“The United States has been strategically inept for the past thirty years,” notes Professor Christopher Coker in his scathing review of the US” lack of strategic thinking.
He is not alone in this view; the US has been seen to lack a coherent strategy since the end of the Cold War – where it declared its victory over all other ideologies.
The strategic thinking of the Cold War era has been wholly abandoned in the minds of US policymakers, with Henry Kissinger himself noting that as the Taliban was fleeing Afghanistan in the early years of the military campaign, “we lost strategic focus”.
Strategy is a concept that has a long history in political analysis and public policy, and it takes on many forms. Military strategy, as used by Professor Coker, is “the art of bringing the enemy to battle and decisively defeating him”, and it is clear that in the case of Afghanistan, the US had a poor, if any, military strategy.
As Tuesday 31st August marked the end of the US’ 20-year occupation of Afghanistan, the Taliban assumed power almost immediately. This exit would seem to have ended the US-led world order.
However, this flight is wholly reminiscent of its departure from Saigon in 1975, a military disaster from which its reputation did recover.
The risk now becomes, not that the US is losing its Unipolar status, but that its decline in such unstructured fashion could leave a void at the international level, what Ian Bremmer calls a G Zero World, where international diplomatic efforts are unable to tackle global issues, like climate change and pandemics, due to the global governance gap years of strategic anaemia has created.
There are three main concerns that arise not only from this disastrous exit but from the consistent absence of US strategic thinking.
The first, and arguably most obvious, is that the US is no longer a unipolar global superpower; it is a great power, of course, but not the only hegemon. This decline in status must be accompanied by a decline in ambitions, something it has yet to realise.
Accompanying this fall from the top is the second concern; that US thinking must take Russia and China more seriously – liberal victory is far from certain, and the ‘Liberal Western’ order we have seen for the past century is certainly not guaranteed.
Finally, and most importantly, the US needs to repair its relationship with its allies. Leaving Afghanistan the way it did, as the nations of NATO powers, that spent 20 years fighting alongside them, raced to repatriate their citizens, has caused irreparable reputational damage for America.
The End of Pax Americana
As the US loses its place at the head of the table, the Western powers behind it, and the international organisations of diplomacy created by it, will be wanting for purpose in a new world order.
Whilst this is a defining moment in international relations, it is not the first time the world has seen a change in the global hegemon.
Pax Britannia saw the British Empire claim the title of global hegemonic power in the nineteenth century. Britain’s retreat from global leadership was relatively painless and undisruptive to the international scene, as it was Pax Americana that followed. A successor who shared many values, spoke the same language and stood side-by-side to Britain in the ‘West’. The US’ retreat from being a global hegemon will, in all likelihood, be a less smooth transition, as it leaves disastrous decisions in its wake, and a completely revisionist state like China seeks to take its place.
The Taliban’s astronomical rise back to power is evidence of the key flaw in American thinking; the belief that the grand strategizing of the Cold War era was simply no longer needed; Russia and any other hostile power would, in time, come to terms with its defeat and the liberal world order would provide the blueprint for emerging powers to follow.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, the US has locked itself into one strategic narrative after another but failed to nurture the international institutions it helped to create, leaving room for multilateralism to disintegrate in the face of nationalism.
NATO’s strategic failures
The demise of the post-Second World War liberal order is over in all but name, and after the dramatic events in Kabul, the fall of US leadership is almost certain. The withdrawal represents not only a failure of both political and military strategy but also a devastating blow to the pursuit of multilateral diplomacy under any American leadership.
There is no answer to fixing the mess created by the US exit here; but what it does provide, is a chance to see why a leading power void of strategic thinking is truly a global problem.
After a decade of maltreatment of its allies by many administrations, most notably Trump’s disregard for NATO, it seems that it may be too late for Biden’s ‘America is Back’ rhetoric to mend the wounds.
Trump’s anti-globalisation stance in the international order, ran a very close risk of making the US a revisionist power itself, pulling away from the liberal world order it had been the frontrunner in creating.
The US’ lack of strategic thinking, its transactional diplomacy pursued under Trumpism, and the lasting effects of the events in Afghanistan has undoubtedly damaged America’s former “global leader” image beyond repair.
As we have watched, the British government has cracked under pressure with outcry at its failure to act in Afghanistan, and its abandonment of people in Kabul. The facts could not be clearer, the UK cannot support a military presence in Afghanistan without US backing. So, when the US fails to devise a strategic plan and enact military dynamism, its allies are also doomed to fail.
NATO’s discussion on the future of warfare, in preparation for the 2022 Strategic Concept, would be greatly assisted by learning the lessons from America’s failure to think strategically. NATO Reflection Group in its November 2020 report has noted how outdated its strategic concepts have become. It has recognised the need to move from ‘crisis response’ to ‘active countering of threats’ in order to truly be an effective military alliance. Its ambitions are big, and a unifying treaty has been proposed to harmonise its new strategic aims; however, the lack of genuine cohesion between NATO members, and the latent mistrust that remains, will mean all future strategic thinking will remain inadequate.
The Global Emergency of Climate Change
The IPCC’s report on climate change this year has declared a global emergency, compelling international bodies and national governments to work together to stop what will otherwise become an irreversible climate catastrophe. Science diplomacy, or at least the sharing of knowledge, offers us the best chance to address this global crisis. However, years of American transactional diplomacy, most notably Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accords, and zero-sum games of political misinformation and cyber-warfare, has created the current international situation of suspicion and self-preservation.
Growing domestic political polarisation and antagonism between nations has truly haltered international capability to address such concerns. The EU, through a range of initiatives, is seeking to make a positive contribution to science diplomacy, bridging the knowledge gap created through cybersecurity concerns and the self-interest of nation-states. Whilst these are trends in a positive direction, the ‘G Zero World’ that might arise out of the declining old-world order, leaves the fate of this cooperative endeavour unknown, and uncertain.
Pandemics, now and into the future
Vaccine nationalism, especially the retention of Pfizer vaccines in the US, is further evidence that theUS thinks in present terms, not with strategic long-term goals in mind. The prospects of pandemics requiring collective action and decisive leadership are not a new concept. The SARS outbreak of 2002 provided evidence for this, as it generated shockwaves throughout the international community. And yet, COVID-19 has resulted in a failure of governance, at the global level, in terms of multilateral action on global health policy.
The World Health Organisation, and initiatives like COVAX have been inhibited in their effectiveness due to the major players failing to take the much-needed step towards putting the international first.
The US has failed to adhere to its liberal world order norms of solidarity and cooperation, leading to yet another example of its glaring lack of strategic thinking in its geopolitical policy. Such failures have vast repercussions for the international order, as powers like China and Russia have stepped in to fill the vaccine shortages in Countries left out in the cold by US isolationism. The G7 2021 summit, represented a major failure of global health diplomacy. Mainly, due to the US sitting on the fence, especially surrounding the issues which will arise in the negotiations at the World Health Forum in November 2021.
Why is this everyone’s problem? Well, leaders of developing countries are beginning to step away from the US, accepting Chinese vaccines and Huawei infrastructure, a move almost unthinkable in times of the Cold War. With recent events in Afghanistan, and Trump’s military exit from Syria in 2019, abandoning Kurdish allies, can the developing world truly ever trust the US again?
Afghanistan is a turning point
The void of strategic thinking since the turn of the century in American politics has resulted in it losing its claim to be a unipolar global superpower. It was not just the Trump Administration who tarnished America’s reputation in the international order, but a history of misjudgements and failed military campaigns in the Middle East has left other western states feeling abandoned and damaged by the US’ actions.
The US needs to repair its relationship with its allies. Afghanistan is most certainly a turning point in geopolitical strategic thinking globally, and what we will see in years to come is middle powers seeking to straddle the divide between the US and China, ‘hedging by default’ but no longer unquestionably following the US.
What will come of the world order after President Biden’s catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan?
At the very least we can expect the EU to continue in its hedging between the two powers, with the US’ primacy, and therefore preference, slowly obscuring from view. What does all this mean for international institutions like NATO or WHO, especially in this new era of digitisation and pandemics?
Nothing is sure, except that the days of unquestioned American global hegemony and are numbered.
Sarah Coolican is the Project Associate for the Central and South-Eastern Europe programme at LSE IDEAS.