The “war on terror”, launched two decades ago, epitomised the peak of America’s unipolar moment. The jets crashing into the twin towers were seen by most as an attack on the soul of globalisation, a project promoted and designed by the United States (US) and its partners in Europe. The near-universal commitment to this war, within the P-5 and outside, was a demonstration of America’s real power. That was a different time and a different world.
Since then, the US has been implicated in the global financial crisis of 2008. Its flawed domestic landscape and divided democracy have been a public spectacle for global audiences since 2016, from the swearing-in of President Donald Trump to that of President Joe Biden. Both individuals were and are legitimate leaders for only half their nation. America’s botched and self-serving response to the Covid-19 pandemic only hastened the decline of its ethical and moral positioning. Hot on the trail of these events, the hasty and bungled exit from Afghanistan is not just a political event, but part of a continuum, one that points to the momentous unravelling of Pax Americana.
The jets crashing into the twin towers were seen by most as an attack on the soul of globalisation, a project promoted and designed by the United States (US) and its partners in Europe.
It is not the US’s material power alone that has suffered; the institutions undergirding the liberal order are on shaky ground as well. The partisanship of its media and academia are visible to all. It is a nation where trolling as a way of life has replaced a broad national consensus. Morally tinged lectures about the international liberal order are likely to fall on deaf ears for those who witnessed the West’s callous indifference to billions in the developing world still in need of vaccines, or towards the thousands of Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to fight America’s war.
Those watching from capitals in Asia, gearing up for a new era of conflict and competition in the Indo-Pacific, will be even more sceptical. Some among them will be the first victims of the Taliban’s willingness to shelter and nurture terrorist groups. More importantly, the fall of Kabul will serve as a dire reminder of the fate that may befall them if they get mired in great power competition.
For instance, if one lived in Japan, going nuclear may be a sensible option. If you were a resident of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) country, your neighbourhood bully would seem a more predictable and acceptable proposition. No spin can change this. America today is less attractive to many. This is a heavily mediated exit from a partnership and the damage is far greater than any of its other follies.
As these geographies rediscover one another, everything in between becomes a shared problem; refugee surges from countries mired in civil conflict, the climate crisis, and flows of finance, infrastructure and technology.
One could even argue that the US’s Indo-Pacific project has already faced its first significant setback. The idea that the US will now focus on China with greater intensity is naïve and suggests a poor understanding of politics. Land frontiers still matter and the US has ceded South and South-West Asia to Beijing. Chinese State media have lampooned and mocked the US’s withdrawal all week.
What role China will eventually play in Afghanistan is uncertain, but it has plans to fill the void that exists. The Chinese model is different and is based on the extraction of value from resources in the host country and providing lucre to the rulers who facilitate this. Tribes and feudal societies tend to work with this model better than the alternatives that seek to turn them into liberal nations and free markets. In the short term at least, China could well emerge as a powerful shaper of the economic and military arrangements in Af-Pak and West Asia.
This episode will have repercussions for the Quad, an ostensibly “counter-China” alliance in the Indo-Pacific. It is time to face up to some home truths.
First, for too long, policymakers in DC have relied on maps that mark the East Indian Ocean as the Indo-Pacific boundary. India’s perspective on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and West Asia has been dismissed time and again. This must change, or India will work with other arrangements to manage the threats that abound. The US must realise that dealing with the influence of China in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a core Indo-Pacific challenge. Ceding these to China defeats the Western Pacific project as well.
Countries have learnt to assess the US by what it does, not by what it says. Efforts to shape and design regions to suit their own narrow interests are likely to be resisted.
Second, even as DC learns to re-imagine the expanse of the Indo-Pacific, it must internalise that Europe and Asia are merging through the efforts of Beijing. As these geographies rediscover one another, everything in between becomes a shared problem; refugee surges from countries mired in civil conflict, the climate crisis, and flows of finance, infrastructure and technology. The US cannot afford to ignore this region if it is to remain relevant at the end of the 2020s.
Third, India will continue to assess the US as its most important partner. A declining superpower is easier to do business with. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA) sanctions and sermons on “values” could be shrugged off more quickly. Countries have learnt to assess the US by what it does, not by what it says. Efforts to shape and design regions to suit their own narrow interests are likely to be resisted. Its reliability and trustworthiness will be measured as per its capacity to contain China’s rise without disrupting the determination of states in the region to seek growth and development on their own terms. A transactional America will now encounter transactional friends.
This commentary originally appeared in Hindustan Times.