BRUSSELS – Well before U.S. President Joe Biden took office early this year, the European Union's foreign policy chief sang his praises and hailed a new era in cooperation. So did almost all of Washington's Western allies.
The EU's Josep Borrell was glad to see the end of the Trump era, with its America First, and sometimes America Only policy, enthralled by Biden's assertion that he would “lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
Sunday's collapse of Kabul, triggered by Biden's decision to get out of Afghanistan and a U.S. military unable to contain the chaos since, certainly put a stop to that. Even some of his biggest fans are now churning out criticism.
Borrell was among them, this time aghast at Biden's contention that “our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building,” coming in the wake of Western efforts over much of the past two decades to sow the seeds of the rule of law and assure protection for women and minorities.
"State-building was not the purpose? Well, this is arguable,” a dejected Borrell said of Biden's stance, which has come under criticism in much of Europe.
And for many Europeans steeped in soft power diplomacy to export Western democratic values, Biden's assertion that, “our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland,” could have come from a Trump speech.
EU Council President Charles Michel underscored the different stances when he said in a tweet Thursday that the “rights of Afghanis, notably women & girls, will remain our key concern: all EU instruments to support them should be used.”
French Parliamentarian Nathalie Loiseau, a former Europe minister for President Emmanuel Macron, put the unexpected EU-Biden disconnect more bluntly: “We lived a little bit the great illusion,” she said. “We thought America was back, while in fact, America withdraws.”
It was no better in Germany, where a leading member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Union bloc, Bavaria Gov. Markus Soeder, called on Washington to provide funding and shelter to those fleeing Afghanistan, since “the United States of America bear the main responsibility for the current situation.”
Even in the United Kingdom, which has always prided itself on a its “special relationship” with Washington and now, more than ever, needs U.S. goodwill to overcome the impact of leaving the EU, barbs were coming from all angles.
Former British Army chief Richard Dannatt said, “the manner and timing of the Afghan collapse is the direct result of President Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11."
“At a stroke, he has undermined the patient and painstaking work of the last five, 10, 15 years to build up governance in Afghanistan, develop its economy, transform its civil society and build up its security forces," Dannatt said Wednesday in Parliament.
"The people had a glimpse of a better life — but that has been torn away.”
Biden has pointed to the Trump administration deal negotiated with the Taliban 18 months earlier in Doha, Qatar, which he says bound him to withdraw U.S. troops, as setting the stage for the chaos now engulfing the country.
Still, Biden putting much of the blame on Afghan forces for not protecting their nation has not gone down well with Western allies, either.
Conservative Parliament member Tom Tugendhat, who fought in Afghanistan, was one of several British lawmakers taking offense.
“To see their commander-in-chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran, is shameful,” Tugendhat said.
Chris Bryant, from the opposition Labour Party, called Biden’s remarks about Afghan soldiers, “some of the most shameful comments ever from an American president.”
In Prague this week, Czech president Milos Zeman said that, “by withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Americans have lost their status of global leader.”
But despite all the criticism, there is no doing without the United States on the global stage. America remains vital to the Western allies in a series of other issues, in particular taking action against global warming.
After climate change disasters across much of the globe this year, the EU will be counting heavily on Biden to stand shoulder-to- shoulder in taking effective measures at the November COP26 global conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to speed up action to counter global warming.
Europe and Washington also have enough trade disagreements to settle to realize that despite the debacle of Afghanistan, there is much more that unites than divides them. A need for American power and help remains, even in Afghanistan.
Before Friday’s meeting of NATO foreign ministers, some Alliance nations have acknowledged they will be pleading to Washington to stay even longer in Afghanistan than it will take to bring all U.S. citizens home, wanting to make sure their people get out too.
“We and a number of other countries are going to the Americans to say: ‘Stay as long as possible, possibly longer than necessary,’” Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Sigrid Kaag said.
Associated Press writers Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands; Sylvia Hui in London; Karel Janicek in Prague and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed.