What does it say we couldn’t achieve this?
“America’s Great Retreat,” Robin Wright writes in the New Yorker, “is at least as humiliating as the retreat of the Soviet Union in 1989, an event that contributed to the end of their empire and communist rule.” She believes it could serve as “a bookend for the era of US world power”.
Allister Heath, editor of the Sunday telegraphHe argues that “the botched exit is just the latest sign that the American era is coming to an end.”
Francis Fukuyama says the Kabul images “conjured up an important point in world history when America turned away from the world”, although he believes that “the end of the American era had come much earlier”.
Our defeat in Afghanistan and the dire situation we have placed ourselves in in recent days are not glossed over. The withdrawal is a blow to our counter-terrorism capabilities, our prestige and our geopolitical position. Even President Joe Biden’s argument for withdrawing is based on the idea that the war was a catastrophic failure. He says we can now focus better on controlling rivals like Russia and China, although the easy path out of Afghanistan is no guarantee that we will approach these other challenges wisely or decisively.
With all of this, however, no one in the world has the formidable advantages of the United States, still surpassing everyone else, including China, on every major metric. We have the best paper of any other counties, proof of the enduring sources of our power.
Great powers don’t just go away. The British could be forgiven for thinking it would only go downhill after losing their American colonies in a long war that their traditional rivals France and Spain joined. Instead, British imperial power had not yet reached its peak.
Our departure from Saigon in 1975, up to that point the touchstone of modern American defeat, was followed by communist advances across the map. But within 20 years we would win the Cold War and become an unprecedented global power.
We are still blessed with an exceptionally favorable geographic location as a continental state with friendly neighbors to the north and south, access to two oceans, vast oil and gas reserves, and vast amounts of farmland. It is an incredibly cheap and secure base for projecting power.
We produce around a quarter of global GDP, a proportion that has held up over the years.
We spend much more than any other country on our military, which is responsible for an astonishing 40 percent of all military spending. It was ridiculous that Biden would brag about the evacuation, but it is true that no one else would have been able to evacuate so many people so quickly under such difficult conditions.
We dominate the list of top universities in the world. If American cultural power has declined over the decades, it is still sizeable.
There is no country that people would rather come to. A Taliban spokesman interviewed on Iranian television rightly pointed out why so many people wanted to flee Afghanistan on American planes and rightly pointed out that there would also be a rush to the exits there if American planes Would bring people from Iran.
Although foreign countries consider us bumpy and arrogant, they are not motivated to balance our power. Rather, the story of the last 60 years consists of countries allying with us to protect them from threatening regional powers.
In his book Unrivaled, Michael Beckley of Tufts University and the American Enterprise Institute refutes the notion that China is overtaking the United States.
American workers are more productive than workers elsewhere and far more productive than workers in China. “China’s labor productivity has improved since the 1970s,” writes Beckley, “but remains half of Turkey, lower than that of Mexico and roughly on par with that of Brazil.”
We have demographic challenges, but other major powers, especially China, will age faster. Over the century, Beckley said, China will lose half of its workforce, or 470 million people.
Our alliance system is a huge force multiplier, a network that, according to Beckley, “comprises 25 percent of the world’s population and accounts for 75 percent of global GDP and defense spending.” China’s formal ally, however, is North Korea.
None of this is to deny that the United States today is plagued by self-doubt, toxic politics, and institutional failure.
Suffice it to say that it will take a lot more time and folly if we are determined to gamble away our global position. Afghanistan is not an end, it doesn’t even have to be the beginning of the end. Another downward move from here, like the disastrous withdrawal from Kabul itself, will be a choice, not an inevitability