US Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Only the Latest Proof of the Liberal Order’s Decline
As the last United States’ soldier left Afghanistan on August 30, the world witnessed one of the latest American foreign policy fiascos in the Middle East and Central Asia. The attempt of the United States (US) to construct a democratic and liberal state in its own image, failed. President Joe Biden declared following the withdrawal from Afghanistan that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was not about spreading democracy or liberal order in the country, but fighting terrorism. The president’s downplaying of Afghanistan’s value-based intervention is only the newest piece of evidence of the waning of the U.S. policy of liberal interventionism, and a clear sign of the decline of liberal hegemony. This decline, however, does not entail the collapse of the global liberal order built on democratic value, human rights, free trade, and interdependency. The liberal order will stay as the fundamental framework of U.S. foreign policy.
However, the decision-makers in Washington are shifting from liberal interventionism (e.g., replacing illiberal regimes with democratic governments that adopt liberal principles and respect human rights) to a realist foreign policy, especially in response to the challenge imposed by rising powers such as China and Russia. This new shift in perspective will be reflected in international politics in three interrelated and interwoven areas: balance of power, arms race, and reformulating alliances, which can be considered as the fundamental principles of realism.
The Liberal Order in Global Politics
It can be argued that the first modern version of the value-based liberal order materialized in Europe after the Napoleonic wars. The so-called Concert of Europe reflected some of the liberal order’s foundational principles, as competitors sought to maintain overall stability by consensus and meeting on a common ground of shared values. As Kissinger argued, there was not only a physical equilibrium, but a moral one. Power and justice were in sustainable harmony. The immediate outcome of this transformation was an apparent reduction in the use of force.[i]
The Concert of Europe was successful in keeping the peace in Europe for nearly one hundred years. Besides some minor wars, such as the Crimean war, no major war occurred between the Great powers in Europe during that time, until the first World War (WWI). However, under the ashes of the war, the second phase of the international liberal order was soon to be born.
Exhausted by WWI, Europe would soon be eclipsed by a new power from beyond the oceans, the United States of America. The U.S. President Woodrow Wilson traveled across the Atlantic, carrying with him a vision of a new liberal order where human rights and democratic institutions occupied a pivotal position. Wilson believed that the balance of power and the arms race embedded in the European-made international order had made the war inevitable. To remedy this, he suggested building an order in which states would accept enforceable legal restrictions on their domestic and international conduct.
This gave birth to the League of Nations at the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson wanted the League to be an organization where powers sought to solve their disputes through consensus. However, the man driven by a utopian dream of a peaceful liberal order would ultimately die in grief after failing to convince his fellow Americans to abandon their isolationism and ratify the Treaty of Versailles to allow the US to become a member of the League.
Nevertheless, with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s advent to power and the end of the catastrophic World War Two (WWII) the Wilsonian world order finally formulated the principles that have guided international relations ever since. This order was echoed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and conducted according to rules established by institutions such as the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, and the World Trade Organization[ii]. The liberal order rests on the maxim that states should pursue their interests through cooperation and mutual assistance.
Liberal philosophers believed that spreading democratic values and liberal principles such as freedom, cooperation, interdependence, human rights, and free trade order would transform the international system into an international society where states are subjected to supra-national binding laws and negotiated norms as a reference to address their disputes.
The Cold War, which erupted immediately after WWII, reinforced the need for strengthening and expanding the liberal order. The so-called containment policy, which defined the U.S. foreign Policy during the entire Cold War era and aimed to encircle the Soviet Union and fight communism, or the “Evil Empire,” as President Ronald Reagan called it, required a proactive policy from the world’s leading liberal democracies to work together and maintain a free and open system with multilateral cooperation anchored in coalitions.
The Liberal Hegemony
The Cold War’s end and the Soviet Union’s collapse was described as a liberal moment, the moment of the end of history when liberal values and democracy triumphed over totalitarianism. Both the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations would work to create a “new order;” an order where self-determination, the rule of law between and within countries, liberal economics, and the protection of human rights prevailed. The global order transformed into a unipolar system dominated by only one hegemonic liberal-super power. For the first time in modern history, the United States enjoyed a free hand to shape the world under liberal values. During that time, Russia was too weak to challenge the new liberal wave, and China was still making its way out of the crisis of Mao’s Great Leap. It was the moment of “liberal hegemony,” as Washington’s elite took liberal hegemony as an ambitious strategy to turn as many countries as possible into liberal democracies, while fostering an open international economy and building formidable international institutions. In essence, the United States sought to remake the world in its own image.[iii]
Similar to the ambitious Marshall Plan that was formulated to save Western Europe from falling into the clutches of communism after WWII, the United States and the European Union alike rushed to expand eastward and bring Eastern European states, formerly Soviet provinces, into Western influence. Not only that, but the United States quickly expanded the umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to include many countries, such as Poland, that were previously subject to the communist orbit. These moves angered Russia, which gained the confidence to respond when Putin took power. Over time, this policy led to the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, which claimed hundreds of dead and missing and put the entire security and stability of Europe at stake.
Generally speaking, liberal principles and democratization were the driving force behind this policy. Since some ideas like “democratic peace” gained significant momentum, the political elites believed that the only way to maintain the West’s security and stability came through spreading the principle of human rights and liberal norms. This belief was based on the “Democratic peace theory,” the belief that democratic and liberal states do not fight each other, but instead peacefully coexist and solve their disputes.
The United States used the same liberal cliché to justify waging its wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. Although September 11 shook the United States’ pride and dignity and unleashed its revenge, liberal-driven foreign policy still prevailed over its discourse. The main narrative used to justify the invasions was the liberation of the Afghani and Iraqi peoples from the iron grip of Saddam-like tyrants and radical Islamists. However, the Iraq war was arguably the first nail in liberal hegemony’s coffin. The Bush administration’s “With-us-or-against-us” approach ruined the multilateralism that the United Stated had built for decades and put it at odds with some of its closest allies such as France and Germany, who both rejected the war.
US. foreign policy: A departure from liberal interventionism
In addition to the 2003 Iraq war, several other factors contributed to the waning of liberal hegemony. The rise of other illiberal countries on the international stage, such as China and Russia, and their remarkable successes in both economics and politics, the rise of global terrorism, and the spreading of transnational crises such as the 2008 global financial crisis and the Coronavirus pandemic all contributed. This is in addition to the global rise of populism, of which Trump’s victory in the 2016 elections and Britain’s exit from the European Union (Brexit) are only its most prominent manifestations. Needless to say, the top policy on the populists’ agenda was to build walls and encourage isolationism and protectionism, breaking with their country’s liberal political tradition.
Moreover, the flaw of the liberal order is reflected in liberal states’ failure to coordinate and cooperate in addressing some of the striking global crises such as global warming or such results of advanced technological development like disinformation campaigns and fake news. However, even more shockingly, those liberal regimes failed to support the new democratic transition process in third-world countries such as Egypt and Tunisia after the Arab uprisings. Most Western liberal powers, for example, recognized the 2013 military coup in Egypt against a freely and fairly elected president and in utter hypocrisy prioritized their security over liberal principles.
This decline of the liberal hegemony was discernible in Obama’s “leading-from-behind policy”[iv], and Trump’s national isolationism, withdrawing his country from many international agreements and treaties, such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program or the Paris Accord in fighting climate change.
One can also understand the recent U.S departure from Afghanistan in the same vein as the latest proof of liberal hegemony’s decline and that liberalism may soon took second place in American foreign policy priorities. President Biden’s three-thousand-word remarks on the end of the war in Afghanistan had zero mention of liberalism, democracy, or any other related words.[v] As argued repeatedly in his recent speeches, the United States had only one valid reason to use force: to “get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11” and “to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States.”[vi] Once that objective had been achieved, the United States had no business waging war. It was for “the Afghan people alone to decide their future,” including whether they would live in a Western-style democracy or under Taliban rule.[vii]
Moreover, Biden’s speech signals underlying assumptions that will encompass the three areas of the U.S. foreign policy in the mid-term future. Firstly, the United States will dismiss values as a driving force behind its foreign policy. Secondly, it will give up entirely on military ground operations in combating terrorism, instead employing surgery-like military operations launched by sophisticated unmanned killing drones. Finally, it will redeploy its forces to face the vital threat imposed by China and, to some extent, by Russia. In his speech, Biden acknowledged the world’s constant changes where the United States is engaged in serious competition with China, and dealing with challenges on multiple fronts with Russia and confronting cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation.
The Post-liberal Hegemony Order
These assumptions might work as a new grammar of the foreseeable international order where naked power and strategic consideration will be the focal point of global competition among great powers instead of values or principles. If it comes true, this hypothesis means that liberalism will yield to realism.
However, the realist world order does not require the inevitability of conflict and war between great powers. Indeed, the Cold War ended without witnessing a direct war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The point here is that the impulses of the new world order will not be about wars. To put it differently, while wars will stay as the hardwiring of any world order, what will be different is how the great powers view wars. At least for the United States, wars will be no longer about changing regimes or imposing democracy by force, but instead about denying rising powers the chance to challenge her global leadership. Even though the United States will stay as the leading liberal superpower, it will not be liberal incentives that motivate its moves on the ground or flexing of muscle.
Generally speaking, it is still very early to draw any clear boundaries of the new global order. As the U.N. secretary-general, António Guterres, warned, the competition between China and the U.S. is “far less predictable than the Cold War.” One of the reasons for this lack of predictability stems from the West itself, especially the United States, which is facing a non-European rising power for the first time since the West imposed supremacy on the globe. The containment policy, for example, that the West implemented against the Soviet Union during the Cold War may not be productive with China. On the one hand, China has no strict political ideology that it seeks to impose on others as the Soviet Union did. On the other hand, China has free central access to the seas, unlike the Soviet Union, which was landlocked by frozen seas during most of the year.
Nevertheless, the new game of great power competition might give fresh blood to some realpolitik principles, which only pay attention to fundamental considerations such as the state’s size, location in the global system, and size of its military and economic powers. That means ideological notions or moral and ethical premises will no longer be the priority in the international geopolitical chessboard.
In general, the new great powers game will rely on three interrelated and interwoven areas: balance of power, arms race, and reformulating alliances, which can be considered as the fundamental principles of realism.
For a long time, the principle of the balance of power has always been one of the most prominent pillars of realist theory in understanding the dynamics of inter-state relations. Previously, after the end of the Cold War, the concept lost some of its luster, when there was only one unchallenged superpower. Today there is a fundamental shift in the balance of power within the international system. We are witnessing a steady rising in China’s influence. At the same time, Russia has become involved in many areas in the world, whether in Europe (the Ukrainian crisis), the Middle East (the Syrian crisis) or Africa (Libya). The rise of these powers poses a fundamental challenge to the United States’ hegemony over the international system, which forces it to act according to the principle of the balance of power to confront these rising powers challenging its global leadership.
Within these developments, the major powers will resort to strengthening their alliances. Building alliances is the first step in the balance of power game. In a multipolar regional system like the one we see in Southeast Asia, the major powers will act on the principle of preventing any country from reaching the level of absolute hegemony. Here we see how the United States moved to consolidate its relationship with Australia with the recent nuclear submarine deal. The United States will need to restore trust with its traditional allies such as Japan and South Korea. At the same time, it will work to reassure some hesitant powers such as Indonesia[viii] to join its efforts. These moves will undoubtedly irritate China, which will move to counter the U.S. It may resort to using a strategy of preemptive strikes by annexing Taiwan to its homeland territory and expanding its control over its artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The process of alignment and re-alignment reinforces mistrust within the global system. Therefore, countries seek to rely on themselves for survival. In a system of survival of the fittest, each state will pursue to strengthen its own power sources, particularly those related to hard power. Within the scope of hard power, states will enhance their arsenal of nuclear power, which may bring us back to an era of balancing nuclear powers. Still, this time, the new atomic era includes a much larger number of nuclear powers, which poses an unprecedented danger to human life. In Asia alone, there are currently four nuclear powers: China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, with other powers, such as Japan and Australia, readying to join the club. We can only imagine what an arms race would look like in a multipolar system of nuclear powers.
By the same token, competing superpowers will strengthen their sharp power. By sharp power, I am specifically referring to power enhanced by artificial intelligence and information technology. In the next decade, we will witness more cyber-attacks, AI-enhanced attacks, and use of drones and unmanned vehicles. In other words, subsequent wars will primarily occur in the domain of cyberspace and far space. It requires only a quick look at the discourse used by the political elite today to know the significance of the new domains of war and competition, as they frequently mention cyberwar and AI-equipped machines as among their worries about the danger of future wars. Indeed, we should all be worried. One only needs to look at how Israel assassinated one of Iran’s most prominent nuclear scientists using an artificial intelligence-enhanced vehicle to comprehend the real danger the new generation of war imposes on states’ security.[ix]
At the end of the day, the U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan reflected a two-dimensional trend. Firstly, it is the latest proof of the decline of liberal interventionism, a strategy the United States mainly adopted at the end of the Cold War. Secondly, the United States is readjusting its global strategy to fit with current developments on the international stage, mainly containing the rising powers which pose a real challenge to its international leadership, at the head of which is China. However, the decline of liberal hegemony does not entail that the United States will abandon liberalism overnight. Liberal values will remain active and continue to play a significant role in shaping the foreign policy of liberal powers. Nonetheless, it will be a liberalism increasingly tempered by the realpolitik necessities of a multi-polar world.
[i] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (1994). P.82.
[ii] G. John Ikenberry, “The Next Liberal Order The Age of Contagion Demands More Internationalism, Not Less,” Foregin Affairs, July/August 2020.
[iii] John J. Marsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (United States: Yale University Press).
[iv] Charles Krauthammer, “The Obama doctrine: Leading from behind,” Washington Post, August 28, 2011.
[v] Remarks by President Biden on the End of the War in Afghanistan, the White House, August 31, 2021. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/08/31/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-end-of-the-war-in-afghanistan/
[vi] Remarks by President Biden on the Drawdown of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, the White House, July 08, 2021.
[vii] Joshua Shifrinson and Stephen Wertheim, “Biden the Realist The President’s Foreign Policy Doctrine Has Been Hiding in Plain Sight,” Foregin Affairs, September 9, 2021. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2021-09-09/biden-realist
[viii] Evan A. Laksmana, “Indonesia Unprepared as Great Powers Clash in Indo-Pacific,” Foreign Policy,
August 26, 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/08/26/indonesia-china-us-geopolitics/
[ix] Ronen Bergman and Farnaz Fassihi, “The Scientist and the A.I.-Assisted, Remote-Control Killing,” NYT. September 18, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/18/world/middleeast/iran-nuclear-fakhrizadeh-assassination-israel.html