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Joe Biden’s humiliating indifference towards the UK over Afghanistan shows how inconsequential we are

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There is a big question for Britain hanging over President Joe Biden’s Afghan scuttle and so far the only person I have heard pose it is Tom Tugendhat, the outspoken Conservative chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee when he asked: is British foreign policy now entirely made in Washington?

Twenty years ago, the then US administration of President George W Bush hugged Britain tight when it decided to chase al-Qaeda and their Taliban sponsors out of Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. For some, it was too tight, especially when the target was switched from the defeated Taliban to the brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein. 

This shift of mission from Afghanistan to Iraq, in the opinion of many, was a fatal dissipation of effort which has contributed to the debacle we are witnessing today, arguably in both countries. But mistake or otherwise, nobody could argue that Britain’s role – political, moral and military – and the position of the British government didn’t matter. On the contrary, it was pivotal. Even more than our military capability, Britain’s global diplomatic heft was indispensable to the fulfilment of America’s goals.

This time, Biden’s policy, like Donald Trump’s original decision a year ago to negotiate with the Taliban behind the backs of the Afghan government, was made without the least interest in Britain’s position and without any canvassing of the British prime minister’s views. The indifference was deafening. 

Who knows what Boris Johnson would have said had he been asked but we can hazard a guess. Afghanistan and its people do not feature in his weekly polling and focus group reports and therefore have no place on his agenda. But even more seriously for “global Britain” is the fact that any possible British reservation or residual moral obligation felt by us towards the Afghan people did not even warrant a phone call being put through to America’s closest ally and fellow combatant from the White House switchboard.

The way that Britain has been humiliated by Biden’s indifference should bring home to Whitehall’s foreign policy makers just how inconsequent we have become. Johnson and his absentee foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, like to claim that the foreign policy multiplier we have forfeited as a result of our departure from the European Union will be offset by our historic bond with the mighty United States. 

Watch: Joe Biden refuses to take questions after Afghanistan statement

That illusion has been shattered by the contempt that Biden has shown for us, along with America’s other allies, in Afghanistan. This should serve as a major wake up call for all those concerned about how Britain intends to prosecute its international role and influence in the future. Far from America “being back” and ready to give renewed leadership to the western alliance, Biden seems more content to plough his own furrow regardless of the views and interests of America’s allies. This is a huge disappointment to those of us who believe there is an enduring Western identity of interest and values which, out of a concern for both our collective security and sense of humanity, we need to fight for, ultimately by using force if necessary.

The domestic debate this week in parliament will be, rightly, about how we discharge the remainder of our responsibilities in Afghanistan, in particular towards those who took such huge risks when they supported the allied effort in their country and whose lives are now threatened by the Taliban takeover. 

The British government needs its feet held to the fire in the commitments made to resettling these brave Afghans and delivering resources to a neighbourhood refugee programme in the border areas. At the UN, there needs to be a pre-emptive referral to the International Court of Justice so that the Taliban are put on notice that violence meted out to their in-country opponents and continuing breaches of human rights will not be tolerated by the international community.

Tragically, the very term “international community” is beginning to sound more and more like a starry-eyed and redundant. Yet it is becoming increasingly obvious that global threats can only be addressed effectively by properly coordinated multilateral action. In the vicinity of Afghanistan, this joined up action must include not just India and Pakistan but Iran and China.

Biden’s policies are not showing the urgency needed either to repair Trump’s cancellation of the Iran nuclear deal or, in the case of China, to step back from Trump’s Cold War momentum. If anything, the administration is doubling down on Trump’s rhetoric and deepening confrontation with America’s geopolitical adversary.

And what is Britain’s position on any of these issues? We seem to be playing next to no role whatsoever. Previously we were able to multiply our influence by mobilising the combined strength of the EU behind courses of action we favoured. We were able to channel the views of our allies both ways across the Atlantic and in doing so help cement the west’s cohesion. 

This did not obviate the need and opportunity for Britain, occasionally, to speak truth unto American power but our position in Europe gave us a locus that could not be ignored. This locus now needs replacing by something that, if not with the same relevance and punch, is less easy to brush aside as Biden has just done in Afghanistan. 

We have some assets to leverage, chiefly our intelligence capabilities, residual military capacity and our permanent membership of the UN security council and our leadership roles in the G7 and G20 and other international institutions. But we cannot take our influence for granted in any of these bodies. If Britain wants to maintain leadership in the world we have to devote much more time, focus and energy to doing so.

This will mean showing courage and taking risks on major international issues even if our independence of spirit sometimes jars diplomatically in the US. Britain can still command attention in the world. The question – and it is one that both the governing and opposition parties must address – is whether, any longer, we can be bothered to do so.

Peter Mandelson served in a number of cabinet positions under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and was Labour MP for Hartlepool from 1992 to 2004

Watch: Footage appears to show people clinging to side of US plane amid chaos at Kabul airport

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