Throughout history, great empires have known when to cut their losses
When rushing to give meaning to moments of great human misery, it is tempting to describe them as ‘turning points’, as if their emotional impact must inevitably translate into geopolitical change. In this way the abject scenes of civilians scrambling to escape Kabul in the wake of America’s withdrawal and the Taliban’s ascendancy have been taken as a definitive statement of US decline. Six months after President Biden’s declaration in Munich that ‘America is back’, US power seems more precarious than at any point in recent years.
But might this be a trick of the light? It is notable, for example, that the US spends more on defence now in relative terms than it did when it went into Afghanistan.
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Surely the truth is that retrenchment — even when humiliating — is part and parcel of being a Great Power. A key secret to survival as a major international actor lies in knowing when to cut one’s losses. For example, Great Britain’s global power had not even peaked when, two and a half centuries ago, it made a much more humiliating withdrawal than President Biden in ceding independence to the Thirteen Colonies. By capitulating in a losing war for its First Empire, it preserved sufficient resources and geopolitical freedom to construct a new empire centred on Asia and Africa.
Like Great Britain then, the US now is engaged in an eastward geopolitical transition. Three successive Presidents have trailed a ‘Pivot to East Asia’, premised on strengthening alliances with regional powers and focusing on management (albeit in different ways) of an increasingly fraught relationship with China. Unlike his predecessors, however, President Biden has actually made the difficult sacrifices that come with abandoning legacy conflicts started in the early 21st Century in entirely different geopolitical circumstances. By winding down US commitments in Afghanistan, Biden has freed up resources to direct eastward.
Of course, he has created a headache in the process for European political leaders. They will be left to pick up the pieces when it comes to managing the flows of refugees out of the region and preventing a return of the political paroxysms that upset European politics after 2015. More importantly, he has brought crisis to many Afghans for whom earlier periods of Taliban rule are beyond living memory. If Biden’s early foreign policy is Realism 101, then both of these cases are ‘the weak suffering what they must’.
The scenes in Kabul earlier this week drew comparisons to the fall of Saigon in 1975. But perhaps this analogy should brings consolation, not despair: while it lost Vietnam, the US went on to win the Cold War.