By Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, chair of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and research director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.
US President Joe Biden’s speech on his country’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is a turning point in American foreign policy. As the last troops pull out, leaving a shattered nation behind, Washington seems to have few regrets.
“I know my decision will be criticized. But I would rather take all that criticism than pass this decision on to another president of the United States,” Biden explained. In essence, he was arguing that his three predecessors didn’t have the guts to make the right decision, taking a swipe not only at Donald Trump, whom he mentioned my name, but also at George W. Bush and even his former boss, Barack Obama.
According to the president, the US was never in the business of nation-building in Afghanistan. Its objectives, he claims, were more immediate: to boost security and eliminate those who were responsible for the terrorist attacks on America. Apparently, these objectives have been reached. Questionable as that might be, the claim Washington had no nation-building ambitions is simply not true. However, the fact Biden is now fiercely denying the premise on which his country entered Afghanistan 20 years ago says a lot.
America’s 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was an operation that sent a clear message: the US was prepared to transform the world by force. That attitude didn’t start with George W. Bush or even Bill Clinton. This idea was first voiced by the American president who claimed victory in the Cold War: George H.W. Bush. Operation Desert Storm, in 1991, became the first sign of the “new world order,” but the Soviet Union was still in existence at the time, and the intervention resulted in pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, not in a regime change in Iraq.
When the USSR fell apart, Americans were no longer restricted by another major power, and they entered the so-called “unipolar moment” – they were now free to do whatever they deemed necessary in the international arena. After a number of trial runs in Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia, the US waged its “model” war on Yugoslavia. The bombing operation led to the final disintegration of the country that America considered an adversary and the ousting of the regime that the West saw as unacceptable. The US first formed that model back in the 1990s.
The September 11 terrorist attacks then gave the US the license to apply it globally – no questions asked. There was one main goal: creating a democratic world where Americans feel safe. The military and political instruments – from invasions to promoting democracy through “color revolutions” – were defined at the beginning of the 2000s. However, it soon became obvious that this policy had worrying side-effects and didn’t always help attain the goal.
The drawn-out operation in Afghanistan, the chaotic campaigns in Iraq, the growing “resistance” in the post-Soviet space, the fatal dysfunction of Palestine after it was forced into a democratic election – all of these developments should have made the Americans realize they needed a completely different strategy. And that’s what Biden was hinting at in his Afghanistan speech. However, neither Bush during his second term in office, nor Obama, nor even rebellious Trump were able to do so. Bush began to adjust the course, Obama didn’t modify the narrative but tried to gradually back out of obligations, Trump drastically changed the rhetoric and denounced the old strategy but didn’t have time to finish the job.
Most likely, the ongoing tragedy in Kabul could have been avoided had Washington been more responsible with its withdrawal plan. But it was hard to do in the current ideology and propaganda climate. Since the Cold War, the establishment in the US has grown used to the idea of America’s hegemony in the world. Any attempt to relinquish that role is met with fierce resistance, even though many understand that it is impossible to go on like that.
In other words, they didn’t want to admit that America no longer had great global ambitions. They tried to hide that and, as a result, lost control, and the whole world is watching in awe as the disaster unfolds. And all of this is happening against the backdrop of screams of betrayal coming from different directions.
America’s hegemony in the world was so extraordinary and unprecedented in scale that gradually backing out was nearly impossible. It had to be engraved with some grand gesture, as symbolic as the fall of the Berlin Wall or planes flying into the Twin Towers. The footage of people fleeing via Kabul airport will go down in history as an image symbolizing the end of an era.
In his address, Biden basically said that America would now worry about its domestic issues, focus on its own security and fight against its strategic opponents, namely, China and Russia. It would no longer try to change the world. It is what it is – the 20th-century euphoria is over. There might be relapses here and there, but the US will not regain its former standing.
Biden’s “America’s Back” vow, which we heard so many times during the presidential campaign and his term so far, actually means America “is back home,” rather than back in the global arena. In this sense, Biden carries Trump’s torch. No matter what rhetoric is used to gift-wrap its real actions, the US is now pursuing a self-serving policy focused on its own interests.
Twenty years ago, both hardcore neo-cons and neo-liberals in Washington were convinced that spreading democracy in the world, forcing everyone to follow one set of rules served America’s best interests. That’s where the crazy idea of building a “modern democratic state” in Afghanistan came from, now abandoned by Biden.
That dream is gone. It’s all about pragmatism now, and playing by the rules doesn’t matter anymore – a positive development, in fact, as the phantom “torch of democracy” only creates chaos. That said, all international players interacting with the US need to bear in mind that America’s new top priority is its domestic interests, and it will protect them by any means necessary. That’s all that matters to the US, and the rest of the world should be ready for the consequences.