Jihadists are reinvigorated, China and Russia triumphant. Does the withdrawal from Afghanistan mark the end of American dominance? Our columnist shares another possible reading of Joe Biden’s choices.
The departure of American troops from Afghanistan is going to galvanize every jihadist group in the world, Congressional Republicans predict. When will the next Sept. 11 happen? “The signal was given to China and Russia that the United States is in retreat. If they pull out of Afghanistan, they could do it elsewhere,” the British historian Niall Ferguson prophesied this week on Radio Television Suisse. Taiwan, Ukraine and the Baltic countries could tremble. With Joe Biden, the United States is no longer what it once was — its decline is noted.
It is true that Islamic fundamentalist groups celebrated the withdrawal from Kabul. It is also just as true that those whom the United States protects need to be wary of relying on Washington in the future. And it is undeniable that a page of history is turning in Afghanistan these days and that its consequences are worldwide. But one could also read this turning point and its implications for America’s power differently.
NATO Remains Indispensable
A few days ago, a South Korean diplomat who was asked about the American ally’s departure from Afghanistan and its consequences for his own country’s security, responded, “I do not think that this will give China the upper hand. I actually think that this will allow the United States to strengthen its alliances in the Pacific.” European ministers of defense this week have discussed the emergency creation of a continental response force. They just as quickly had to admit that they are far from being able to do so. NATO remains indispensable.
People have been declaring the “end of the American empire” for 50 years. We did it after the failure in Vietnam, after the humiliation in Iran, after Sept. 11, after the stalemate in Iraq, after the subprime crisis, after ending its involvement in Syria, after the attack on the Capitol. Americans themselves keep up this game of scaring themselves. And the United States’ main rivals regularly proclaim the end of its domination.
But what domination are we talking about? Trying to play policemen to the world? That died in 2003 on the sand in Iraq. The hubris of neoconservatives lasted at most a decade after the fall of the Soviet empire. The United States turned that page in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama. Washington says it no longer wants to remake the world in its image. The disciples of regime change by military force have fallen silent.
Next Stop, Taiwan
As he turns a page in Afghanistan, Biden is holding on to Obama’s doctrine. The United States does not have a calling to dominate the universe but to defend its “vital interests” in a multipolar world where it is still the most significant power. In reality, this world is becoming more and more bipolar, with the ascension of China as it defies the liberal order created by the West after World War II. The United States’ geopolitical priority is no longer in the Middle East, but in the Pacific. And when its president, justifying the withdrawal from Afghanistan, emphasizes the importance of allies, he does not mention Israel or Saudi Arabia (as Donald Trump might have), but NATO, South Korea, Japan, and . . . Taiwan. Taiwan, the island that will be more and more at the heart of the Chinese-American power struggle.
Seen from this angle, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan appears less the un-thought-out abandonment of a protectorate that ensured a strategic depth in Central Asia than an astute redeployment of American forces that allows the country to better confront tomorrow’s challenges. At least, that is Biden’s bet.