Afghanistan does not mark the end of the American era; the challenge to its global standing is political polarisation at home, says a foreign-policy expert
Aug 18th 2021
BY FRANCIS FUKUYAMA
This By-invitation commentary is part of a series by global thinkers on the future of American power—examining the forces shaping the country’s global standing, from the rise of China to the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The contributions will be available here.
THE HORRIFYING images of desperate Afghans trying to get out of Kabul this week after the United States-backed government collapsed have evoked a major juncture in world history, as America turned away from the world. The truth of the matter is that 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 around the financial crisis in 2007-09. The country was dominant in many domains of power back then—military, economic, political and cultural. The height of American hubris was the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when it hoped to be able to remake not just Afghanistan (invaded two years before) and Iraq, but the whole of the Middle East.
The country overestimated the effectiveness of military power to bring about fundamental political change, even as it under-estimated the impact of its free-market economic model on global finance. The decade ended with its troops bogged down in two counterinsurgency wars, and an international financial crisis that accentuated the huge inequalities that American-led globalisation had brought about.
The degree of unipolarity in this period has been relatively 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 it quickly regained its dominance within a little more than a decade, and today it works with Vietnam to curb Chinese expansionism. America still has many economic and cultural advantages that few other countries can match.
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 since then has metastasised into a bitter fight over cultural identity. The demand for recognition on the part of groups that feel they have been marginalised by elites was something I identified 30 years ago as an Achilles heel of modern democracy. Normally, a big external threat such as a global pandemic should be the occasion for citizens to rally around a common response; the covid-19 crisis served rather to deepen America’s divisions, with social distancing, mask-wearing and now vaccinations being seen not as public-health measures but as political markers.
These conflicts have spread to all aspects of life, from sports to the brands of consumer products that red and blue Americans buy. The civic identity that took pride in America as a multiracial democracy in the post-civil rights era has been replaced by warring narratives over 1619 versus 1776—that is, whether the country is founded on slavery or the fight for freedom. This conflict extends to the separate realities each side believes it sees, realities in which the election in November 2020 was either one of the fairest in American history or else a massive fraud leading to an illegitimate presidency.
• Our series on American power
• Niall Ferguson on why the end of America’s empire won’t be peaceful
• Robert D. Kaplan on why America can recover from failures like Afghanistan and Iraq
Throughout the cold war and into the early 2000s, there was a strong elite consensus in America in favour of maintaining a leadership position in world politics. The grinding and seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq soured many Americans not just on difficult places like the Middle East, but international involvement generally.
Polarisation has affected foreign policy directly. During the Obama years, Republicans took a hawkish stance and castigated the Democrats for the Russian “reset” and alleged naïveté regarding President Putin. Former President Trump turned the tables by openly embracing Mr Putin, and today roughly half of Republicans believe that the Democrats constitute a bigger threat to the American way of life than does Russia. A conservative television-news anchor, Tucker Carlson, travelled to Budapest to celebrate Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban; “owning the libs” (ie, antagonising the left, a catch-phrase of the right) was more important than standing up for democratic values.
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 the United States 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.
Polarisation has already damaged America’s global influence, well short of future tests like these. That influence depended on what Joseph Nye, a foreign-policy scholar, labelled “soft power”, that is, the attractiveness of American institutions and society to people around the world. That appeal has been greatly diminished: it is hard for anyone to say that American democratic institutions have been working well in recent years, or that any country should imitate America’s political tribalism and dysfunction. The hallmark of a mature democracy is the ability to carry out peaceful transfers of power following elections, a test the country failed spectacularly on January 6th.
The biggest policy debacle by President Joe Biden’s administration in its seven months in office has been its failure to plan adequately for the rapid collapse of Afghanistan. However unseemly that was, it doesn’t speak to the wisdom of the underlying decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, which may in the end prove to be the right one. Mr Biden has suggested that withdrawal was necessary in order to focus on meeting the bigger challenges from Russia and China down the road. I hope he is serious about this. Barack Obama was never successful in making a “pivot” to Asia because America remained focused on counterinsurgency in the Middle East. The current administration needs to redeploy both resources and the attention of policymakers from elsewhere in order to deter geopolitical rivals and to 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 not on short-term actions in Kabul, but on recovering a sense of national identity and purpose at home.
Francis Fukuyama is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Mosbacher Director of its Centre on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.
Categories: America, American History, Americas, United States, USA
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