April 7, 2021 - 5:48pm

“America is back,” declared Joe Biden earlier this year. And with it, a resurrected liberal internationalism that has lain dormant for the past four years. Biden’s cabinet, packed with officials who supported the Iraq invasion, the Libya intervention, and expressed remorse over Washington’s failure to play a bigger role in Syria, now wants America to reclaim the mantle of global leader.

The President has said that he wants to convene a global democracy summit as part of the administration’s push to promote democratic values abroad (though his Secretary of State has insisted that this will not be done through “costly military interventions”) and approach authoritarian regimes “from a position of strength, not weakness“. All of which suggests that the new President will be taking a more active role on the world stage than his predecessor.

Whether the Biden administration has learnt from the Blob’s past mistakes will be put to the test in Afghanistan, where the deadline to withdraw US soldiers from the region is fast approaching. Troops have been stationed in the region for nearly 20 years, and Washington’s failure to get out is a case study in the failures of exporting democracy and, by extension, liberal values abroad. Instead, what has happened, according to a new report in Foreign Affairs, is that liberal values have ‘become a business’ in Afghanistan generating fat contracts for NGOs:

The first group of NGOs moved from Peshawar, Pakistan, to Kabul in the early 2000s. The organizations had previously worked for Afghan refugees in Peshawar and were able to secure funds to implement projects that intended to promote values such as women rights and human rights. The U.S. government spent $787 million to support women’s rights with little result, according to a congressional watchdog which found high maternal mortality rates, widespread gender-based violence, and limited access to healthcare and education for women.
- Ezzatullah Mehrdad, Foreign Affairs

In turn, this business created an artificial — and parallel — civil society:

The business inflicted huge damage to Afghan society. Many of the NGOs went to villages and corrupted the century-old traditions of community service. One practice is known as “assembling”: people gather and work to resolve an issue facing their community. The NGOs paid people for assembling on a project for which they had secured funding. After that, people began hesitating to do community service—asking: Why should we work for free when we can be paid?
- Ezzatullah Mehrdad, Foreign Affairs

Now, Washington now finds itself trapped in peace talks:

As the peace talks progressed, the Afghan government portrayed itself as a defender of liberal values against the extremist Taliban, who seek to build an Islamic emirate. Many fear that the government uses the liberal values as a cover for its attempt to gain the upper hand in power-sharing with the Taliban. “As long as the values serve their interests, the values are defended,” Zawulistani said. “We are dealing with two unprincipled groups that seek to monopolize power.”
- Ezzatullah Mehrdad, Foreign Affairs

The lesson to draw? That the death of liberalism ends not with a bang, but with a bloated NGO sector.