A year before the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, George W Bush declared: “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building.” After winning the presidency, he aspired not to remake the world but to remake the United States.
It was only after the horrific events of 9/11 that Mr Bush became a war president. By declaring war on a concept – terrorism – he committed the US to a limitless and disastrous crusade.
Two decades later, is history repeating itself in reverse? Joe Biden, who voted for both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, has heralded the end of “an era of major military operations to remake other countries”.
In his essay on page 40, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff at the time of 9/11, writes: “This moment may well mark the end of the American Century – something that has been anticipated for decades. Both allies and foes now doubt the US’s staying power and its commitments of support.”
[See also: How the war on terror led to the forever wars]
From one perspective, America’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan is part of a pattern of retreat. In 2013 Barack Obama failed to enforce his self-imposed “red line” over the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, opening the way for Russia to become a dominant power in the region. In 2017 Donald Trump lamented in his inauguration speech that the US had “spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas, while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay”. He responded by signing the Afghanistan withdrawal agreement, which Mr Biden inherited. Now, even faced with the triumph of the Taliban, the US president has remained defiant.
The Afghanistan withdrawal marks the end of the period of Western adventurism that followed 9/11. In a speech on 6 September, even Tony Blair, one of the most ardent advocates of “wars of democracy”, conceded that “maybe my generation of leaders were naive in thinking countries could be remade”.
Foreign policy debates are too often polarised between interventionists who almost never oppose military action, and isolationists who almost never support it. In reality, governments should respond pragmatically to events. There are costs to intervention, as the catastrophic Iraq War demonstrated. But there are also costs to non-intervention, as the Rwandan genocide and the Syrian civil war proved.
[See also: The new age of American power]
Rather than the end of interventionism, Mr Biden’s approach marks an embrace of a different kind. “Far from conceding a post-American world, the US military leadership is girding itself to meet new challenges,” writes Adam Tooze, who joins the New Statesman as a contributing writer this week, in our cover story. Mr Biden has pledged to increase the US defence budget from $700bn to $755bn by 2022, including a new fleet of nuclear submarines and greater investment in AI, robotics, cyber weapons and space technology.
The president’s foreign priority is to prevent, or at least delay, China’s ascent to global supremacy. His domestic priority is a return to “shared prosperity” after decades of stagnant living standards, and to prevent a Trumpian restoration.
In this new era, the “special relationship” between the US and the UK has seldom appeared less special. As the Afghanistan debacle has demonstrated, Brexit not only weakened Britain’s influence in Europe, it weakened it in Mr Biden’s Washington. The “bridge” that the UK aspired to provide between the US and the EU has been burned.
The UK, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as one of Nato’s leading military powers and as the world’s sixth largest economy, can still exert significant influence. But Mr Johnson has yet to prove that “Global Britain” is more than a slogan. By choosing this moment to reduce its foreign aid budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent, the UK has undercut its claim to be a “soft power superpower”.
Under Mr Biden, the US has suffered one of its greatest foreign policy humiliations since the Vietnam War. But his strategy, if cold-hearted, is not without logic. The US, a fatigued superpower, may have found a role better suited to its capabilities and ambitions.
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire