The Western ruling classes’ response to the entirely predictable Taliban victory in Afghanistan is astonishing—combining arrogance, self-deception, and panic. In the United States this is muted by partisanship.
The liberal interventionists in the Democratic Party don’t want to weaken Joe Biden when he is under concerted, if hypocritical, attack from the Republicans. After all it was Donald Trump who agreed with the Taliban in 2020 to withdraw US troops.
It is in western Europe that the denunciations of the US withdrawal have free rein. The arrogance of liberal imperialism was summed up perfectly by Constanze Stelzenmuller of the Brooking Institution thinktank.
She said, “The effort was not all in vain. Al-Qaeda were driven out. The lives of many were immeasurably improved—above all, those of women. There is now an Afghan civil society that is educated and connected with the world as never before. And it has our cell phone numbers.”
As if Afghans needed the benign guidance of Nato—now presumably continued via WhatsApp—to become social and political actors.
Stelzenmuller praises the asinine House of Commons speech by Tory MP Tom Tugendhat. He has repeatedly demanded to know why Britain, alongside other European members of Nato, didn’t try to keep up the occupation.
Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel don’t agree about much, but they both made it clear that a continued military presence in Afghanistan was impossible without US support.
France and Britain initiated the Nato intervention in Libya in 2011, but soon ran out of weapons stocks and needed the Pentagon to step in and take over the heavy lifting.
As the very establishment International Relations scholar Lawrence Freedman tweeted, “The UK and France mounted a joint operation in the Middle East in 1956 [to retake the Suez Canal] which they had to abandon because the US wouldn’t support it. There is no new strategic reality that has suddenly been disclosed.”
It is indeed Europe’s military dependence on the US that gives rise to panic in the continent’s capitals. European elites are worrying that a US preoccupied with its domestic problems and the rise of China will no longer provide them with military security, notably against Russia.
Versions of the same anxiety have existed since the late 1940s. The creation of Nato was about committing the US to maintaining a military presence in western Europe. And it was about brigading together the US and its allies against the Soviet Union and its east European client states.
It’s true that strategic competition with China is the US’s first foreign policy priority. But this has been the case ever since the liberal hero Barack Obama’s “tilt” towards Asia a decade ago.
Another “strategic reality” that hasn’t changed is that the global dominance of US imperialism depends on keeping the other advanced capitalist states in western Europe and east Asia under its thumb. It continues to have military bases in Britain, Germany, Japan, and South Korea.
In the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, it was the US that pushed the Europeans to impose tougher sanctions on Moscow. It has been leading Nato exercises close to the EU’s borders with Russia.
The Afghan debacle—and especially Biden’s failure to keep the Europeans informed—has provoked more chatter about the EU developing greater “strategic autonomy”.
European commissioner Thierry Breton told the Financial Times that “the EU has ‘learnt the hard way’ from the Afghanistan crisis about the need to build up its own defence capabilities and develop the ‘attributes of hard power’.”
But what’s under discussion is the development of a 5,000-strong European “rapid reaction force”. This isn’t going to scare Russia, the world’s second nuclear power, with a million-strong armed forces equipped with upgraded weapons systems.
The truth is that, despite the frictions between them, the US and Europe need each other. Their problem is that they represent a shrinking share of global economic output. The US remains overwhelmingly the greatest military power, but the fall of Kabul has reminded everyone of its vulnerability.