Influence abroad depends on fixing problems at home
“MME” The horrifying images of desperate Afghans trying to get out of Kabul after the Western-backed government collapsed in August seemed to signify a major juncture in world history, as America turned away from the world. Yet in truth, the end of the American era had come much earlier. The long-term sources of American weakness and decline are more domestic than international. The country will remain a great power for many years, but just how influential it will be depends on its ability to fix its internal problems, rather than its foreign policy.
The peak period of American hegemony lasted less than 20 years, from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the financial crisis of 2007-09. The country was dominant in many domains of power—military, economic, political and cultural. The height of American hubris was the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when it hoped to remake not just Iraq and Afghanistan (invaded two years before), but the whole Middle East. America overestimated the effectiveness of military power to bring about deep political change, even as it underestimated the impact of its free-market economic model on global finance. The decade ended with its troops bogged down in two counterinsurgency wars, and a financial crisis that accentuated the inequalities American-led globalisation had brought about.
Termites in the floorboards
The degree of unipolarity in this period has been rare in history, and the world has been reverting to a more normal state of multipolarity ever since, with China, Russia, India, Europe and other centres gaining power relative to America. Afghanistan’s ultimate effect on geopolitics is likely to be small: America survived an earlier, humiliating defeat when it withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, but regained its dominance within little more than a decade. The much bigger challenge to America’s global standing is domestic.
American society is deeply polarised, and has found it difficult to find consensus on virtually anything. This polarisation started over conventional policy issues like taxes and abortion, but has since metastasised into a bitter fight over cultural identity. Normally a big external threat such as a global pandemic should be the occasion for citizens to rally around a common response. But the covid-19 crisis served rather to deepen America’s divisions, with social distancing, mask-wearing and vaccinations being seen not as public-health measures but as political markers.These conflicts have spread to all aspects of life, from sport to the brands of consumer products that red and blue Americans buy.
America’s influence abroad depends on its ability to fix its internal problems
Polarisation has affected foreign policy directly. During Barack Obama’s presidency, Republicans took a hawkish stance and scolded Democrats for the Russian “reset” and alleged naivety regarding Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump turned the tables by embracing Mr Putin, and today roughly half of Republicans believe that the Democrats constitute a bigger threat to the American way of life than Russia does.
There is more apparent consensus regarding China: both Republicans and Democrats agree it is a threat to democratic values. But this only carries America so far. A far greater test for American foreign policy than Afghanistan will be Taiwan, if it comes under direct Chinese attack. Will the United States be willing to sacrifice its sons and daughters on behalf of that island’s independence? Or indeed, would it risk military conflict with Russia should the latter invade Ukraine? These are serious questions with no easy answers, but a reasoned debate about American national interest will probably be conducted primarily through the lens of how it affects the partisan struggle.
The biggest policy debacle of President Joe Biden’s administration in its first year has been its failure to plan adequately for the rapid collapse of Afghanistan. Mr Biden has suggested that withdrawal was necessary in order to focus on meeting the bigger challenges from Russia and China. I hope he is serious about this. Mr Obama was never successful in making a “pivot” to Asia because America remained focused on counterinsurgency in the Middle East. In 2022, the administration needs to redeploy both resources and the attention of policymakers to deter geopolitical rivals and engage with allies.
The United States is not likely to regain its earlier hegemonic status, nor should it aspire to. What it can hope for is to sustain, with like-minded countries, a world order friendly to democratic values. Whether it can do this will depend on recovering a sense of national identity and purpose at home.
By Francis Fukuyama