Battling strategic irrelevance

European leaders should beware exiting Afghanistan. They have already staked their credibility there, and the balance of power in Asia is very uncertain.

In the early 1970s, desperate to pull out of Vietnam,
the Nixon administration made a dramatic diplomatic opening to China-and preserved US influence
in Asia. Nixon also pursued détente with Russia, hoping
to create a new system of great power politics.

These manoeuvres alienated not only India
but many of America’s
European allies, who feared that Washington
was losing interest in NATO. Trying to reassure them, the US declared
1973 the “Year of Europe”. But the initiative was overshadowed by Watergate.

As the Obama administration looks for ways out of Afghanistan-plus
a framework to contain Iran-a
similar diplomatic pattern is emerging. The US
president has emphasised the need for better relations with both Moscow and Beijing.

This strategy has yielded mixed results. Russia
has been helpful on Afghanistan
and, more fitfully, on Iran.
China is far more cautious
on the need for new sanctions on Tehran.

This new great power diplomacy has gone down badly in New Delhi and European capitals alike. Indian
policy-makers, having developed a new strategic relationship with the Bush
administration, are inevitably unhappy with Mr Obama’s apparent focus on China.

The Europeans were delighted to see Mr Bush go. Now they worry Mr Obama
dislikes them. A recent report from the European Council on Foreign Relations
warned that “Washington
sees EU member states as infantile: responsibility-shirking and

Mr Obama’s team is said to find the European Union’s penchant for constant
meetings exasperating. At September’s G20 Summit in Pittsburgh,
the US president reportedly
treated China’s
Hu Jintao with greater courtesy than European leaders, repeatedly asking him to
speak first.

But the main source of tension is all too obvious: European caution on Afghanistan.

From very early in the new administration’s term, US planners concluded that
they could expect little new support from their NATO allies on the Afghan
front. If anything, those allies have proved even wobblier than expected. A
rising tide of troop losses to the Taliban has turned public opinion firmly
against the war in most European countries.

Obama has declared that he will start to draw down American forces in
Afghanistan 2011, and most European leaders will be keen to follow that plan.
The Netherlands
is, for example, committed to withdraw its contingent in 2011. British generals
and politicians have talked about staying on far longer, but dissent is rising
in London.

The quality of strategic debate on Afghan affairs in EU capitals is far
lower than that in Washington.
“We ask what pulling out of Afghanistan
would mean for the transatlantic alliance,” one respected French strategist
admits, “but not what it’d do to Afghanistan.”

He could go further. Although European commentators are typically
well-informed about Pakistan’s
instability, they rarely put “AfPak” in a wider strategic regional context.

How would a NATO failure in Afghanistan
affect relations between China
and India?
What impact would it have on Russia’s
Central Asian ambitions, or Iran’s
defiance of the West? These are not questions you are likely to hear seriously
discussed in Europe.

There are naturally exceptions to this rule. Interested readers should turn
to British China expert Andrew Small’s work on Beijing’s
Afpak policy, or French intellectual Dominique Moïsi’s writings on India’s
attitude. But such analyses are sadly all too rare.

Why so? Three reasons stand out. It would be inhumane to ignore the
first: defence intellectuals and politicians share an underlying duty of care
for soldiers in the field. If-as many European observers have concluded-those
soldiers are being killed for a lost cause in Afghanistan, it would be immoral
not to prioritise their welfare and sacrifices.

But power politics has to be factored in too. And the Afghan case confronts
Europeans with the harsh fact that their global power is diminished. Yes, they
could fly more troops to Central Asia. But
they would still be secondary players (by a very long distance) to the
Americans-and China and India would
still have far greater influence in the region.

European analysts who see Afghanistan
in transatlantic terms (“What does this do to NATO?”) are in denial on this
point. The future of Afghanistan
is clearly of far greater significance to the triangular strategic relationship
between China, India and the United States than it is to
European affairs. But no-one likes to admit they are a second-order issue.

Yet this leads to the third reason for Europe’s
limited vision. If European NATO members made a greater commitment to Afghanistan, they would maintain a role in the
great strategic drama of the next decade: shaping Asia’s
balance of power. It might be limited, but it would not be negligible. A
tougher, more permanent European presence in Afghanistan would win Indian and
Chinese attention-both positive and negative.

Many Europeans want to avoid exactly that. They are happy to trade with Asia’s emerging economies, invest in them and
(increasingly) receive investment from them.

The last thing they desire is to commit to a deeper engagement in Asian
affairs that will inevitably make friends and enemies-and mess up economic
arrangements. On this basis, Europeans are well-advised to aim for a
strategically low profile in Afghanistan.

European governments adopted a similar caution during the Vietnam War. 
Charles de Gaulle, a man who knew about fighting against the odds, criticised US strategy in France’s former colony. Britain, having co-operated closely with Washington on Indo-China after the Second World War,
refused to send troops to aid Saigon in the

It was wise to stay out of Vietnam.
The supposed impact of a Communist victory there was overrated. But European
leaders should beware exiting Afghanistan.
They have already staked their credibility there, and the balance of power in Asia is very uncertain.

If NATO’s European members walk away from Afghanistan
now, it will be seen as a proof of strategic irrelevance, especially in Washington.  Mr.
Obama has ushered in an era of great power diplomacy that European leaders
should take grimly seriously.

Nobody will organise a “Year of Europe” if they try to ignore Asian security
this time.

This piece was first published in

Pragati, The Indian National Interest Review.



The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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