President Biden has overseen a calamitous erosion of the West’s influence in 2021. The headwinds will only grow stronger in 2022
For a year that was meant to mark a welcome revival in the fortunes of the Western alliance, 2021 has proved to be not so much a sorry disappointment as a disaster of potentially catastrophic proportions.
Joe Biden’s arrival in the Oval Office at the start of the year certainly raised expectations that his tenure would help to heal the rancorous divisions that characterised the transatlantic relationship under his predecessor, Donald Trump.
Mr Biden said as much himself, promising in his inauguration address to “defend democracy”, a commitment which was followed, in his subsequent speech to the State Department, by a pledge to restore Washington’s leadership position on the world stage.
“America is back, diplomacy is back,” Mr Biden declared, adding that his administration would work toward “reclaiming our credibility and moral authority.”
How hollow those words sound today. For, far from presiding over the restoration of Western hegemony in world affairs, Biden has instead overseen a calamitous erosion of the West’s ability to influence events, one that does not bode well for the survival of democratic rule in 2022.
If, as Mr Biden claims, he is serious about rebuilding relations with Europe, then why has he tolerated the diplomatic embarrassment of not having an American ambassador appointed to any of the major European capitals – including London – for almost the entire first year of his presidency?
The US leader must certainly share much of the blame for the precipitous decline in Western influence, as his inherent weakness and indecision have been clear for all to see, not least by adversaries like China and Russia.
Beijing’s insatiable appetite for crushing its opponents, whether on the streets of Hong Kong or in the mosques of Xinjiang, will have been encouraged, for example, by Mr Biden’s reluctance to confront China’s rulers for their reckless behaviour throughout the pandemic, from silencing whistleblowers to restricting scientists’ access to information.
If the US and its allies are not prepared to challenge Beijing on its role in a pandemic that has wreaked havoc throughout the global economy, then it is unlikely China is going to experience much serious opposition in its quest for world domination.
Russia is another country that, scenting weakness in Washington, has intensified its effort to cause maximum division and disruption in Europe. Mr Biden’s two-hour summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva in June was supposed to persuade the Kremlin that the US was serious about fulfilling its global leadership role.
Mr Putin was clearly not convinced, as his subsequent conduct has mainly consisted of holding Europe to ransom over its energy needs, fomenting a migrant crisis in Belarus and threatening an invasion of Ukraine.
Even now, with Moscow said to have in excess of 100,000 troops massed on Ukraine’s eastern border, there is a fair chance that Mr Biden will succumb to his desire to appease the Kremlin by ending any hope Kiev might still entertain of acquiring full Nato membership.
Such behaviour is, after all, only to be expected from someone who, just four months ago, abandoned an entire nation to the mercy of the Taliban and other chaotic bands of warlords by unilaterally terminating America’s two-decades-long commitment to the people of Afghanistan.
The Nato effort in Afghanistan may have had its critics but, so long as Western forces were able to maintain a residual presence in this vital strategic location, it meant we were able to monitor the activities of Islamist terror groups, as well as those of rival powers like China and Iran.
Now, thanks to Mr Biden’s ill-considered withdrawal, the West no longer has the ability to track the activities of Islamist terror groups, while Afghanistan’s priceless mineral riches have been gifted to Beijing.
If the last bastion of the Biden administration’s credibility collapsed with the summer retreat from Kabul, the recent performance of Europe’s major powers provides scant cause for comfort either.
Germany’s self-inflicted energy crisis has seen it preoccupied over whether it should deepen its dependence on Moscow by approving the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from the Baltic, while French President Emmanuel Macron has devoted much of the past year to pursuing a vengeful post-Brexit vendetta against his British neighbours.
As for Boris Johnson’s vision for Global Britain, any leadership role Britain may have aspired to has been consumed by domestic squabbles over suggestions Downing Street is more invested in partying than governing.
The absence of strong and effective leadership within the Western alliance should certainly be a serious cause for concern as we approach 2022, not least because it makes the Western powers a great deal more vulnerable to the malevolent designs of our foes.
As General Sir Nick Carter, the former head of Britain’s Armed Forces, warned shortly before his retirement last month, one of the greatest risks of any escalation in tensions between the West and its adversaries is that a tragic miscalculation by either side could result in open warfare.
This is particularly true in Ukraine where, with Mr Putin maintaining his belligerent attitude towards the rest of Europe, one false move on the part of his forces could easily have tragic consequences.
Iran is another country whose appetite for brinkmanship poses a profound risk. Iran’s military has spent the past month conducting drills to test its air defences against the possibility of attack from Western forces over Tehran’s failure to negotiate a deal over its nuclear programme.
But, as the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet in January 2020 demonstrates, Iranian missiles are not always accurate, and Western intelligence has picked up disturbing reports that, on at least two occasions, Iran’s air defences have mistakenly been fired at the wrong target.
From Beijing to Moscow, and from Tehran to Kabul, the world certainly has the potential to be a far more dangerous place in 2022 than it is today. The major concern, so far as the West is concerned, is that we badly lack the strong and united leadership that is needed to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.
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