So Much for a ‘Foreign Policy for the Middle Class’

Biden’s answer to Trump’s approach lasted only as long as its first major test.

About the author: Yascha Mounk is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the founder of Persuasion.

Afghan citizens climbing atop a plane.
Wakil Kohsar / AFP / Getty

The fall of Kabul is a major disaster.

It is a major disaster for the people of Afghanistan, who will now have to live under a theocratic regime that suppresses their most basic liberties, ruthlessly punishes dissenters, and proudly oppresses women. It is a major disaster, in particular, for the tens of thousands of Afghans who helped Western journalists and diplomats in an attempt to build a better country, then looked on in impotence as promises of harbor were shamefully abandoned, and now face the deadly wrath of the Taliban. It is a major disaster for many countries in the region, which will now have to deal with the deeply destabilizing effects of yet another massive refugee crisis. It is a major disaster for the credibility of the West, whose promises to stand up for the safety of allies threatened by authoritarian competitors such as Russia and China will now sound even more hollow. And it is a major disaster for the United States, which will be much less secure now that the Taliban has freed a significant number of al-Qaeda operatives, and may once again allow terrorist groups to establish training grounds in Afghanistan.

Among these horrors, a more indirect upshot of these past days has understandably been overlooked: America’s abject failure in Afghanistan also serves as an indictment of a theory that stands at the heart of Joe Biden’s foreign policy.

Worried about the popularity of Donald Trump’s attacks on America’s foreign commitments—including its presence in Afghanistan—key players in Washington have, over the past few years, embraced the idea of a “foreign policy for the middle class.” To win public support for America’s role as a guarantor of the liberal international order, and to stop authoritarian populists like Donald Trump from winning elections, those who backed this approach argued, the country would need to abandon unpopular missions such as that in Afghanistan and focus on actions that directly boost the pocketbooks of ordinary Americans.

But the first important test of this policy has now shown that it is likely to fail. Far from making a Trump comeback less likely, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has perilously reinforced the impression that the country’s traditional elites are too weak and incompetent to be trusted with power. If the Biden administration is to avert similar disasters in the years to come, it must abandon the framework through which it now views American foreign policy.

Trump’s foreign policy was an incoherent mess. During the 2016 campaign, he repeatedly denounced Xi Jinping and incessantly warned about the danger posed by China. Then he met Xi and was suddenly full of praise for him. “He’s now president for life,” Trump said in 2018, “and he’s great.” Trump’s appraisal of other statesmen, including both democratically elected leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron and Japan’s Shinzo Abe and autocrats such as North Korea’s Kim Jung Un and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, underwent similarly wild swings, seemingly motivated by nothing more than the determination with which they flattered him.

But it would be a mistake to let Trump’s personal fickleness obscure the cold-hearted consistency that characterizes his basic convictions about the world. Broadly speaking, his views about foreign policy are, like those of many other populists around the world, guided by three simple principles. First, he believes that political leaders should at all times place their country’s immediate self-interest over any other consideration. Second, he believes that America’s national self-interest is rarely served by costly or lengthy engagements in foreign countries. And third, he believes that the pursuit of that self-interest often requires the United States to break both the formal and the informal rules of international politics.

This basic outlook was on full display in Trump’s attitude toward Afghanistan. During his first election campaign, he frequently criticized the mission. The allied effort there, he argued, was exacting too high a price on American life and treasure. As he put it in one tweet, “We should leave Afghanistan immediately … Rebuild the US first.” (Once in office, Trump didn’t deliver on his own promise. Though he put some of the gears for America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan into motion, a small but crucial contingent of American troops remained in place throughout his tenure.)

Deeply disturbed by Trump’s ascent, the traditional foreign-policy establishment in Washington gradually took parts of his critique to heart. Think tanks had long fretted about the unpopularity of the “liberal international order” and the lack of popular support for American engagements abroad. Trump’s success seemed to prove that the old ways had grown unsustainable. What was to be done?

Senior foreign-policy makers believed that the question forced by Trump was how to preserve the basic international rules that secure America’s prosperity without feeding a populist backlash that threatens to destroy both the country’s alliances and the survival of its institutions. Many of the people who are running the foreign policy of the Biden administration—including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan—coalesced around a particular answer to that question. Voters, they came to believe, are convinced that America’s foreign policy has failed to serve the country’s national self-interest. To compete with Trump, they concluded, Democrats need to abandon unpopular foreign entanglements and recast the country’s commitment to international rules as an effective way to serve voters’ financial interests.

Far from being a mere slogan, the idea of a “foreign policy for the middle class” has deeply shaped the foreign policy pursued by Joe Biden during the first seven months of his presidency. It has guided the first international successes of his administration, like the series of deals that will ensure a minimum rate of taxation for large international corporations. It explains some otherwise baffling steps, like the administration’s recent attempts to push OPEC to raise its production quotas on oil. And, yes, it also makes sense of Biden’s determination to get out of Afghanistan with reckless speed.

In polls, a clear majority of Americans have consistently favored withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. The U.S. presence in the country did not serve any significant economic interests. An endgame was not in sight. From the perspective of a “foreign policy for the middle class,” Afghanistan was an easy case. By withdrawing troops, Biden could demonstrate that he was willing to defer to public opinion about foreign policy, that he wouldn’t get entangled in costly foreign adventures, and that he would refocus America’s efforts on initiatives that deliver tangible benefits to ordinary Americans. It seemed like a win-win-win.

But America’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan not only is having a host of tragic consequences for that country and the world, it also fails to meet its intended purpose. Designed to weaken the hands of populists like Donald Trump, it will only make their resurgence more likely.

The images of helicopters rescuing American diplomats from the Kabul embassy and of Afghans clinging to the outside of U.S. transport planes in a desperate bid to escape the Taliban are likely to become iconic. They symbolize a new era of American weakness and will help define Biden’s foreign-policy record.

A lot of Democrats seem to disagree with this diagnosis. Confident that the fall of Kabul won’t cost them dearly, senior officials in the Biden administration were, as recently as Sunday, telling journalists that “Americans support bringing troops home.” But though most Americans did indeed support bringing troops home, that was before they realized how badly such a policy would turn out, and they are likely to judge Biden harshly for the scenes of national humiliation now playing on television and social media.

So far, attacks on Biden as incompetent have lacked punch outside the right-wing media echo chamber; voters had little reason to think that he was unable to lead the country. But the videos now emanating from Afghanistan give a visceral visual to a line of attack that is sure to ramp up in the coming months. Fairly or not, they connect Republicans’ preferred characterization of Biden with a real-world catastrophe he oversaw.

These attacks could grow even more potent if foreign terror returns to the United States in the coming years. According to early reports, the Taliban have already freed a significant number of al-Qaeda operatives. The group may again allow terrorist cells to establish training grounds or take shelter in the country it now controls. If any future terrorist attack does seem to have a connection to Afghanistan, the administration’s decision to tie the withdrawal of its troops to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 could come back to haunt it.

By the fall of 2022 or 2024, a lot of Americans will likely have forgotten all about the Afghan people. But even when its original source fades from memory, the impression of the administration’s weakness and incompetence will likely linger. And for a populist like Trump, who always ran as much on his ability to restore American strength as on his promise to reduce the country’s foreign entanglements, that creates a giant opening.

The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan was meant to signal that the Biden administration had carefully listened to voters’ concerns and put their material welfare first. Instead, it is directly feeding the perception of elite failure and weakness on which populist strongmen thrive. Among many other lessons, this suggests that the establishment’s consensus about how to respond to the challenge posed by Trump has gone badly awry.

Foreign policy is not the most effective tool for raising the paychecks of steelworkers in Michigan or nurses in Georgia. The idea that anything the administration could do during negotiations at the G8 or the United Nations would sufficiently change the material well-being of average Americans to affect their voting behavior was always a chimera. Whatever the merits of a foreign policy for the middle class as a substantive proposition, as a political strategy it has always been naive.

But the fall of Kabul also showcases a second shortcoming of the idea. In polls, American voters may say they prefer that their country pursue a self-interested foreign policy that focuses on boosting their standard of living. But they are still likely to judge their leaders harshly if their actions humiliate the country in dramatic fashion or fail to protect the homeland. And as it happens, what is required to avoid national humiliation and preserve national security is often precisely what many voters will perceive as politicians straying from the pursuit of the country’s immediate self-interest.

This does not mean that American leaders should ignore public opinion or go looking for the kinds of misguided military adventures that have diminished the country’s standing over the past decades. But in the end, voters deserve to hear the truth. And the truth is that, rightly understood, America’s self-interest demands meaningful loyalty to its allies and often necessitates painful actions to frustrate the designs of the most dangerous forces in the world. And over the past months, that meant doing what it took to ensure that the Taliban wouldn’t take over all of Afghanistan and kill scores of America’s most loyal allies.

Even after the dramatic images from Kabul, many American voters will be reluctant to accept that some of the policies that help to keep them safe and prosperous seem to have only a highly indirect connection to their lives. But it is a lesson that American leaders need to take to heart if they are to avoid more dangerous humiliations like the ones we have lived through over the past days.