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The new age of American power

Despite forecasts of decline following the Afghanistan withdrawal, the US military is planning another century of global domination.

By Adam Tooze

In August 2021, the dismaying scenes at Kabul airport stirred a number of gloomy pronouncements about the decline of American power. The anguished tone of these reactions reflects not just the horror on the ground, but a sense of personal betrayal felt by the pundit class. For anyone with a historical imagination, the dishonourable retreat is the latest act in the grand drama of Western decline. The wreck in Central Asia set against China’s rising GDP makes for a bitter mix. China will supplant the US as the world’s ascendant power. The One Belt One Road initiative that already stretches from Shanghai to Karachi will subsume Afghanistan as well. We are headed for a post-American age.

Compelling though this declinist verdict may be, it is misleading. In two key ways, American power continues to define the world order.

[See also: Adam Tooze joins the New Statesman as a contributing writer]

The first is through finance. With respect to global money – not to be confused with trade or economic growth – the dollar still rules. Much of the world’s payments, credit and finance continues to rely on the US currency. Since 2001, Afghanistan’s backwater economy has been sucked into that system. The Taliban may have rejoiced at the conquest of Kabul, but when it tried to lay its hands on Afghanistan’s national exchange reserves, most of which are held by the New York Fed, the group discovered that it still resides in the US’s world – or at least Afghanistan’s money does.

The second dimension of American power is military. US planners have bungled the exit from Kabul, but that should not distract from the world-historic weight of US military might. The US has defined the global order since the 1940s, when it first emerged as a military hyper-power with a vast navy and an unparalleled nuclear-armed air force. It continues to do so. The withdrawal from Afghanistan does not surrender that pre-eminence. Instead, it is part of a broader realignment that began under Barack Obama.

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The place to decipher its logic and direction is not Kabul airport or in the sound and fury of the op-ed pages, but in the budgets of the Pentagon and the strategies that direct them. Far from conceding a post-American world, the US military leadership is girding itself to meet new challenges. It is not oblivious to China’s economic growth but their intention is to break the link between GDP and military power by denying China strategic technologies and by sharpening America’s own technological edge.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan has stung the egos of the US elite. But Afghanistan had long ceased to be a decisive battlefield. The exit from Afghanistan is significant not because it tells us much about the global balance of power, but because of what it tells us about who is in charge in Washington, DC.

In justifying his decision Joe Biden has insisted that American soldiers were never “supposed” to be in Afghanistan for nation-building. He is half-right as far as the original intervention in 2001 is concerned. Twenty years ago, George W Bush’s aim was to break al-Qaeda and displace the Taliban regime that had harboured it. “We are not fielding a nation-building military,” he told a private meeting of House Republicans.

But Washington wasn’t naive. It was clear at the time that after more than 20 years of conflict, Afghanistan needed reconstruction. The idea was that the US would provide a small amount of development funding, along with its allies. For the likes of the vice-president Dick Cheney it was an article of faith that big business and the market economy, which the US inscribed into the Afghan constitution in 2004, would do the rest.

All those assumptions proved false and from 2006, the US embarked on a programme of nation-building. Between 2009 and 2014, under the Obama administration, counter-insurgency, economic development and a geo-economic vision for Central Asia came together in an ambitious effort at transformation and regional stabilisation. Between 2010 and 2014, Congress appropriated more than $500bn specifically for war-fighting and development in Afghanistan.

The surge: Brigadier General Larry Nicholson speaks to US marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan, before a major offensive against the Taliban, February 2010. Credit: Tyler Hicks/New York Times/Redux/Eyevine

The reason the US and its allies are now leaving, and the reason Biden wants to distance himself from the idea of nation-building, is that this project failed. That has to do with many factors, such as corruption and misdirected spending, but also the unwillingness of the Obama administration to commit to the long-term future of Afghanistan. The Taliban knew that all it had to do was to wait out the surge.

In 2014, as responsibility for security was handed from the US and Nato forces to the Afghan national army, the Taliban intensified its assault on Afghan security forces. Meanwhile, the profiteers around the regime in Kabul, such as the Karzai clan, knew that there was no point in investing in the long term. There was no long term.

Since the withdrawal, there has been a lot of talk of the US’s lost credibility. But what credibility did it have to lose? Credibility is not about saying you are committed. It is not even about sending troops. It is about your antagonist believing that your public pronouncements are aligned with your interests, so that you will stick with them even when the going gets rough. The problem for the US in Afghanistan was that its reluctance to stay for the truly long haul was obvious.

Even as Obama’s vice-president, Biden was consistent in opposing deeper engagement. Recent polling seems to vindicate him. In a deeply divided society, 70 per cent of Americans approve of leaving Afghanistan in time for the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It is tempting to blame this on geography. Afghanistan is a faraway place. But geography isn’t the only problem. Though Americans’ knowledge of the world is patchy, that doesn’t stop them being concerned about distant lands. Consider the Soviet Union in the Cold War, or Israel, or the preoccupation with China. What accounts for Afghanistan exhaustion is not geography, but time and the mounting sense of futility. Optimism gave way to cynicism. Interests shifted. The clock ran out.

[see also: The graveyard of empires: Why American power failed in Afghanistan]

Regardless of what intervention was “supposed” to do, the revenge exacted by Washington for 9/11 transformed Afghan society. The median age in Afghanistan is 18.4 years. The majority of Afghans alive today have no memory of their country before the 2001 intervention. Millions of life courses were redirected, many in a hopeful direction. The US has disappointed that hope.

The partially modernised society that Western intervention created – the emancipated women, the hundreds of thousands who attended college, the green shoots of a public realm – now face two existential threats. The first comes from the Taliban. The second comes from the West itself.

Such as it is, modern life in Afghanistan depends on a steady inflow of imports and foreign aid. The measure of that dependence is a trade deficit of 25 per cent of GDP. Tens of thousands of Afghans worked directly for the Western presence as translators, fixers and other staff. The Taliban may suppress public life – but financial sanctions are what will remove its material basis.

The signs are alarming. The US Treasury has already announced that Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves are blocked. The allocation of Afghanistan’s special drawing rights by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – the synthetic currency with which the IMF can create credit for its members – will also depend on Washington’s say-so. Among Afghanistan’s main imports are petrol, flour, sugar, machinery and electrical goods – the basic ingredients of a modern economy. Afghanistan trades little with the West directly. But its trading partners, whether in Russia or Pakistan, will want to be paid.

Without external funding the exchange rate will collapse and prices will spike. The economy will flat-line and the most vulnerable will face a food crisis. Before Ashraf Ghani’s regime fell, the World Food Programme estimated that 14 million out of Afghanistan’s population of 39 million faced food insecurity and half its children under five were malnourished. Drought stalks much of the countryside. The cold weather is coming and the healthcare system is one of the sectors most directly dependent on foreign funding. The country faces a humanitarian disaster in the making.

The Taliban does have potential sources of help, above all from Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. But Pakistan is itself under severe financial pressure. China may provide financial aid to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. If both end up in Beijing’s orbit, it will be the US’s doing.

Only when we see how this multi-sided financial relationship plays out will we have a sense of what US withdrawal actually means for Afghan society. An economic blockade on top of Taliban repression would crush the urban life that has developed over the past 20 years. On the other hand, ongoing aid would be a way of continuing US engagement. After the intervention in 2001, with Afghanistan’s currency system in chaos, US experts and the IMF favoured dollarising the country. The plan was rejected by patriotic Afghans as one humiliation too many. In recent months Afghanistan’s currency – the Afghani – has been sliding. It would be awkward for both sides, but dollars funnelled into Afghanistan under its new rulers would provide a lifeline to a society on the brink of collapse. There should be no pretending that the US’s military evacuation relieves it of the responsibility to continue essential support.

Financial aid for reconstruction was generally the smallest part of Western spending in Afghanistan. Of the $500bn Obama surge, $29.9bn was civilian aid and $32.8bn was spending on the Afghan military. The majority went on the US’s own military spending, which cycled straight back to the West in the form of salaries, procurement and service contracts.

During their most intense phase between 2007 and 2013, US operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq involved hundreds of thousands of troops, consuming in excess of $150bn per annum. In terms of brainpower and attention, these campaigns dominated the military agenda.

The US military is a giant professional organisation run by senior officers with postgraduate degrees from some of the top universities in the world. At times, the US army can seem like a management consultancy in jackboots. Like any such organisation it is hierarchical and shot through with power. The battle for resources between branches is intense. But, as in any such organisation, culture matters. What animates the bureaucratic alliances that run the military are buzz-words and ideas. Between 2006 and the early 2010s, the slogan of the moment was Coin – counter-insurgency operations designed to repress resistance to the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan by political, social, economic and military means.

It was the Coin era that catapulted figures such as David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal, James Mattis, Michael Flynn and HR McMaster to national attention as a new breed of warrior, tough but also sophisticated and systemic in their thinking.

Where there is an orthodoxy there are also heretics, especially when blood and treasure are at stake. In the contentious military intellectual scene, the monolithic focus on Coin was always controversial, not just with regard to the success of nation-building but the broader strategic rationale. Was the US military losing its way? Was it facing the right enemy? Already in the 1990s, think tanks linked to the Pentagon had run war games anticipating a 21st-century confrontation with China. Against that backdrop, the war on terror could seem like a distraction. As the US wasted its resources hunting Bin Laden and non-existent weapons of mass destruction, China powered ahead.

In 2011, the then secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced the US’s pivot to Asia. For the self-appointed avant-garde in the US military, it was a signal. It was time to raise the strategic horizon from Basra and Helmand to the great power challenge of Russia and China. As a new history published by the Rand think tank reveals, in 2012 a clique of Pentagon officials began to discuss something they called, somewhat mysteriously, the “third offset”. The idea of the offset was that through technological superiority the US would maintain its decisive edge in a challenging, increasingly multipolar world.

With the occupation of Iraq reduced to a bare minimum and the handover in Afghanistan completed, in 2014 the military’s reorientation began. Vladimir Putin’s incursions in Ukraine and mounting anxiety in Eastern Europe confirmed the need to face new antagonists. But China was always envisioned as the true great-power rival.

To counter China, US soldiers looked towards transformative technologies – AI, robotics, cyber weapons and new space technology. For this the Pentagon would need to refashion the military-industrial complex. The technology would come from Silicon Valley, which was deeply enmeshed in global supply chains and technological partnerships with China. Rather than remodelling Afghan villages, US military planners now envisioned rewiring nothing less than the main engines of globalisation.

Aligning the giant Pentagon machine with such abstract goals was a struggle. But China’s rise was relentless and the idea of a fundamental reorientation of US strategy carried across to Donald Trump’s time in office. The National Defense Strategy of 2018 defined America’s future challenge as great-power competition with peer or near-peer antagonists, not counterterrorism. The main arena was not Central Asia or the Middle East, but the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration is doubling down on this strategic blueprint.

The talk about the third offset mattered because it took place at the heart of American power and bore directly on one of its mightiest instruments – the enormous budgets of the Pentagon and the intelligence community. If the war on terror was big business, once you get to the Pentagon budget proper, the numbers are even more impressive. In 2001 the US defence budget stood at $311bn. By 2010 driven by the war on terror it had more than doubled to $690bn. Then, under the budget cap imposed by the deadlock between the Obama White House and the Republican Congress, spending fell to $560bn in 2015. Trump reversed that decline with a defence budget of above $700bn. Biden’s latest proposal continues the increase, with $753bn requested for 2022. Military expenditure accounts for roughly half of all discretionary spending (as opposed to ongoing entitlements) by the federal government. Defining militarised spending more generally to include Homeland Security, the share rises to two thirds or more. What is so radical about proposals such as the Green New Deal, or Biden’s infrastructure and welfare programmes, is that they propose civilian spending on a scale that the Pentagon takes for granted.

Given the scale of this Moloch, military wonks cannot simply redirect it towards their high-tech priorities. But a shift is happening. The Biden administration has raised the budget for the Department of Defense’s cyber command to $10.4bn, which is weighted towards offensive rather than defensive capabilities. Overall US defence R&D is more than $100bn a year. The intelligence community receives a further $85bn. About half of that goes into electronic data-gathering.

This high-tech militarism pushes the capabilities of the human mind and body, the potential of AI and the properties of matter to the limit. Powerful algorithms parsing satellite data track incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles. Hypersonic missiles defy enemy defences. Space Command may have goofy logos, but since 2019, when it was carved out of the air force, its budget has grown to $17.4bn. Far from withdrawing from the world, the US military aims to encompass and encircle it from orbit. The new technologies still account for a fraction of the total military budget. But if you examine the classic big-ticket items of procurement you arrive at the same conclusion. Far from retreating, the US military is aiming to increase its global dominance.

The F-35 fighter jet – the most expensive product development programme in history – is not a weapon for fighting insurgents. Its job is to shoot down the best fighters the Chinese and Russians can put in the air. Conceived in the 1990s, the bill for developing, supplying and maintaining the fighter jet is currently $1.7trn over the planes’ projected 66-year life-cycle. To think of it simply as an aircraft doesn’t do justice to this gigantic programme. It is an entire industrial ecosystem, made up of almost 2,000 suppliers that directly employ a quarter of a million workers. It will endure for more than half a century and will be implanted in collaborations all over the world. Launching F-35s is one of the main purposes of Britain’s new aircraft carriers.

The US has since the Second World War been unrivalled when it comes to carriers. The latest generation are the colossal nuclear-powered CVN-21 Ford-class. They each cost around $12.4bn. But, worried about their cost and vulnerability to Chinese missiles, the US navy would probably prefer fewer of them – nine rather than 11. But so deeply entrenched is the military-industrial complex in Congress that naval planners don’t get to decide. Having reached a low point in 2015 of only 271 active surface vessels, Congress has mandated that the navy should expand its fleet to a strength of at least 355 vessels. In its final days the Trump administration went one better. In December 2020 it declared that the US should have more than 400 vessels. The final target will be somewhere between 320 and 390 ships. Whatever the number, it will be by far the most powerful fleet the world has ever seen.

Since large surface vessels are vulnerable to attack, one answer – in keeping with the high-tech third offset – is to make them unmanned. Another solution is to go underwater. The super-advanced Next-Generation Attack Submarine, which begins procurement in ten years’ time, will refocus the undersea fleet away from supporting land wars – by firing cruise missiles into places such as Iraq – in favour of fighting the Chinese fleet both above and below the waves.

But the US navy’s top priority is the procurement of a new fleet of giant Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines. The ultimate weapons of mass destruction, designed to deliver a world-destroying second strike in the event that the US is subject to nuclear attack, the Columbia-class ICBM submarines were first projected in 2013. Procurement of the first in class began in 2021 and the navy hopes to build 12 at a cost of $109bn. The submarine-based missiles are one part of the US’s triad of nuclear weapons – alongside heavy bombers from the air and the land-based ICBMs – which began to be modernised under Obama. Analysts put the projected costs of the 30-year programme at $1.5trn. Russia is the only power with anything like the US’s nuclear strength, but the recent detection of new Chinese missile silos has set Washington abuzz.

The Pentagon’s spending programmes are notorious for their cost overruns and dubious results. In the 2000s the army’s effort to develop a generation of robotic vehicles was a $32bn bust. But whether high-tech or old-fashioned, none of the US’s military spending betokens retreat. It is a blueprint for solidifying the nation’s role as the hyper-power of the 21st century.

This spending is also tied to a militarisation of US economic policy of a kind not seen even during the Cold War. To counter China, the US national security establishment has embraced a novel ambition to reshape the global economy. Chinese components are to be removed from the supply chain and Chinese investment purged from Silicon Valley. CIA- and Pentagon-backed venture capitalists are offering seed-funding for promising high-tech recruits to the military-industrial complex.

The White House, meanwhile, requires every major corporation in the US to raise its cyber defences. In a digital world, the real measure of the US’s sway is not the desperate scenes in Kabul, but the humbling of China’s 5G champion Huawei or the suasion exercised on the Dutch firm ASML in order to ensure it only delivers its highly specialised chip-making equipment to customers that are approved of by the US government. For American strategic planners it is easier to imagine reorganising the global high-tech economy than it is to contemplate the US losing its status as undisputed hegemon.

What, then, is the connection to Afghanistan? Apologists for Biden’s scuttle may be tempted to say that it frees up resources for confronting China. But that makes no sense. The resources committed to Afghanistan in 2020 were a negligible entry in the Pentagon’s budget. America’s most senior soldiers wanted to stay in Afghanistan to hold the Kabul regime in place and preserve the legacy of their 20-year presence.

The US military’s top brass did not get their way, and that is what was really at issue in the Afghanistan decision. It is common knowledge in Washington, DC that in 2009 Obama was steamrollered into the Afghanistan surge by the commanders who had recently achieved some success in pacifying Iraq. As vice-president, Biden watched with horror. In 2020, when confronted with Trump’s desire to accelerate the exit from Afghanistan, the military pushed back again.

For turning: Joe Biden defied the military and kept Donald Trump’s Afghanistan exit plan. Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

If Biden had extended the timetable Trump agreed in his talks with the Taliban, it would have been the US military that he was surrendering to. But this time it was the generals who were steamrollered. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Mark Milley was simply overridden by civilian officials – the defence secretary Lloyd Austin, the secretary of state Antony Blinken and the national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

For better or worse, the withdrawal is a dramatic assertion of Biden’s authority. Among units of the 82nd Airborne Division in Kabul, the mood was grim. Coups have been launched over decisions like this – consider the upheaval in France over its exit from Algeria, which lead first to the overthrow of the Fourth Republic in 1958 and then an attempted coup in 1961. But Milley did not take his leave. Instead, veterans’ organisations distributed the phone number for suicide prevention hotlines.

The Afghanistan chapter is closed. The military leadership do not want to pick a fight with an administration that is so committed to the broader agenda of ensuring that the US stays Number One.

As the Taliban rampaged through Kabul and Islamic State bombs exploded, killing 13 US soldiers, talk of a previous American defeat was everywhere – the exit from Saigon, the capital of the South Vietnamese puppet state, in 1975. It had the same scenes of chaos. The same sense of betrayal, as former friends and allies were left behind. As in South Vietnam, the wreckage of a botched effort at nation-building in Afghanistan was being submerged by history. But, for the US military elite, the exit from Vietnam has a more complex meaning, as both the end of a sorry saga and a moment of renewal.

When intellectual reformers in the Pentagon began pushing their campaign for high-tech global war in 2012, they chose the mysterious moniker of the third offset to evoke the folk history within the American military of two earlier moments of rebirth, each following a great, shuddering shock.

The first technological great leap forward came after the Korean War in the 1950s, when America adopted a complex array of tactical nuclear weapons. The second was after Vietnam, when the US embarked on the transformation that led to the revivified army of the 1980s, equipped with a new generation of weapons, a more sophisticated doctrine of warfare and concepts such as AirLand Battle, which emphasised Blitzkrieg-style coordination between land and air forces.

It was that army that restored lustre to US militarism in the triumphant reconquest of Kuwait in 1991, perhaps the country’s last good war. The current cohort of senior American leaders is steeped in that history. Milley, who in the 1970s studied guerrilla warfare at Princeton, was commissioned in 1980 at the beginning of that rejuvenation.

The third offset was launched in 2014 to re-energise American militarism, to redirect it from the quagmire of counter-insurgency and to focus its awesome power on more significant historical objectives. Since then that reorientation has become ever more purposeful. The coincidence of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is painful, but it does nothing to put in question this shift. Far from exiting the world, the US security establishment is committing staggering resources to confronting what it takes to be its principal 21st-century antagonist: China.

The latest iteration of American militarism challenges not just the boundaries of technology, it also puts in question the basic forces that shape modern history. The US was raised to the status of a hyper-power not by the genius of it soldiers, or the qualitative superiority of its weapons, but through its economic supremacy. Its ability to spend billions on a crash programme to develop an atomic bomb in the midst of the Second World War reflects its vast preponderance of resources.

Now, the ultimate goal of the Pentagon planners is to loosen that link between economic performance and military force. They aim to secure US military dominance even as the centrifugal effect of global economic growth reduces America’s relative weight in the world economy. Ultra-advanced technology, not GDP, will be the decisive factor. As Washington torques the sinews of power, the entire world will feel the effect.

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This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire