The American abandonment of Afghanistan has prompted speculation that the United States (US), humiliated once again by an Asian nation, will now retreat into isolationism.
The Taiwanese in particular must be worried, while the Israelis will no doubt feel that that their Trump-backed but long-standing strategy of building up new ties with a variety of nations has been powerfully vindicated. Joe Biden has declared his commitment to the security of Israel, but can he be relied upon? How does this commitment square with his apparent willingness to appease the new regime in Iran?
Mr Biden is of course limited to two terms as president. This does not mean a successor will necessarily reverse his foreign policies. Nor does it mean that even President Biden will always abandon commitments, as he has done in Afghanistan. The US, after all, did not abandon its allies in South-east Asia after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
A hundred years ago, having withdrawn its armies from Europe at the end of the First World War, the US renounced the League of Nations as it wanted no further part in European wars. But even though America remained strongly isolationist, Franklin Roosevelt began cautiously committing his country to the war against Nazi Germany in the Atlantic and in Europe. He began to do so several years before Adolf Hitler declared war against the US a few days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941
Even then, despite opposition from some of his top military men, President Roosevelt pursued a policy of defeating Germany before turning the full weight of American power against Japan.
Having repudiated the first attempt at collective security in the form of the League, the US at the end of the Second World War was one of the driving forces in the establishment of the United Nations, the next major attempt at collective security. Not long thereafter the US adopted the “Truman doctrine” to contain communism. But in the 1980s Ronald Reagan decided that communism should not be contained so much as destroyed.
One of the challenges faced by all governments - their leaders, but also their foreign ministries, diplomatists, spies, amateur intermediaries, security councils, and intelligence agencies – is how to divine the intentions of other governments. How will China now read a politically weakened Mr Biden? Will the Chinese, having successfully colonised Hong Kong, assume that they can safely further step up their pressures against Taiwan and the South China Sea?
How much weight will they give to the promises made in Singapore last week by the American vice president, Kamala Harris, that the US would stand united with its allies in South-East Asia in defence of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”?
This week sees the 82nd anniversary of the British declaration of war against Germany on 3rd September 1939. Hitler was unpleasantly surprised. With good reason.
Even before Neville Chamberlain became prime minister in May 1937, the British had pursued a policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany, with whose grievances against the map of Europe drawn up at Versailles they had some sympathy. They had done nothing when Germany invaded the Rhineland in March 1936. Now Chamberlain agreed that one of his senior colleagues, Lord Halifax, could accept an invitation to see Hitler at the Berghof above the village of Berchtesgaden in Bavaria in November 1937.
Praising Germany as a bulwark against Bolshevism, Halifax volunteered to Hitler that the British were open to German proposals about Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. In March the following year Germany annexed Austria. A few months later, in September 1938, Chamberlain himself paid three visits to Hitler, the third of which, in Munich, effectively gave Hitler the green light to start carving up Czechoslovakia.
Chamberlain returned to London to a hero’s welcome from his countrymen and from the House of Commons and proclaimed “peace for our time”, Hitler having promised him that he had no further territorial demands. But on the Ides of March the following year the Germans marched into Prague and Hitler completed the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. By the end of that month Chamberlain had given Poland a guarantee that Britain would come to her aid if Hitler moved against her.
While the British dithered over whether or not they should enter into a pact with Russia to come jointly to the aid of Poland in the event of a German attack, Hitler sent his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, to Moscow to sign a pact with his Soviet counterpart. The Molotov-Ribbentrop deal was accordingly signed on 23rd August 1939, sending shock waves around the world. The half-hearted British had been unable to match the ardour with which Hitler had personally wooed Stalin.
Confident that the Russians would now not come to Poland’s assistance, Hitler sent his army, navy, and air force against Poland a week after the pact had been signed. What would the British do? Ribbentrop, whose previous job as ambassador in London had supposedly made him an expert on the British, had repeatedly assured Hitler that they would do nothing. This would have been true to form. It was also what Hitler wanted to hear.
But in the year since Munich the mood in Britain had totally changed. Between them, his cabinet and the House of Commons now forced a dithering Chamberlain to issue an ultimatum to Germany. Hitler was given precisely two hours to undertake to withdraw his troops from Poland, failing which there would be war. Had Chamberlain not issued the ultimatum, his government would undoubtedly have fallen.
When the British ultimatum reached him, Hitler turned to glare at Ribbentrop. “What now?” he demanded. They had both misread the British. Ribbentrop had indeed once turned his back when Winston Churchill, then still only a backbencher, reminded him that they had roused the world against Germany in 1914 and would do so again if necessary.
After John Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco – when he landed and then abandoned an anti-Castro invading force on Cuban beaches in April 1961 - Nikita Khrushchev misread the weakened American president and sought to install missiles on Cuba in 1962 (a plan he then abandoned under American naval pressure, an American undertaking to withdraw missiles from Turkey, and the threat of nuclear war). To reduce the risk of future misunderstandings a “hotline” was then installed between the Kremlin and the White House.
Mr Biden’s abandonment of Afghanistan has no doubt prompted political and military strategists in Beijing, Moscow, and elsewhere to assess what new opportunities he has thus opened up for them. Issues of peace and war depend on how one nation reads - or misreads – the minds of others. It’s a sobering thought.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.