IPRI – Islamabad Policy Research Institute

Abdicating global leadership

Two decades of brinkmanship and a fallacious geopolitical strategy in Afghanistan have taught the United States one simple lesson; never police beyond its frontiers. But it would have been better if Washington had realised this bitter truth after its fiascos in Iraq, and in Iran too before the 1979 revolution. Military interventions are loathed in the Westphalia state system, and irrespective of the fact how weak a nation-state is, it stands up to fight for its liberty and emancipation. Be it Vietnam, Yemen or Afghanistan, the dispossessed have triumphed in the long run.

President Joseph Biden’s new doctrine of ‘non-intervention’, nonetheless, is born out of exigency. The unceremonious and jaw-dropping exit from Afghanistan of US troops, who went there as ‘nation-builders’, has been a faux pas by the entire American establishment. Biden, who himself was a great advocator of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had even said, “whatever it takes, we should do it,” as Afghanistan is the “central front in the war against Al Qaeda, which required a major US commitment.” That was 2009, as Biden was running for vice-presidency. In September 2021, the president wants the US to sign off its offshore commitments in the larger American interests.

Though Biden has set new goals with seclusion as prima facie, they are unlikely to see the light of the day. It is not easy for Washington to abdicate its global leadership. What Biden meant to say was that America should apparently take a break, and desist from being involved in other’s wars. So far, so good. But to believe that the US will retreat is unrealistic. The setback in Afghanistan was owing to its transgression of power and a flawed approach to history and ground realities. Moreover, it rode the wrong horses in the war-torn country.

With its unprecedented might and leadership, the US is invincible and impregnable, and the world’s sole superpower. It has its geostrategic commitments in six continents, as well as allies and adversaries. America even today is a harbinger of civil rights, democracy and freedom of thought. The US establishment is a troika of the Pentagon, State Department and Capitol Hill. The incumbent in White House is the executive arm. Thus, Biden’s decision to withdraw will be contested and reacted to.

It would be futile to believe that the US will leave the Middle East on its own. The ensuing Saudi Arabia and the UAE tussle for leadership has brought in new vistas for American leadership. It has a role to play in the Gulf Cooperation Council as it houses one of its largest and vibrant sea-borne carriers in Qatar. Israel, being its lone offspring in the region, calls for perpetual US engagement from the Straits of Hormuz and Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean.

A word for China and Southeast Asia would suffice as the region is America’s biggest competitor in geo-economics. The US military presence from Guam to Taiwan is indispensable, as abandoning the sea-lanes would succumb to Beijing’s leadership. Washington’s security shields for South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines cannot be dispensed with the stroke of a pen.

Likewise, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India form a strategic triangle for America in the region. The love and hate relationship with each of them, respectively, will keep it involved come what may. Washington’s calling upon Islamabad to more generously cooperate in taming non-state actors in Afghanistan; and at the same time making the Taliban leadership realise how essential intelligence gathering is to defeat ISIS-K and the like, are cases in point.

Clausewitz will have the last laugh, who said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” The United States will sooner than later revert to its hobnobbing role worldwide—and reinvent legitimacy for interventions. Staying aloof from global leadership is quite un-American.

Note: This article appeared on The Nation, dated 08 September 2021.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.


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