When it comes to speeches, Joe Biden is no Barack Obama, but he is no Donald Trump either. With his rather limited vocabulary, Trump somehow manages to get his message across. Biden is not an orator. He frequently mumbles up words and sometimes forgets what he was about to say, but still loves to speak with a flourish, frequently searching for punchlines and idiomatic expressions. One of Biden’s favourite phrases is: “the United States will again lead not just by the example of our power but the power of our example.”
Let’s just say the punchline didn’t age well.
As the world stays witness to unprecedented, dreadful scenes from Kabul where the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis still remains unfathomable, “power of America’s example” is ironically raising serious questions of Washington’s credibility and competence, not to speak of doubt among its allies and partners over its reliability. The way the cookie has crumbled in Afghanistan, it appears to confirm the notion that the US is an unreliable ally. Conversely, the developments have made it vulnerable to rhetorical attacks from adversaries, who have wasted no time in driving home the advantage.
When Biden speaks of the “power of our example”, he refers to American hegemony and influence in ensuring the state of relative peace that has existed since the Second World War when the US pulled its weight as the chief security guarantor of the global order. That image of a competent hegemon ready to defend the order it has installed through a complex network of allies, partners and institutions now lie in tatters.
It isn’t just the decision to pull out of Afghanistan and leave the beleaguered central Asian state to its violent, theocratic fate after two decades of machinations, it isn’t just the desperate exit deal cut with a terrorist outfit to fashion the final scuttle, it isn’t just the footage of chaos and dysfunction beamed from Kabul that stripped away the aura of US competence, and it isn’t just the lame excuses that a finger-pointing Biden laid out during his address when he blamed everyone else and yet claimed martyrdom for the debacle.
A combination of all these factors leads to the central message — hammered home for a decade by successive Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Biden administrations — that the US has grown tired of its beat as the globocop and wants to return home. This sense of resignation found its fullest expression in the denouement in Afghanistan and the speech that Biden delivered where he attempted to spin the chaos into some sort of a grand strategy.
In 2002, as chairman of the senate foreign relations committee after the 9/11 attacks, Biden had exhorted the then US president George W Bush to open American purse strings towards building institutions and promoting centralized democracy in Afghanistan. In a speech in February 2002, Biden had said: “History is going to judge us very harshly, I believe, if we allow the hope of a liberated Afghanistan to evaporate because we are fearful of the phrase ‘nation-building.’”
On Monday, trying to defend the debacle in Afghanistan, Biden claimed, “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.”
The distance that Biden has travelled from 2002 to 2021 mirrors the time is has taken for the US to reorient its focus. It is this that shows Pax Americana, whose epitaph has been written many times before, may finally be dead.
As professor Brahma Chellaney writes in Project Syndicate, “This is a watershed moment that will be remembered for formalizing the end of the long-fraying Pax Americana and bringing down the curtain on the West’s long ascendancy. At a time when its global preeminence was already being severely challenged by China, the United States may never recover from the blow this strategic and humanitarian disaster delivers to its international credibility and standing.”
Much as the White House has tried to furiously spin the narrative — with Biden doing a clever bit of deception during his speech — the intelligence and policy failures by successive US administrations that led to the shambolic exit plan, and the clusterfuck of an execution strategy after being caught on the wrong foot by The Taliban’s rapid advance, have contributed to massive reputational damage for the United States. And it has come at an ill-timed moment when it is locked in an intense strategic competition with a presumptive superpower.
The decision to withdraw unilaterally from Afghanistan (undermining the authority of the civilian government, its ally) can still be rationally explained, given the increasing domestic antagonism towards ‘forever wars’. No leader in a democracy may remain immune to public sentiment. It is difficult to see why anyone may hold a grudge against the US for ending a 20-year military engagement in a corner of the world that is no longer central to its security concerns. In the long term, it makes the US appear less trustworthy, but it is a debate worth having.
What cannot be debated, however, is how helpless and clueless the world’s most powerful nation seemed — given all its resources — when the Taliban walked into the presidential palace and took charge of Kabul. The answer to questions over the botched-up pullout cannot be “but we cannot stay there forever”, as Biden tried to do.
The scenes of utter chaos with some Afghan nationals clinging on to a moving US Air Force jet in a desperate bid to flee the country have become the “defining image” of American failure in its longest war. It doesn’t speak highly of US diplomatic clout when triggering memories of Saigon, 1975, American diplomatic staff has to be evacuated off the roof, when the US has to plead with the Taliban not to attack its embassy and when the US defense secretary Lloyd Austin admits that the “US military does not have the capacity at this point to extend security forces beyond the perimeter of the Kabul airport in order to get more civilians safely evacuated out of Afghanistan.”
It is a staggering admission, one that accurately reflects the unravelling of US power.
Beyond the immediacy of the tragedy, the US faces some tough questions over its strategic reorientation. Biden has been trying to make a case that withdrawal of troops and military resources from Afghanistan is necessary for the US to concentrate on the strategic challenge it is facing from China and Russia. And yet the message that was underlined throughout the tragedy in Kabul is not that ‘America is back’, but ‘America is going back’.
Biden has identified China as America’s greatest competitor, and one of the key foreign policy tenets of his administration, as he had described in a speech in February 2021, is that “we’ll… take on directly the challenges posed by our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China… We will compete from a position of strength by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions, and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost.”
Biden was ostensibly taking a swipe at the outgoing Trump administration, but it is difficult to defend American moral authority when the world notices how it has abandoned the Afghan nationals to their fate who had risked their lives to assist the US. This is a nation that is struggling to evacuate the thousands of American citizens still hiding in different parts of Afghanistan who cannot even make it to the airport. The fate of around 80,000 visa applications for Afghans who worked with the US government is even more uncertain.
For all his faults, and there were many, Trump wasn’t a hypocrite. He didn’t care what would happen to America’s ally, the civilian government in Afghanistan, and had no moral pretensions on defending the safety and rights of Afghan women and minorities. His mission was clear — to get the military to end its engagement in Afghanistan and he cut a deal with the Taliban bypassing Ashraf Ghani. It robbed the Afghanistan government of the semblance of authority and empowered the Taliban. Not that it caused Trump any bother.
The trouble with Biden is that on one hand he talks about restoring America’s ‘moral authority’, claims that ‘America is back’, vows to work with allies and partners and then doubles down on a deal that was cut by throwing Afghanistan’s civilian government under the bus. Some critics have pointed out that Taliban’s ascendance and the collapse of the civilian government and its military was caused by America’s abandonment of its ally.
This betrayal happened at two levels. Policy and strategy. Putting the cart of military withdrawal before the horse of a political settlement faced with a deadly fighting force weakened America’s hands and consequently sucked the morale out of the Afghan forces (many of whom were poorly paid and lacked motivation). And the rapid withdrawal of the troops, tech and support bulwark (including US contractors who kept Afghan fighter jets airworthy) was the coup de grace. In the final few days, many members of Afghan security forces and warlords battling the Taliban simply cut side deals and ran away.
As HR McMaster and Bradley Bowman write in Wall Street Journal, “Negotiators from Washington pursued diplomatic engagement with a brutal and determined enemy without complementary military action and after announcing our intention to withdraw. The late George Shultz’s observation holds true: ‘Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table’.”
In the final reckoning, these events not only damage confidence in US capacity for judgment and competence but also erode America’s credibility as an ally. To quote Husain Haqqani, former Pakistan ambassador to the US, in The Hill, “In their eagerness to withdraw from Afghanistan, two successive presidents refused to respect the views of America’s ally, the government of Afghanistan. That does not send a great signal to America’s allies around the world. American allies will now have to worry that the US can abandon them at short notice for domestic political reasons — not a good reputation to have while preparing for peer competition with China.”
US actions, in turn, have strengthened the notion that its power is in terminal decline. It is difficult to argue otherwise when the US president makes an impassioned plea about why it is not America’s job any more to remain invested in battles in faraway lands — forgetting that it is precisely these commitments that had made US hegemony possible.
And China has jumped in. Afghanistan has presented China with the perfect opportunity to drive home the message that the US is a declining power, increasingly lacks the ability to fashion outcomes favourable to itself, and consequently is in no position to uphold its elaborate commitments and security guarantees.
In a series of articles and editorials, the Chinese state media has “exulted in the US withdrawal, with official outlets slamming Washington for its ‘messy failure’, ‘humiliation’, and ‘impotence’.”
Of particular interest to Beijing is the Taiwan question. The nationalistic Global Times has warned Taiwan that it cannot repose faith in the US and that the debacle in Afghanistan is a “lesson for the DPP”. To reinforce its message, the Chinese military on Tuesday carried out “assault drills near Taiwan, with warships and fighter jets exercising off the southwest and southeast of the island.”
“America is now widely seen as a superpower in rapid decline”, announced an op-ed in Global Times. “A pale shadow of what it once was. Its defeat in Afghanistan will have major implications across the world; It brings into question the competence of its political and military leadership, its willingness to engage in further military entanglements, and its reliability and commitment as an ally. If it can make such a huge miscalculation and suffer such a catastrophic defeat in Afghanistan, then who is going to trust its judgement in East Asia, or the South China Sea.”
American allies and partners are taking note. Taiwan, an ‘unofficial’ American ally that lies at the crossroads of US-China competition and great-power muscle flexing has reacted with worry and dismay over whether the US may be relied upon during an emergency.
Its president Tsai Ing-wen in a Facebook post admitted on Wednesday that “recent changes in the situation in Afghanistan have led to much discussion in Taiwan,” and added that “I want to tell everyone that Taiwan’s only option is to make ourselves stronger, more united and more resolute in our determination to protect ourselves.”
The US has been forced to come out with a statement that its commitment to Taiwan “remains as strong as it’s ever been” and that Taiwan is a “fundamentally different question in a different context.” It is evident, however, that China feels more emboldened at US weakness on display in Afghanistan and it is likely to increase its bullying of Taiwan. It is evident that Afghanistan will cast a long shadow over US security partnerships in Asia.
It is not a surprise, therefore, to note that Japan, that has tied own security with the defence stability of Taiwan, express growing concern over the realignment in balance of power in Asia. Japan’s defence minister Nobuo Kishi, according to Sydney Morning Herald, has said “the shifting power balance between the US and China ‘has become very conspicuous’ while a military battle over Taiwan had ‘skewed greatly in favour of China’.”
Consequently, Japan has announced that it will spend more in defence, tipping the defence spending in next fiscal over the long-standing cap of 1 percent of gross domestic product for the very first time.
The increasing lack of faith among its allies and partners on US security guarantee and worry over China’s growing hegemony in Asia further reinforce the narrative of US decline. It may fuel further Xi Jinping’s expansionist designs.
An interesting aspect to consider is whether the developments in Afghanistan will impact India-US ties, or affect the growing strategic partnership?
Walter Russell Mead raises the question in the Wall Street Journal in arguing: “For more than 70 years India, whose massive population and economy make it a linchpin of any American strategy in Asia, has seen the world through the lens of its competition with Pakistan. Now, as Islamabad cements its ties with Beijing, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan hands Pakistan a strategic victory and strengthens the most radical anti-Indian and anti-Western forces in its government. Few in New Delhi will perceive this catastrophe as a sign of Washington’s competence or reliability.”
Questions over US reliability in the present context are inevitable, but, as scholar Tanvi Madan points out in Twitter, such questions are not new to India and are “almost baked into calculations regarding the US.”
I’ve been asked a lot about the impact of devps in Afghanistan on India’s rel w US. Been hesitating to get into it rn cuz:
-not what matters at the moment
-still an evolving dynamic
-too soon to tell
-it depends on a few factors 1/
— Tanvi Madan (@tanvi_madan) August 17, 2021
Unlike Japan or even Taiwan, India doesn’t rely on a US security guarantee and its strategic closeness with Washington has been necessitated and fuelled by China’s growing heft and expansionism in the region. This has found expression in the framing of a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, that is not an Asian NATO. Therefore, questions on US competence and reliability are likely to remain peripheral to the India-US equation and should continue as long as China continues with its belligerent ways. That said, the spillover effect from Afghanistan may affect the pace of the strategic alignment, that may further depend on the change in US-Pakistan dynamics post Taliban’s ascension.
The larger point, however, remains that the Afghanistan debacle has dealt possibly a fatal blow to US power, prestige and influence. It spells the end of the American unipolar moment in history.