It’s hard to imagine more humiliating images than what we’ve seen in Afghanistan in recent weeks, from the hasty evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to the chaotic scenes outside the airport.
Our surrender to a band of AK-47-bearing guerrillas after 20 years has, understandably, occasioned autumnal thoughts about American power.
Even the Soviet Union, on the cusp of full collapse, managed to get out of Afghanistan in good order and leave behind a government that endured for several years.
What does it say that we couldn’t match that? Writing in The New Yorker, Robin Wright says the pullout may serve as “a bookend for the era of U.S. global power.” Allister Heath, editor of The Sunday Telegraph, argues that “the botched exit is merely the latest sign that the American era is ending.” Francis Fukuyama says the images in Kabul “have evoked a major juncture in world history,” although he thinks “the end of the American era had come much earlier.” There is no sugar-coating our defeat in Afghanistan and the abject position we put ourselves in during the final days. The withdrawal is a blow to our counterterrorism capabilities, our prestige and our geopolitical position.
For all of that, though, no one in the world has the formidable advantages of the United States, which still outstrips everyone else, including China, on every material metric that matters.
Great powers don’t go away easily. The British could be forgiven for thinking that it’d be all downhill after losing their American colonies in a long war joined by their traditional rivals France and Spain. Instead, British imperial power had not yet peaked.
Our exit from Saigon in 1975, to this point the touchstone for modern American defeats, was fol- lowed by Communist advances all over the map. Yet, within 20 years, we’d win the Cold War and global power.
We are still blessed with an extraordinarily favorable geographical position, as a continental nation with friendly neighbors, access to two oceans, enormous reserves of oil and gas, and vast amounts of arable land.
We produce about a quarter of global GDP, a share that has held up over the years.
We are responsible for an astonishing 40% of all military spending in the world. It was ridiculous that Biden made a bragging point of the evacuation, but it’s true that no one else would have been capable of such an operation.
We dominate the list of top universities in the world. There is no country people would rather come to. A Taliban spokesperson interviewed on Iranian TV, when challenged why so many people want to flee Afghanistan, rightly pointed out that if American planes were taking people out of Iran, there’d be a rush for the exits there, too.
In his book, Unrivaled, Michael Beckley of Tufts University and the American Enterprise Institute rebuts the notion that China is overtaking us.
American workers are more productive than workers anywhere else. China’s labor productivity has improved, Beckley writes, “but remains half that of Turkey, lower than Mexico’s, and roughly on par with Brazil’s.”
We have demographic challenges, but other big powers, especially China, will be aging faster. Over the course of the century,
Beckley notes, China will lose half of its workforce, or 470 million people.
Our alliance system is an enormous force-multiplier, a network that, according to Beckley, “encompasses 25% of the Earth’s popula- tion and accounts for 75% of world GDP and defense spending.” China’s formal ally, in contrast, is North Korea.
None of this is to deny that the contemporary United States is racked by self-doubt, poisonous politics, and institutional failure.
It is only to say that if we are determined to squander our global position, it will take much more time and folly to do it. A further downward slide, like the disastrous withdrawal from Kabul itself, will be a choice, not an inevitability.