The fall of Kabul to Taliban forces this past August was undoubtedly one of the most calamitous events that the international community has witnessed in recent memory. The successive conquests of surrounding cities culminating with the quick and sudden capture of the capital were reminiscent of the falls of Constantinople and Rome in ages past.
As I witnessed these events virtually, my thoughts immediately went to the number of lives that would be changed forever — or even snuffed out. Much has been said already about this event’s devastating toll on human rights, women, and Americans and their allies on Afghan ground. However, as the dust settled, I began to wonder what this meant for one of America’s most salient dilemmas with the international community: credibility and reliability.
While the beginnings of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq involved promises that the United States could not keep, the Trump administration’s populist, hyper-nationalist, and protectionist rhetoric worried many about America’s commitment to global affairs. Trump’s words and expectations turned into actions that were unprecedented in their disregard for United States allies and any semblance of coherence.
The delicate framework of treaties, agreements, and relationships that previous administrations had built almost came crashing down. Many moments in Trump’s foreign policy exhibit this pattern of destruction: The repudiation of the Paris Agreement on climate, the refusal to uphold the Iran nuclear deal, and the frequent threats to undermine the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Even during moments of dire crisis, Trump refused to be a dependable cooperator, as seen by the United States’ attempted withdrawal from the World Health Organization at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Joe Biden ran and won the 2020 presidential election on several promises, but a significant one was rebuilding international confidence in the United States as a global player. Nevertheless, not even a year into his presidency, he has neglected this duty. I do not insinuate that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was erroneous. Long before the Biden administration decided to finalize the withdrawal, the nearly 20-year war had turned into an unsustainable situation, in which nothing would have been enough to satisfy the goals of nation-building that the United States had set in Afghanistan. However, the United States’ exit showed an irresponsible level of neglect which exposed deep cracks in its ability to lead internationally.
The unreliability of Trump’s America was manifested primarily displayed through the failure to honor external commitments, emanating from his disregard for international institutions and his admiration for authoritarian enemies of the United States. Biden’s unreliability has come from a greater transgression: the abandonment of his own citizens and those who helped them.
While keeping foreign alliances is a matter of honor, the protection of a country’s people is a question of fundamental duty. The legitimacy of the state originates in the consent of the governed, in part in exchange for protection — violating this fundamental clause of the social contract is the highest form of betrayal a government can commit.
In an exit operation that was hastened seemingly without clear reason or purpose, no precaution was taken to ensure the safety of everyone at risk of suffering from an inevitable Taliban takeover. Americans and their Afghan allies were made to scramble desperately to leave the country as the Taliban closed in on Kabul. Even after the capital had been taken and the efforts to withdraw had “concluded,” many still remained stranded, fearing for their lives and without any assurance that the United States would protect them. This despicable action was not motivated by political reasoning but by sheer haste and neglect, and this unfortunate reality diminishes the nation’s credibility more than many of Trump’s erratic stances in foreign policy.
What does it say of a nation’s government when it cannot keep its citizens safe? What does it tell of a leader when they show no interest in securing a safe exit, not only for their countrymen but also for their long-standing allies? What does it reveal about American foreign policy when these embarrassing, dangerous, and preventable blunders force the government to negotiate and trust a perfidious enemy?
The international community longs for the return of an America that can keep its promises, but if the United States cannot honor its most fundamental duty towards its citizenry, it cannot be expected to be a reliable ally.
But why does this even matter at an international level? While the fall of Kabul may signify the twilight of America’s influence on the global stage, some have held that this is necessary. I both agree and disagree in parts. The recent events in Afghanistan do show the futility of prolonged involvement in protracted foreign conflicts. However, it also exposes a world in need of strong international action with robust leadership.
Despite its many flaws, the United States is still a key piece for that reality to happen. Few other nations command the necessary power while preserving a largely democratic government and strong mechanisms that safeguard it from despotism. Furthermore, few other countries boast the institutional robustness that the United States possesses, which has held the nation together even in times of extreme political polarization and discontent.
If the United States takes a step back from world affairs it opens up the field for comparably powerful, yet more sinister regimes, to take over a vital role in international cooperation.
The United States might not be the ‘Land of the Free,’ but relative to other comparable powers, it is indeed the 'Land of the Freer.' Now, during the 20th anniversary of the heinous terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, it is critical for all Americans to reflect on whether Washington has really kept the promises it made when it vowed to fight terrorism, both domestic and foreign.
A considerable portion of this duty falls upon my fellow Princeton students, many of them involved with matters of foreign policy and gearing toward an influential career in the field. As the world approaches a critical juncture where globalization transforms most local issues into global ones, the leadership of a country that regards the rights of all humans as sacred is integral. But the United States must make sure it upholds these democratic values not only domestically but internationally.
Juan José López Haddad is a senior concentrating in history from Caracas, Venezuela. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.