American caprice

No one was surprised and perhaps a little annoyed than Turkey when President Joseph R. Biden announced last week that the U.S. would be withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan by September 11 of this year. One can imagine the feeling of being punched in the gut: After being encouraged to facilitate the Afghan peace process, scheduling a conference in Istanbul, inviting participants and, worst of all, publicly announcing it, the U.S. announced that it would be leaving. The conference, unsurprisingly, has been postponed again. The move by the U.S. is perplexing. After months of promises that it would not abandon Afghans unless there was a peace process in place, it has now handed the Taliban a timeline for withdrawal. How can we understand these apparent contradictions in American foreign policy?

Adnan R. Khan: How can we frame this American behavior to better understand it?

Ilter Turan: Let’s look at it this way: The U.S. has been going through a process of evaluating whether it is going to be able to sustain the leadership role it had assumed in the international system after WWII. Maintaining this role after the collapse of the Soviet Union has become increasingly difficult and costly to sustain. On the political side, the assumption in the U.S. that it could get its way with its friends and allies, and even its rivals, is no longer true. On the economic front, there has arisen the problem of cost. Together, these challenges now mean the U.S. can no longer play the role it played during the Cold War.

As a result, there is a process of evaluation going on in the U.S. as to what it should do, how its role should evolve or be redefined. Trump and Biden have exhibited different styles of approaching that issue but in the end, both have had to reduce American commitments in other countries. The recurring problem in the U.S., however, is that when it decides to do things, it often does it without consulting and securing the consent of other actors. So, formed and revised exclusively by the Americans themselves, American policy appears increasingly to be unpredictable and wavering.

Adnan R. Khan: In his speech, Biden suggested that the war in Afghanistan is part of a global order that is no longer relevant today. He argued the U.S. needs to focus on the issues of today rather than the issues of the past. Is it as easy as that? Can the U.S. simply pivot away from its War on Terror? What will the consequences be?

Ilter Turan: What Biden is really saying here is that he has learned lessons previous administrations refused to learn, for instance, as regards Afghanistan, that it cannot build a fully functioning democratic nation state. But the question then becomes: All right, maybe that was an unrealistic expectation but do you then just throw in the towel?

There are consequences to these pivots. If you are constantly shifting policy and walking away from your commitments, it will be very difficult to persuade allies and newly-acquired friends, that they have a future with you based on trust.

Adnan R. Khan: The past 20 years of War on Terror-driven foreign policy has shaped American actions in many places, including Iraq and Syria. For instance, American support for the YPG in Syria is premised on America’s definition of what is and what is not terrorism. Will those definitions shift now as well?

Ilter Turan: It’s interesting that you bring in the case of Syria and the Kurds because the U.S. is playing a hypocritical game there. It is clear that the YPG supports PKK terrorism. For all practical purposes, the YPG is functionally integrated with the PKK. Yet, the Americans insist that these are two different organizations and it is friends with the YPG, but against the PKK, etc. The lesson I draw from that is that Turkey is learning not to trust the Americans. Our Kurdish friends have not yet learned this lesson, despite a history of earlier experiences with shifting U.S. foreign policy where anticipated American support has never materialized.

The takeaway here is that you should not base your future on American commitments. Those commitments may change at any time. Instead, plan your future knowing that there is this entity called America that you will have to deal with in one way or another.

Adnan R. Khan: There was this expectation with Biden coming into power that America would make a turn back to multilateralism. Do you think that hope was misplaced?

Ilter Turan: I think we have to distinguish between the style of conducting politics and the direction policy is evolving. In terms of style, there is a clear difference between Trump and Biden. From that perspective, we might talk about a return of multilateralism. But in terms of the direction in which American policy is moving, it is more and more toward reducing its global commitments.

This is a broader reflection of the state of the world today. The old world order is disappearing, and because nobody knows what the structure of the next global system will be, relations are evolving in a transactional direction. We will have to live with this disorder until a more predictable, alliance- or relationship-based global system emerges.

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