article I wrote on my blog about American exit from Afghanistan
What is going on in Afghanistan is the playing out of a story 40 years in the making; a story of declining US power. The “Hawks” of United States politics have argued that the United States can do and get away with whatever it wants, and the left largely bought that argument. However, US power is spiraling downward with no end in site and the unfolding situation in Afghanistan proves this. This is a story of lost hegemony.
After WW2 the United States was the only nation who’s industrial structure hadn’t been destroyed by the war. This allowed it to gain an industrial foothold in it’s home markets as well as the home markets of western Europe and Japan. The big three; Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt, met at Yalta to decide the political landscape of the post-war world. The unspoken agreement, acknowledged by historians, was that the United States would control two thirds of the world and the USSR the other third, with the world being divided along the Oder-Neisse line. Historians, however, generally argue that this unspoken agreement broke down, we will return to this proposition later.
Before WW2, precisely after the failure of the 1848 world-revolution, centrist liberalism had become the dominant ideology throughout the world-system. The program advanced by the liberals was limited progressive change implemented by experts. The other two ideologies; conservatism and radicalism, came under the orbit of centrist liberalism. Conservatism; wanting to stop progressive change, turned to the liberal program in order to prevent social change from getting out of hand. Radicalism; wanting to accelerate progressive change, focused on long term political organization as the means to this change, becoming bureaucratized and thus also being pulled into the orbit of the bureaucratically administered liberalism.
After WW2 the United States promoted centrist liberalism through the promotion of the right of nations to self-determination, social spending, and aid to the third world designed to boost it’s economy; a policy with the name “development”. Both WW1 and WW2 were the major outbursts in a “thirty years war” between the United States and Germany over who would take the place of Great Britain as the “hegemon” of the world-system. Hegemony means you get your way with everyone else 95% of the time. The United States had defeated Germany in this contest during WW2 with the help of the Soviet Union. The result of this combination of favorable circumstances, hard fought victory, support from allies, and sound policy priorities, allowed the United States to become the hegemon from 1945 to 1968.
The first big problem for US hegemony was Vietnam. After the Viet Minh had driven out French colonialism in their struggle for independence, the United States did not want to allow Vietnam a seat at the table as an independent nation. The United States invaded Vietnam and it turned out, at great cost. The war burned through the US’ historic gold reserves, produced a massive opposition in the anti-war movement at home, forced the United States to abolish the draft in favor of selective service, and ultimately the Viet Minh prevailed creating a decades long “Vietnam Syndrome” in which elites no longer believed that wars could be effectively fought. So the United States was dealt the first blow to it’s hegemonic status.
The second blow came in the form of the world-revolution of 1968. This world-wide social upheaval created an opposition that not only criticized “US imperialism” (US hegemony), but also the entire old left; from the socialist and communist parties around the world, to the socialist states and new independent nations birthed from “national liberation” struggles, as complicit in US imperialism. The 68 rebels were right in the very real sense that the old left, in being captured by liberalism’s bureaucratic orbit, had become a structure which contained social unrest through the distribution of minor benefits. By calling out the old left along with US imperialism the 68 rebels overthrew centrist liberalism, forcing it to be once again, just another ideology competing with the other two, and thus wiped away the ideological basis for US hegemony.
Around the same time the economic basis for US hegemony was also eroded. Now western Europe and Japan were gaining a foothold in the industries of their home markets and the home markets of the United States. A further blow was dealt by the world-crises of overproduction which opened in the early 70s, sounding the b-phase, or phase of decline, for the world-economy as a whole. The United States now had to scramble to hold on to power. If we take the analogy of a plane, at this point, the engines were sputtering and the pilots had to do something to keep the thing in the air. The US did this through a neoliberal assault on social spending; slashing the state bureaucracy and increasing the power of capital over labor and the environment, reclassifying it’s relationship to western Europe and Japan from controlling the latter as “satellites” to allowing them autonomy as “junior partners”, and replacing development aid with a policy of free trade and loans to “developing” countries. In fact, this did keep the plane in the air for a while, but the definitive blow was yet to come.
Let us come back to the narrative of our historians. The idea that the Yalta agreement collapsed to produce the cold war is one that the historians were handed down by politicians. By looking at what actually happened during the so called cold war we can ascertain if and how the Yalta agreements were upheld, or discarded. The facts are that the two powers used fiery ideological rhetoric against each other to mobilize their underlings, but they never violated the division of the world established by the unspoken Yalta agreement. There were 4 big threats to the upholding of the agreement; the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crises, and the Berlin Blockade. In all these cases, however, everyone moved back to their side of the line. The mechanism that tended to prevent breaches of the agreement was the “balance of nuclear terror”, also called “M.utally A.ssured D.estruction”. The fact was nobody actually wanted a nuclear holocaust, so the fact that both sides were nuclear capable tended to make each respect the terms of the agreement. The reality as we have here described it is that the cold war was an artificial conflict meant to continue ad nauseum for the benefit of the two sides; maintaining a division of the world in which the Soviet Union was the sub-imperialist for the United States.
In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. The narrative in the west was one of triumph; the end of history and final victory for liberal democracy. The United States immediately closed in to carry out neoliberal shocks with the aid of hordes of western money and experts. Even today the vast majority of people believe the United States “won the cold war”. This is simply a myth of bluster. The destruction of the USSR was the final fatal blow to US hegemony such that the US actually would have acted to prevent it if it could. In reality the USSR collapsed under the weight of unrest kicked off by 1968 and the United States lost the sub-imperialist force that cooperated with it to divide the world into an order friendly to US hegemony. The goose was cooked and the plane, at this point, was hurtling to the ground.
With the advent of the Bush Jr. administration in the 2000s a movement going by the name of “neoconservatism” which had sprung up in the 60s had come to power in the white house. They were determined to reverse the decline of US power and retake the reigns of hegemony. The strategy was to invade the middle east (Afghanistan and Iraq) in order to intimidate everyone into once again subordinating themselves to US interests. The whole thing was a dismal failure, nobody was intimidated. Instead the United States locked itself into “forever wars” that sucked resources from it for what was essentially no purpose. This is why Obama pulled out of Iraq and why Biden is leaving Afghanistan today. What we have seen as a result of this pulling out is a massive demonstration of the decline of US power. The United States can’t even neatly end it’s forever war. Instead Kabul Airport has been rocked with disorder as people cling to planes trying to take off and the US military attempts to suppress the crowd by shooting smoke grenades from over head and the Afghan army dissolves to allow the much more technologically primitive Taliban to take control quicker than even US intelligence imagined.
Biden has tried to blame Afghanistan itself. According to him Afghanistan is just too volatile to control. The reality is that America can’t control Afghanistan, not because of Afghanistan’s status as the graveyard of empires, but because America is running out of real geopolitical power. The Afghan military dissolved, often with units simply packing up and going home, in the face of the Taliban because, while technologically sophisticated this black hole of US funds had no moral among it’s troops. The US could throw billions of dollars at Afghanistan, but it simply couldn’t create a functioning nation-state. This is the basic paradox of US power today. We are not suggesting here that the United States is not the probable largest military power in the world. We are suggesting that, despite this military might, the United States no longer gets it’s way. It is a super power going it alone, a gigantic military presence whom nobody respects, or listens to. In this situation the *only* power the US has is military.
Now, a prediction. From Vietnam to the forever wars the United States has found out that outright invasion is no longer an effective tool for exorcising, or increasing it’s power in the world. The fact that it is in the process of ending the forever wars is reflective of the fact that US elites have made this observation. However, the US’ geopolitical maneuvers of late show that it is not yet willing to abandon the approach of intimidation. So, instead of costly, endless wars, the United States will pursue intimidation through geopolitical pressure on the states it wishes to control. In place of invasions we will see more trade wars, more assignations, more blockades, and less tolerance of states that step out of line. The problem is that even this approach to intimidation doesn’t work. Trump’s trade war with China only hurt American famers and his aggression toward Iran accomplished the exact opposite of historic US goals (trying to keep nukes out of everyone else’s hands) when he scrapped the deal with the Iranians that prohibited them from enriching uranium, leading them to promptly announce that they would begin enriching uranium.
The decline of the United States is continuing and will continue to continue. It’s decline presents us all with an opportunity; the opportunity to change the world in such a way that political structures like the United States are replaced with structures which do not have to compete in the interstate hierarchy. Instead of a world divided between nation-states organized hierarchically according to the world-economy, which constantly compete with each other for political-economic influence, we can act to create a humanity that freely cooperates to meet it’s needs. If we don’t then the decline of political structures like the United States in the b-phase of the capitalist world-system will allow elites and conservative forces to create much more oppressive, divisive, and unequal structures than even those which exist today. The choice is ours.