The debacle in Afghanistan is just the latest blow to the Western alliance
Great powers rise and fall, and seemingly impregnable empires eventually crumble to dust. Today, China is booming, power is shifting from West to East, and the United States suffers from internal divisions, strategic excess and a crisis of confidence. The war in Afghanistan ended in total defeat, the withdrawal was a humiliation and the evacuation a disgrace. Yet it is too early to dampen American power. The United States remains the world’s greatest military force, its economic superpower, and the instigator of innovation and discovery.
But America is supposed to run the free world. And what we have come to call “the West” – the liberal democracies and open societies of North America, Europe and Australasia – is fragmenting. American leadership, for the most part unchallenged since 1945, is now contested in Europe and dismissed as a burden by many in America itself.
Afghanistan is the last cause of division. The decision 20 years ago to remove the Taliban from power was made after September 11, when the United States invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Article 5 guarantees collective security among NATO members: an attack on a state means that all must stand up for it.
Afghanistan was a NATO mission. Yet when President Biden withdrew American forces, he barely consulted with his allies. He says he discussed his decision at the G7 in Cornwall in June. But Britain and others say the nature of the pullout – not securing Kabul and removing key logistical support for Afghan soldiers – has not been agreed upon. As one European ambassador said privately: “Our American allies have played a terrible trick on us.
The Americans could respond that with NATO, the Europeans have played their own tricks for years. Because it is not just Donald Trump who is furious against European free-riding while the United States is spending huge sums on its army. EU countries spend an average of 1.4% of their annual income on defense, compared to 3.4% in the United States.
Free-riding doesn’t stop there. Last year, as international pressure mounted on China over Covid-19, Hong Kong and its treatment of Uyghurs, the EU signed a comprehensive investment agreement with Beijing. The problem wasn’t just that the new Biden administration had asked the EU to wait before signing the treaty; is that European negotiators took advantage of the collective pressure on China and the Chinese eagerness to undermine a post-Trump EU / US alliance to secure concessions in the deal.
Add to that the American concern over the Nord Stream 2, the pipeline that will supply Germany with Russian gas under the Baltic Sea, cutting off Ukraine and making Kiev more vulnerable to Russian aggression, or European rumors about the fact of not choosing sides – and even seeing the equivalence – between America and China, and the extent of the differences between the EU and the United States become even clearer.
But it would be a grave, tragic and historic mistake to allow such differences to form an insurmountable chasm. In a world of increasing unpredictability and instability, the West must remember the values and interests shared by its members.
The United States and Europe will differ in many ways, but as liberal democracies and open societies, they want to contain aggressive and authoritarian rivals, defend international institutions, and maintain the world trading system. They want to protect individual rights, commercial freedoms, their democratic systems and their own strategic autonomy. Sometimes these issues will pit against each other, but as hostile states like Russia and China become more assertive, Western states will have to work more together.
Part of the problem is complacency and a tendency to believe our own rhetoric in the West. In Britain we seem to believe that there are truly free world markets. In Europe, politicians act as if the EU has truly become a full-fledged superpower. Democrats in America mostly talk about a liberal rules-based international order, as if such an order could exist spontaneously. In reality, the world order is a world hierarchy imposed by the economic and military force of the United States. But it is increasingly contested by others, and many American politicians and voters are reluctant to continue paying the bills.
Consider the growing threats against the West, and the need to confront them together becomes immediately evident. On China, Europe is perhaps more concerned with its desire to maintain its exports, but like America, it must deal with industrial espionage, cyber attacks and diplomatic pressure in international institutions. If the West takes Chinese cyber threats seriously, it will need to reform the US and European telecommunications markets to ensure local capabilities and reduce reliance on companies like Huawei.
The same goes for other threats, from Russia to Islamist terror, and from climate change and migration crises to cybersecurity and new pandemics. Factors such as geography, demographics, and relative economic strengths and weaknesses will all determine the extent of danger and the urgency to address it for both parties. Nonetheless, these are threats that we have a common interest in addressing.
Doing so requires restoring lost confidence and an ambitious plan to build new institutions, reform old ones, and ensure that together Western governments have the capacities they need to protect their citizens. This can include new treaties on internet governance, reaffirmed commitments to the fight against terrorism, a reformed World Trade Organization, a common understanding of how we should approach Russia and China, and new agreements. cooperation in the fight against cybercrime, pandemics and people. smuggling and illegal immigration.
On climate change, governments should try to agree on what is right for Western countries to assume beyond goals for the rest of the world. And we need a clear commitment to maintain capabilities in the West: military and security capabilities, but also strategic economic and trade capabilities.
The Afghan debacle could prove to be another step on the road to schism, decline and weakness. But that could become the moment when our leaders realize they need to revitalize the Western alliance. Sometimes failure can lead to other failures. But sometimes from failure can emerge new determination, purpose and success.