In late 2021, numerous commentators feared that America’s dramatic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would hurt its credibility as a great-power security patron among onlookers in key allied and adversarial countries. A new article by D.G. Kim, Joshua Byun, and Jiyoung Ko shows why such fears are likely overblown.
The Joe Biden administration’s highly publicized military pullout from Afghanistan in August 2021 evoked widespread fears that the credibility of U.S. security commitments around the world would be ineluctably damaged. “[E]very enemy will draw the lesson that the United States is a feckless power,” one commentator wrote in the New York Times, “[a]nd every ally—Taiwan, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Israel, Japan—will draw the lesson that it is on its own in the face of its enemies.”
Such arguments were hugely popular and intuitive, but we found them puzzling for several reasons. To begin with, Afghanistan was not a formal ally of the United States by the time of the 2021 troop withdrawal, since the legal framework for security cooperation between the two countries had been terminated with the signing of the Doha Agreement by the Donald J. Trump administration and the Taliban in February 2020. Would onlookers in countries that are formal treaty allies of the United States—as well as those among the adversaries that confront such allies—really jump to the conclusion that U.S. behavior toward such “informal” security partners is likely to be replicated in their own neighborhood?
Moreover, while many Americans apparently feared that their country’s reputation as a great-power ally in vital regions will be fatally undermined if it fails to defend any individual security partner, recent works drawing on qualitative case studies suggested that foreign audiences do not necessarily evaluate U.S. credibility in such terms. Indeed, such works seemed to hint at the possibility that allied and adversarial audiences might draw the opposite inference under certain conditions. If these onlookers understand U.S. military capabilities and attention as finite resources that must be competitively allocated across different regions, the American decision to abandon a security partner in one region might not necessarily hurt the perceived trustworthiness of its security commitments in another; in fact, such decisions might help improve widespread perceptions of U.S. credibility.
To test these competing intuitions, we deployed parallel survey experiments in the United States, South Korea, and China—the latter two respectively representing a key ally and adversary for the United States in the strategically vital region of East Asia—approximately five months following the dramatic Afghanistan withdrawal. The idea was to randomly treat ordinary members of the public in each country with a vivid reminder about the U.S. decision to abandon its decades-long military commitment to Afghanistan, including the fact that “the Taliban took control of Afghanistan amidst the ensuing chaos.”
After assigning the treatment, we would ask our U.S. respondents to give us their best guess about the level of confidence people in South Korea and China would have in America’s support for its South Korean ally should a militarized conflict arise between the two East Asian powers. We would then compare the American guesses with actual perceptions reported by the publics of these two states when asked about how credible they would deem U.S. military support for South Korea in the same hypothetical clash.
Our findings were unequivocal. While Americans who were reminded of the Afghanistan pullout tended to become more pessimistic that key audiences in East Asia will view the U.S. security commitment to South Korea as credible, their pessimism was not corroborated by foreign views. Neither the South Korean nor Chinese respondents significantly revised their confidence in America’s regional alliance commitment when presented with the Afghanistan withdrawal reminder.
More importantly, the results suggested that appropriate diplomatic messaging can help strengthen the credibility of U.S. security commitments among foreign publics in the wake of events like the Afghanistan pullout. When given a short additional message that the United States might henceforth be able to further prioritize East Asia when allocating military resources abroad, the South Korean and Chinese respondents who had been reminded of the Afghanistan withdrawal became significantly more confident that the United States would follow through on its commitment to defend South Korea in the event of a local military conflict. The upshot was that the impact of the Afghanistan withdrawal reminder is channeled through the information observers have about their local strategic context, such that its implications for perceptions of American credibility could be diametrically opposed to those feared by U.S. analysts.
These findings offer clear takeaways for how to think about U.S. alliance credibility in the wake of decisions like the Afghanistan withdrawal. Policymakers, for one, should be more willing to consider extricating the United States from costly military commitments in strategically peripheral areas without fearing the loss of a “reputation for resolve” and the widespread erosion of credibility in more important regions. Indeed, by foregrounding the potential for a favorable reallocation of strategic resources, they might be able to turn such events into an asset in the campaign to enhance the credibility of their country’s alliance commitments in key regions, rather than a liability.
More broadly, concerned Americans should be mindful of research findings such as ours when observing doomsaying about their country’s broader credibility that typically follows decisions to retrench from—or not become more forcefully involved in—distant regions where the United States harbors only limited strategic interests and informal defense obligations. By and large, audiences among critical strategic interlocutors like South Korea and China do not distrust America’s willingness and ability to defend its alliance commitments in their own region just because it has failed to stand up for an informal protégé half a world away. They understand that the two are different places.
D.G. Kim, Joshua Byun, and Jiyoung Ko are the authors of “Remember Kabul? Reputation, Strategic Contexts, and American Credibility after the Afghanistan Withdrawal”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.