Kabul, Afghanistan, recently attracted global attention. Biden Administration’s hasty withdrawal was harshly criticized globally. Many allies viewed this humanitarian disaster as undermining the credibility of the West.
The situation in Kabul is unjust. Nevertheless, we cannot forget the fundamental cause of this catastrophe in the first place. It began with the West’s dogmatic geopolitical approach after the Cold War.
The West lost its sanity following the end of the Soviet Union. Numerous efforts were then made to forcefully spread liberal democracy throughout the globe. The decision was a terrible policy idea. Western reputation was ruined, trillions were wasted, and global democracy is in decline.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, led to the belief that the West was destined to lead the way towards a more liberal world. As part of the Third Wave of democratisation, liberalism also reached Eastern Europe.
The Cold War victory over the Soviet Union led to complacency on the part of the United States. Policymakers responded to Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis with greater fervour. Inadvertently, this hypothesis empowered Washington and the Pentagon.
A fundamentalist turn was observed in foreign policy. Overconfidence led to exuberant confidence. The idea that any nation could be socially engineered into a liberal democracy.
Military intervention became more mainstream. By doing so, dictatorships would be overthrown, regimes would change, and democracy would be introduced. It was ideology rather than diplomatic history that shaped foreign policy.
The liberal internationalists and neoconservatives began to dictate policy in Washington. Stephen Walt coined these ideologues ‘the blob’ in the foreign policy establishment.
In the wake of 9/11, President Bush began the War on Terror. The Bush Doctrine led to regime change in many parts of the Middle East. Intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, led to the installation of new governments supported by the United States.
But instead of transforming into liberal democracies, the two nations ended up fighting civil wars. The overthrow of dictatorships such as Saddam Hussein and the Taliban led to anarchy.
Domestic order was impossible with a legitimate government. The practice of beheadings, violence, and Islamic extremism has become prevalent under Al Qaeda.
The Obama Administration failed to learn from Bush’s mistakes. In 2011, a Libyan intervention exacerbated the chaos in the region. A vacuum created the refugee crisis in 2015, which triggered mass migration into Europe. This fuelled national populist sentiments across the European Union.
Evidently U.S. international reputation and credibility were damaged. Political scientist John Mearsheimer viewed these interventions as “never-ending wars”. He knew it was bound to fail.
Without an understanding of local institutions and cultures, it is virtually impossible to build a nation. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s greatest nation-builder, thought America’s policies were ill-founded.
He viewed the Middle Eastern nation-building as impossible. In 2009, he said, “I see imbroglios in Iraq and Afghanistan as distractions.”
Ultimately, he was right. The United States has spent more than 6.4 trillion dollars in both countries over the past two decades. A total of 7,000 American soldiers, 177,000 local officials, and countless innocent civilians were killed.
And liberal democratic values have declined worldwide since the Cold War. Freedom House reports in 2021 that global freedom has dropped for 15 consecutive years – a “democratic recession”.
The mistakes by the United States led to a world order less liberal and more authoritarian. The balance of power in the international order has started shifting towards Asia. The liberal West is currently on the defensive.
The United States continues to be distracted in the Middle East. An emerging superpower grew militarily and economically during this period. China is now a peer competitor in the international system to the United States.
During this period, China did the opposite of the United States. Since its conflict with Vietnam in 1979, it has not entered a single war. China concentrated primarily on its economic growth and development.
Deng Xiaoping led the Chinese government into the international economy. With a new diplomatic relationship with the United States, China opened its doors to foreign investment. In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organisation.
China increased its investment in public infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and cities. Thus, real GDP increased by an average of 10% from 1979 to 2010.
To build its technological capabilities, the government reverse-engineered Western products. Its technological capabilities have been enhanced through joint ventures with western companies.
The Chinese government has modelled its style of governance on that of Singapore. Meritocracy was at the centre with a technocratic approach to public policy. Consequently, a new system of governance was conceived, based on standardised testing and performance-based results.
They focused primarily on technical expertise, such as science, engineering, mathematics, and economics.
In the meantime, the West has cooled on meritocracy. Long-term, this poses a significant problem. According to the OECD, meritocracy is of critical importance for social mobility and economic growth.
However, many institutions in the West have become hostile to the meritocratic ethos. Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist deplored the West’s departure from meritocracy. He asserted that “flawed systems to promote equal opportunity should be reformed, not replaced by quotas and a grievance culture.”
The gradual departure from meritocracy is not conducive to strong economy growth. Nor can the West remain distracted in nation-building projects. Otherwise, it will continue down the downward spiral in its international reputation. These trends have harmed the global liberal movement.
If the West does not change its course, the Chinese will become number one. When one considers that China is becoming a larger version of Singapore, it is imperative that the United States wake up.
U.S. withdrawal from Kabul did not harm the reputation of the West. Through its fundamentalist approach to foreign policy, it shot itself in the foot. Kabul’s fall is a symptom of the inherent problem, not the cause. Foreign policy goals must be achieved through realpolitik strategy, not ideological dogmatism.