A key lesson of 2021: American voters need to take foreign policy more serious
By Vincenzo Caporale
By most metrics, 2021 has been a net negative for the United States. Between covid-19 prolongation and political instability, disorder, fear, and death have marked this year. As a result, the United States can draw many lessons from the chaos—the least of which isn’t that Americans need to take foreign policy more seriously as voters. The importance of this lesson was exemplified by one of the largest foreign policy debacles in United States history: the Afghanistan withdrawal.
The disorderly withdrawal of American forces out of Afghanistan on August 30th was one of the key punctuations of 2021. The withdrawal process began with negotiations between the Trump administration and the Taliban that led to the Doha agreement that the Biden administration executed. The deal’s specifics include a United States troop reduction until an eventual complete withdrawal by May 1st of 2021 (this date would eventually be pushed back to August 30th). In return, the Taliban tacitly agreed to ward off terrorism, renounce Al Qaeda, and prevent any terrorist group from using Afghanistan as a base to commit attacks on America.
The agreement was flawed, with little to no enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the Taliban followed through. Yet, the blame can not only fall on the Trump administration and its negotiated withdrawal agreement. Undoubtedly, the Biden administration bungled the hasty and sloppy withdrawal process. The country fell much quicker than expected—despite President Biden’s constant reassurance that it wouldn’t—and the exit procedure proved to be fatally flawed as a suicide bomber killed twelve U.S. soldiers and thousands of Afghan’s languish in bureaucratic limbo waiting for their Special Immigration Visas to be processed. The Biden administration was unprepared for the withdrawal.
Nevertheless, for a war that cost over $2 trillion and 241,000 lives with little to no strategic gain that spanned four American presidential administrations, the blame is shared by many. From the planning, prosecution, peace negotiations, and withdrawal, hands are stained in each administration, Congress, Pentagon, state officials, and foreign allies. Yet, an arguably equally culpable group has escaped with little if any blame—the American voter.
The American voter demanded the withdrawal of American troops as quickly as possible. Even as close to the withdrawal as April of 2021, 73% of Americans approved of President Biden’s exit plan. However, back when Trump was just a candidate for president, a large part of his voter appeal was his isolationism and aversion to the Iraq and Afghanistan war. All the way back to 2013, he called for American troops to leave “immediately” and a “speedy withdrawal.” This support was motivated by a growing distrust of American globalization and support for American disengagement—a Pew Research poll found fifty-two percent of American’s believe that the United States should “mind its own business internationally.”
As tension with China intensifies, it is becoming more apparent that the United States is heading into an era of great power competition that will span multiple administrations. Given this reality, the United States must not only have a grand strategy to deal with China, but it must be underpinned by public support for a global United States. Having an American public who understands this fact and takes foreign policy seriously as a voter is decisive.
Consider the Cold War as a example. Although the Cold War spanned four decades, the foreign policy—irrespective of which party or administration was in charge—was consistent and consensual. Despite utilizing different strategies and resources to confront, contain, and mitigate the Soviet Union, each administration remained committed to the struggle and they understood why. As Robert J. Pauly writes, “above all, the examination of US approaches to the containment of the Soviet Union between the 1950s and 1970s and eventual rollback of Moscow’s power and influence across the world in the 1980s demonstrated the importance of patience and pragmatism in pursuing American interests. It was particularly important that the United States remain committed to the principles that led it to commit itself to the struggle against the Soviet Union…”
What sustained this “patience and pragmatism” was the American’s support for the United States place on the world stage. The first poll conducted by Pew Research to measure American support for global engagement occurred in 1964. Only a few years into the Cold War just twenty percent of respondents thought the United States should be less engaged. Even at the conclusion of the Vietnam anti-war movement in 1976, just forty-three percent of respondents thought the “United States should mind its own business on the international stage.”
Today, the United States requires an equally palpable domestic support for an engaged and global America to confront its next systemic rival—China. China has become the defining security threat for the United States in the 21st century and the new security and ideological foe in the latest Cold war. Importantly, American’s are in rare agreement on the dangers of China. As of 2021, seventy-eight percent of American’s view China as a security threat according to researchers at the Chicago Council.
Yet, Americans are split on whether or not to confront China. From the same polling data compiled by the Chicago Council, just forty percent support a military response if China invades Taiwan while forty-nine percent support a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. And only thirty-five percent see limiting Chinese expansion as the United States top priority in Asia. Given the Afghanistan withdrawal which illustrates that the American public can drive irrational foreign policy in destructively inefficient ways, these attitudes are worrisome.
Although 2021 provides a plethora of pivotal moments that contain lessons to be taken for the future, the Afghanistan withdrawal tops the list. Precisely because America is heading into an indefinite period of extreme great power competition, this moment requires an American public that won’t fall prey to or drive short-sighted foreign policy related campaign slogans. This moment requires an engaged and consistent American electorate, otherwise, America will not live up to the moment.
Vincenzo Caporale holds a B.A. in comparative politics from U.C. Berkeley and a Master’s degree in International Relations and Politics from the University of Cambridge. He is currently a feature writer at the Borgen Magazine and an editorial intern at the National Interest who focuses on development, politics, and geopolitics in Southeast Asia. You can reach Vincenzo or follow his work on Twitter @VincenzoCIV.