Great Powers, High Table,

On February 3, we published “Who’s Afraid of Isolationism?” by the historian Stephen Wertheim. The essay builds on ideas from his 2020 book, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy, which argues that the charge of “isolationism” became from the 1930s onward a line of attack against critics of the use of US military power around the world. […]

 Biden got a lot of criticism for finally getting the US out of Afghanistan. What’s your view of that criticism?

Biden deserves credit. No president should find it acceptable to send Americans to fight a war indefinitely only for the purpose of losing the war more slowly. And the conflict was only getting deadlier for Afghan civilians, contrary to the fantasy of low-cost, sustainable war propagated by retired US generals on TV.

With respect to the execution of the withdrawal, you don’t get to lose a war and have the result look as though you won it. That said, the administration should have moved heaven and earth to process visas prior to the fall of Kabul. And how dare the United States freeze Afghanistan’s foreign assets and prepare to divert half of them to Americans suing over the September 11 attacks. In the coming months, millions of Afghans may starve to death.

Considering all that, it was perhaps predictable that Russia would choose this moment to test the mettle of Biden and American resolve by menacing Ukraine. Do you think Putin may have mistaken Biden for an isolationist?

Events on the ground probably did the most to drive Putin’s actions. That said, rather than mistake Biden for a weak isolationist, Putin may have taken Biden to be a shrewd pragmatist. The Afghanistan withdrawal showed that Biden seeks to set strategic priorities, reevaluate inherited commitments, and use force only as a last resort, when vital national interests are at stake. All laudable aims, to my mind.

To Putin, however, they may have indicated, correctly, that Biden would not be so reckless as to go to war with Russia in defense of Ukraine. If I’m correct, then Putin should also appreciate that Biden would behave very differently if a NATO ally were attacked. Läs intervjun