As the chaotic and gut-wrenching American-led withdrawal from Afghanistan was unfolding last month, discussions of what it meant for “U.S. credibility” surfaced in many corners of the foreign policy and media ecosystems. Some argued it was a blow to Washington’s dependability and would force American allies to rethink their relationships with the United States.
However, there are two major problems with the assumptions behind the term “U.S. credibility.” The first is that it masks what we actually mean when we use this phrase. When America’s main allies question whether the United States will keep its promises, usually during or after a crisis, what they’re really concerned about is whether it will uphold its defense obligations to them.
The second problem, which flows from the first, is that it presumes nearly all of Washington’s foreign commitments are at the same level of priority. In other words, it supposes there is little difference between core and peripheral American interests. And if every area of the world is a vital national interest, then it becomes much easier for the United States to become embroiled in international crises that are not worth its blood and treasure.
During the early days of the Cold War when George Kennan, the intellectual architect of U.S. containment policy, was formulating what would become America’s overarching grand strategy in its struggle against the Soviet Union, he made clear it was essential to distinguish between vital and secondary strategic interests. In his mind, it was critical that the United States secure what he saw as the key military-industrial areas of the world from potential Soviet influence or expansion: The North Atlantic and Western Hemisphere, portions of the Middle East, and Northeast Asia. If the United States focused on keeping these areas open and out of hostile control, then it could sufficiently protect its national security.
Although American policymakers followed Kennan’s advice in the first years of the Cold War, they largely disregarded it with the outbreak of the Korean War. Viewing North Korea’s invasion of its southern neighbor as a key test of whether America was capable of honoring its alliance commitments and resisting Soviet-sponsored aggression, President Harry Truman decided to intervene by sending U.S. military forces to the Korean Peninsula to repel the assault. This was all to help a nation that only months earlier had been defined by Secretary of State Dean Acheson as outside the U.S. defense perimeter—that is, not a core American interest.
Crucially, Truman saw the Korean challenge as a trial of U.S. credibility. In his thinking, if the United States allowed South Korea to fall, then communist leaders might feel emboldened to attack other nations around the world, especially in Europe. Yet the fallacy in this reasoning is that it assumes all areas of the world are indivisible and central to American national security. After early successes in routing the North Koreans, the result of Truman’s decision was to trigger Chinese intervention and mire the United States in a military stalemate with tens of thousands of casualties that is technically still ongoing to this day.
The same patterns emerged during the Vietnam War. Following the “domino theory,” popularized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which posited that if one country in a region fell to communism, then others would also succumb to it, successive American presidents escalated the U.S. presence in South Vietnam, a peripheral nation with no discernible relevance to vital U.S. security interests. As President Lyndon B. Johnson debated whether to send U.S. combat troops in 1964 following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, perceived issues of American credibility and prestige weighed heavily on his mind. To him and his advisers, if Washington did not prevent a potential communist takeover of an American ally, then all U.S. global commitments would be questioned. Other allies might begin to doubt whether Washington would also defend them, and adversaries would use any sign of vacillation as a greenlight to commit further aggressive acts.
Johnson’s decision to escalate the war pushed America into another quagmire that nearly tore apart the nation. His logic behind it was also an insult to American allies because it assumed they also did not have the ability to differentiate between U.S. actions in a country like Vietnam and Washington’s obligations to defend more vital areas of the world.
Yet even after Saigon fell to North Vietnam in 1975, two years after the last American combat soldier left the country, Washington’s allies still counted on it for leadership and support. And that’s because they recognized that just because the U.S. had left Vietnam did not mean it was going to withdraw from Europe or other areas deemed of vital interest. Our allies there understood they were nations of major concern and a higher priority for the United States.
These same realizations hold true in the aftermath of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan. Despite the bloody departure, America’s allies know that after 20 years of war, Afghanistan had ceased to be a core U.S. strategic interest. But just because President Biden decided to walk away from a failed war does not mean he is going to start abandoning America’s other foreign commitments. If anything, he strengthened U.S. credibility by extracting the country from a failed enterprise with no end in sight. With the war in Afghanistan now over, the United States can get back to other important issues: safeguarding its allies and prioritizing its vital interests.
Grant Golub is a PhD candidate studying U.S. diplomatic history and grand strategy in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His research focuses on the politics of American grand strategy during World War II. He is also a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society in Washington, DC and a project assistant for the Cold War Studies Project at LSE IDEAS, a university think tank. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Responsible Statecraft, and other leading publications. He tweets at @ghgolub. The views expressed are the author's own.