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Trump, Biden, and the Fate of America’s Alliances
03 Sep 2021

The tragic scenes in Kabul in the wake of the US withdrawal and the capture of the city by the Taliban triggered ruminations across the world and raised two critical questions: Has the withdrawal and its consequences hurt and diminished America’s global prestige and credibility? Will its alliance partners become wary of America’s commitment?

Three leading experts on alliances, Boston College’s Associate Professor Timothy Crawford, Mary Washington University’s Professor James Davidson and RSIS’ Assistant Professor Evan Resnick, took part in an informative and lively discussion of these questions in an RSIS panel webinar on 3 September 2021.

While the US exit from Afghanistan might trigger emotional recriminations, it is certainly not a harbinger of a US retrenchment from alliances. The challenge for President Joe Biden, however, will be to keep the country’s alliances intact by showing empathy for and commitment to its partners. Asst Prof Resnick counter-intuitively posited that America might engage the Taliban in an alliance of convenience to forestall the re-emergence of terrorist groups in Afghanistan. While he was certain Congress would not sanction any formal aid to the group, he believed Biden could possibly use President George Bush’s post 9/11 successful engagement of Libya as a template to engage the Taliban.

Moving on to East Asia, Prof Crawford observed that China’s lack of alliances gives it greater freedom to use wedge strategies to disrupt America’s alliances and alliance-building. But, he noted that China’s actions to date reflect its preference for territorial control over appeasing weaker powers in ASEAN. America’s East Asian alliances, however, will constrain its pre-emption of China’s wedging manoeuvres. America’s nemesis in Europe, Russia, also has the potential to drive a wedge into the Atlantic alliance with its Nordstream2 gas pipeline.

Prof Davidson made an important empirical observation, pointing out that, contrary to popular belief, Trump did expand America’s alliance network. Notably, the Trump administration initiated the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy to reel the traditionally neutral India into America’s orbit. The webinar ended with Prof Davidson proposing a US-Taiwan security partnership on the condition that Taiwan eschews agitating for full independence.

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