20 years ago, the world was shocked by images of two planes flying into the Twin Towers in New York. America was injured, but its response would go on to inflict worse wounds on the country’s image and influence, culminating with the humiliating retreat from Afghanistan. That was just the latest chapter in a series of damaging moral crusades, attempting (and failing) to get other countries to conform to America’s values. As a result, America has lost the pre-eminence it once enjoyed, and needs to learn to accept the world as it is, writes Michael Pembroke.
The world of the twenty-first century is changing with unforeseen rapidity. Twenty years ago in September 2001, 19 men who belonged to a terrorist organisation called Al-Qaeda attacked the United States. Fifteen of the men were from Saudi Arabia. The Taliban did not attack the United States; nor did Afghanistan. Just over a week ago, after 20 years of bombing and almost $3 trillion in expenditure, the American invasion of Afghanistan ended in ignominy, defeat and withdrawal. The bombing caused death to the people of Afghanistan and the destruction and dislocation of its civil society. Approximately half of those killed were women and children.
The tragedy of Afghanistan is the latest chapter in a long history of American interventions. We will look back on the past 75 years since the end of World War II as a period of unparalleled American power and hegemony. Yet history will record this era as one characterised by intervention and interference by the United States in many sovereign countries, in a mostly futile attempt to make other regimes, foreign cultures and different civilisations conform to Washington’s own particular world view. The American credo is, or was - ‘to lead, save, liberate and ultimately transform the world’. It was pursued under the guise of spreading or imposing democracy - sometimes dressed up as nation-building - masquerading as a force for common good. But it never was, and never could be justified. Most of the world understands that now, except perhaps in Washington.
For a long time, the United States enjoyed the trust of most of the world. But history will record the past two decades as the time when America’s once-shining star commenced to dim - imperceptibly at first, then with a suddenness that no one foresaw.
With only few exceptions, America’s interventions were a mistake. The attempt to transform Afghanistan failed. In 2019, as the United States negotiated with the Taliban, the number of bombs and other munitions dropped by US warplanes on Afghanistan surged to an eightfold increase over that in 2015. It was the consequence of the same American policy that had been pursued in Japan (1945), Vietnam (1968-73) and Korea (1951-53) – a policy that insists the other side will agree to US peace terms ‘if only they are bombed enough’. America’s nation-building in Afghanistan was more akin to nation-destroying.
The humiliating withdrawal was a resounding defeat for America’s objectives, which conforms to a familiar pattern of failure. Who will forget the television footage of the scrambled helicopter evacuation from the United States embassy in Saigon in April 1975? And twenty-five years earlier, there was the frenzied but little-known pre-television abandonment of Pyongyang in December 1950 – accompanied by the shredding of records and the burning of documents - as China routed the US Eighth Army, sending it on the longest retreat in American military history.
The overwhelming lesson of the last 75 years is that military solutions – even when there is short term success - are rarely, if ever, a successful long-term answer to political conflicts. If there was ever any doubt, surely it is now obvious. America’s extravagant military failures have generally made things worse, not better. They have engendered long-lasting bitterness and resentment, destabilised civil societies, bred new generations of terrorists and caused untold human misery, dislocation and civilian deaths. Approximately three million civilians were killed in Korea, two million in Vietnam and many tens of thousands in Afghanistan.
For a long time, the United States enjoyed the trust of most of the world. But history will record the past two decades as the time when America’s once-shining star commenced to dim - imperceptibly at first, then with a suddenness that no one foresaw. The beginning of the period was marked by the attack on the World Trade Centre and the invasion of Afghanistan; its middle by the self-induced financial crisis of 2008; and its conclusion by the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan and America’s humiliating withdrawal. These events have served to reinforce what we all know - that the prestige, power and authority of the United States are in decline. The failure in Afghanistan is a watershed moment, which comes at a time when the United States is ‘weaker, more divided, and less respected than it was two decades ago’. No one is responsible for America’s diminishing authority except itself. A discernible cautiousness is building among some of America’s friends and allies over Washington’s unrealistic objectives, its constant war footing and its unconvincing, exceptionalist rhetoric. In East Asia, for example, there is no appetite for any American-led war against China. The countries of East Asia prefer accommodation to confrontation.
It is time to forget the idea that the whole world should conform to the principles and values for which America alone stands, no matter how admirable they may appear to be.
It is time to forget the idea that the whole world should conform to the principles and values for which America alone stands, no matter how admirable they may appear to be. It was never feasible and it is conducive of conflict. The idea has its origin in President Truman’s Cold War doctrine and has never really been far from the surface. It was criticised at the time by James Warburg, President Roosevelt’s influential financial advisor, who said that it effectively meant ‘We are willing to become citizens of the world but only if the world becomes an extension of the United States’. It is even clearer now, than it was then, that America’s values are not universal. The freedoms that the American model provides are not capable of being readily transplanted to every nation, every state, every culture. The reality is more complex.
The variety and diversity of the world’s cultures, political systems and civilisations defy ready categorisation, let alone simplistic ones. One hundred and ninety-three nations are member states of the United Nations and some entities such as Taiwan, Palestine and the Vatican are not. Many political systems and forms of government may not meet our approval. Some are positively distasteful; others egregious; a few iniquitous. Many forms of folly and malevolence masquerade as democracies. Many authoritarian regimes are benign, others less so, and there are plenty in between. The Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke for many at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, when he diplomatically pointed out, clearly referring to Washington’s frequent complaint that certain countries ‘do not share our values’, that:
To expect every country to adopt the same cultural values and political system is neither reasonable nor realistic. In fact, humankind’s diversity is its strength. There is much we can learn from one another, from the differences in our values, perspectives, systems and policies.
Ironically, Vladimir Putin made the same point in an opinion piece in The New York Times in 2013:
There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
One of America’s mistakes has been to conflate moral issues with strategic concerns, and to make enemies of countries that do not share the same values. Cuba and North Korea come to mind. Behaviour which is offensive to our sensibilities is not necessarily injurious to our interests. China, for example, is not a threat to the United States because of its treatment of the Uighurs. Human rights abuses can rarely, if ever, provide a legitimate basis for invasion and war. French President Emmanuel Macron’s icily direct response to the clamour for action is instructive: ‘I am not going to start a war with China on this subject’. The Uighur issue is a troubling domestic question with a long history, unique to China, which arises inside a sovereign country. It is no different in principle to the issue of America’s systemic racism against blacks or Australia’s treatment of its indigenous population. China’s internal Hong Kong issue is in the same category.
One of America’s mistakes has been to conflate moral issues with strategic concerns, and to make enemies of countries that do not share the same values.
The future after Afghanistan is a more multilateral world order, in which American power and influence remain significant but not pre-eminent. The European Union, Russia, China and the United Nations Security Council are also cornerstones of an effective multilateral world order. Europe’s recent diplomatic contribution in the war-torn Middle East, through French President Emmanuel Macron, has provided some indication of how the future might look when there is a lighter American footprint. As the United States military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria is ending or being reduced, diplomacy is returning. The recent Baghdad Conference for Cooperation & Partnership – which Macron was instrumental in organising - was an historic victory in itself. America was not invited to the table. The conference brought together Iran and its sometime enemy Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar and its recent adversaries the UAE, Egypt and Kuwait. Turkey and Jordan also attended.
Similarly, European Union diplomacy - especially from France and Germany - has been instrumental in maintaining engagement with Iran. This is notwithstanding the painful provocation caused by America’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal, its re-imposition of sanctions and its assassination of Iranian General Qasem Suleimani. On this issue as well, Macron has placed France at the centre of the negotiations. The European efforts are providing a bridge for US-Iranian re-engagement, while the prospect of normalised economic relations with Europe is providing an incentive for Iran to commit to some form of reconstituted deal limiting its nuclear weapons aspirations.
In relations with China also, Europe has shown pragmatic leadership in contrast to the more antagonistic and binary approach of the United States. Europe has its disputes with China – currently reflected in subsisting mutual sanctions - but France and Germany in particular are careful to avoid demonising China. President Macron has warned that ‘ganging up on China’ would be ‘counterproductive’ and that it is necessary to ‘find the right way to engage’. The ratification of the China-EU trade treaty is currently on hold but each is the other’s largest trading partner and analysts believe that the agreement will eventually come into force. An economic resolution between China and Europe seems more likely than any resolution with America.
China is looming as America’s next crisis, and Washington appears to be following a predictable confrontational pattern, which risks becoming self-fulfilling.
China is looming as America’s next crisis, and Washington appears to be following a predictable confrontational pattern, which risks becoming self-fulfilling. China will soon be again the dominant economic force it was during almost 18 of the last 20 centuries; and America fears a peer competitor. But while China is an economic threat to the United States, it’s not an existential or military threat. It certainly has the military potential, but unlike the former Soviet Union, it does not threaten to attack or invade the American homeland – although it will push back against interference or military aggression towards it, as it did in Korea in late 1950 when America went too far. Nor does China seek to impose its ideology or system of government on other countries. Taiwan is in a special category. And in contradistinction to the economic isolationism of the former Soviet Union, China is economically entwined with the United States to an unparalleled extent. The world wants US-China engagement, not confrontation.
Twenty years since the tragedy of 9/11, the lesson of America’s serial military failures and limited diplomatic successes is that the best hope for global security and prosperity is a multilateral rules-based order, not necessarily a US-led rules-based order. Nor is it an alignment of democratic states against authoritarian states, as President Biden seems to wish. Global security and prosperity require balance and a willingness to compromise. America has never done compromise well. Its tendency towards a binary and inflexible approach to the protection of its own perceived interests has not served it, or the world, well. Ever since the ill-conceived Truman Doctrine, America’s relationship to the rest of the world has been predicated on its own global supremacy. Now the ground rules have changed. The United States has surrendered the unchallenged pre-eminence it once enjoyed. It is time to revisit Senator William Fulbright’s cri de coeur at the height of the Vietnam conflict, that Americans should ‘accept the world as it is, with all its existing nations and ideologies, with all its existing qualities and shortcomings’.