It seems like an event from another age. It was only one and a half years ago. After the withdrawal of his soldiers from the Hindu Kush in late summer 2021, Joe Biden declared America's "endless wars" over. The United States had spent eight trillion dollars on the fight against terrorism in the wake of September 11, 2001 – the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
The nation was tired of war. Majorities in both parties wanted to close this chapter of American history. Donald Trump had started with the promise to do so. Biden too. The difference between them was basically that Biden was willing to take greater account of a superpower's compulsions to act than the big disruptor.
But Biden, too, was ultimately only concerned with getting out of the Afghan mess with some face-saving. As is well known, the attempt failed terribly. It was a disgrace for America – and for the West.
Moscow's and Beijing's calculations
Russia and China watched the debacle with keen eyes at the time. For Vladimir Putin, it was an opportunity to take advantage of American weakness in the manner of a neo-imperialist in the short term. For longer-term Xi Jinping, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan was further evidence that the long American century had come to an end. Time is playing into China's hands.
The Russian attack on Ukraine and the Beijing-induced escalation in the Taiwan Strait are also consequences of the summer of 2021. Biden's hopes of being able to focus on America's real challenge – competition with China – after the end of the 9/11 era were disappointed. He is now in a double conflict: relations with Beijing have reached a low point. And the president is effectively waging an indirect war with Moscow.
Military support to Ukraine has cost America $32 billion so far. Biden is not only interested in helping the invaded country. It is also about defending the fragile global security architecture. Parts of the administration have even openly stated that Russia must be weakened to such an extent that the Putin regime will never again be able to invade other countries.
Fragile support from the West
The fact that this is no longer said so openly is due to an overarching goal: to preserve the unity of the Western alliance. For some, including in Berlin, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's announcement went far too far, especially since it seemed to confirm Putin's claim that the West had brought about this war to pursue its geostrategic goals, using causality to pursue its geostrategic goals. This interpretation is also widespread among enemies of America and friends of Russia in the West.
One of the costs of war for Western democracies is that they must campaign for approval for their policies against such propaganda. In America and among other allies, the domestic political situation is also fragile: Although the threat to Russia is perceived with uncertainty, considerable parts of the population do not want to pay the price for a long conflict.
Many Western governments struggle to justify military aid to Kiev and investment in their own military. Each country has specific problems. In America, the situation is dangerous because one of the two major parties has a wing that basically sympathizes with Russia.
Biden recently publicly affirmed in Kiev that the West would stand by Ukraine as long as necessary. But he is said to have internally pointed out to the Ukrainian president the immense costs for his taxpayers. Washington is far from pushing Kiev to the negotiating table. But Biden's remark should be understood as a warning that Volodymyr Zelenskyi should be realistic in defining his war aims.
Biden has strengthened American leadership in the West through the war. But he is aware of how little this benefits him on the home front. The Democrat had run as a domestic reformer who wanted to heal his divided country. He certainly has legislative successes to show for this.
But the immense cost of war offers the Republicans potential for incitement. The president is accused of being more concerned about Ukraine's territorial integrity than about securing his own southern border. The closer the election year 2024 approaches, the more Europe will have to adjust to having to bear a greater burden for Kiev.