with only 8.2% opposing it in 2020. Between 2019 and 2020 , the number of Americans who preferred to stay in Afghanistan until all enemies were defeated nearly halved, from 29.7 to 15.5 percent. And although most Americans disapprove of the way President Biden handled the Afghan withdrawal, a Washington Post-ABC News poll in September 2021 showed that a strong majority of 78% supported the decision to pull out despite – or perhaps because of – ISIS’s terrorist attacks on Kabul airport during the pullout. Only 17% of Americans opposed Biden’s decision.
The end of American exceptionalism
As much as Americans have turned against the generous use of military force, so they have not turned inward or isolationist. On the contrary, support for international engagement – trade and diplomacy – is increasing. It’s just that Americans are increasingly not measuring international engagement in terms of war. According to EGF, 56 percent of Americans want to increase diplomatic engagement with the world, while only 23 percent support a decrease.
Over the next several years we are likely to see a heated debate to redefine America’s vital interests on a global scale.
But unlike before, Americans are increasingly in favor of speaking directly to adversaries to try to avoid military confrontation (59.4%), even if they are human rights violators, dictators, or provide a shelter from terrorist organizations. Indeed, with regard to the international agreements to which Trump is out, a solid majority of Americans are in favor of their return according to the EGF: 70.9% support the return to the Paris Agreement, 65.6% wish return to the Iran nuclear deal and 71.1% want to return to the Iran nuclear deal and 71.1%. percent support the reestablishment of the United States in its membership of the World Health Organization (WHO).
All of this points to a trend of Americans increasingly desiring to be a Ordinary country: Whoever engages in commerce and diplomacy, limits his use of force to the protection of the homeland rather than the police of the world, while seeking to inspire other nations not by force or coercion, but rather by the force of his own example. The desire for normalcy manifests itself in the increasingly weak belief that America is an exceptional country, especially among its youth. The EGF 2020 poll shows that while three-quarters of Americans over 60 still consider the United States to be an exceptional nation, only 46.4% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 share this sentiment.
Where is Europe located?
There isn’t much to suggest that these trends will reverse anytime soon. On the contrary, as the younger generation of Americans matures and attains positions of power, and older Americans still view their country as indispensable for retirement, U.S. foreign policy is likely to drift further away from militarism and of world hegemony.
Over the next several years we are likely to see a heated debate to redefine America’s vital interests on a global scale. America will continue to fight for what matters, but what matters is now up for debate. Inertia and other political factors may slow the process of lightening the United States’ military footprint in areas of declining strategic importance – such as the Middle East – but the loss of will to fight will prompt regional powers to act as if the United States is already gone. This phenomenon is already visible in the Middle East today.
It remains to be seen whether and to what extent Europe matters to America in the future. But the fact that America’s active military support can no longer be taken for granted – Trump or not Trump – should be enough for Europe to start taking the writing on the wall seriously.