America’s challenge now more than ever before is to reassert itself in the world in a meaningful and constructive way
By Anil Madan
The chaos and mismanagement of the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan sent the fraternity of “experts” in foreign affairs, a gaggle of speculating pundits into a frenzy. Some saw it as redolent of the defeat of a superpower, others as a sure sign that the America era, the American century, yea even the American Empire was done. To some extent, this was understandable. Indeed, America seemed to be retreating, running away from its commitment and self-assumed responsibility to preserve Democracy, and abandoning its mission whatever that mission may have been if ever there was a mission.
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Even today, there are many commentators who posit that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may be attributed in large measure to his perception that America is weakened and disengaged. The adage that power fills a vacuum comes to mind.
I suggest that these views have no validity and reflect a misreading of history and a jump to conclusions based on misconstruction of former President Trump’s statements about America’s role in the world. He was, as we know, not the most articulate of men and tended to speak in incomplete sentences, in sound bites if you will.
A new American isolationism
The notion that Trump was orchestrating a new American isolationism was prompted by his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly in which he repeated to the world what he had been saying to his domestic audiences, that he was about America first and ending engagement in wars around the world. He vowed that the US would exit Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
A more careful reading of his 2017 speech and his later speeches to the UN General Assembly suggests that although he was intent on withdrawing American forces from the specific engagements mentioned, in other respects his focus was on more about what he perceived to be fairness in trade and economics than in isolationism. Thus, in his first speech, rather than any notion of withdrawal from the world stage, Trump seemed to promise a forceful, even belligerent stance when it came to ensuring that China honored its agreement to keep Hong Kong autonomous and to rein in Russia’s belligerence in Crimea and Ukraine. He vowed to maintain the sovereignty of nations and decried China’s incursions in the South China sea. As well, he railed against North Korea, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba, promising to deal with those transgressors as well as with ISIS and the problems of the Middle East.
Trump’s lament about NATO was not only that he mistakenly – as it turns out – thought the organization was obsolete in that its focus should be on terrorism rather than Russia, but also that the European members of NATO should increase their defense spending. The burden of bearing the bulk of NATO’s costs was unfair to the US, he said. True, at one time, he did threaten that the USwould withdraw from NATO, but at other times he bragged that his actionshad strengthened NATO. And presciently, he did complain that Germany’s dependence on Russia for a significant share of its energy needs left it vulnerable.
It was not a huge surprise that Trump somewhat readily agreed to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan. But whereas it is true that Trump seemed to be playing tug-of-war with himself and was naive in the extreme to assume that the Afghani government would remain viable without the backing of American troops, and the Taliban would be a progressive and accommodating successor regime, it is a mistake to treat Trump’s agreement to withdraw forces and President Biden’s actual disengagement from Afghanistan — chaotic and disorganized as it was — as some sort of American retreat from involvement in world affairs or a relinquishment of America’s sphere of influence. To the contrary, America’s challenge now more than ever before is to reassert itself in the world in a meaningful and constructive way. The alternative is too dangerous. And the dangers inherent in America’s potential disengagement will keep the nation deeply immersed in world affairs no matter how many committed isolationists may lurk in the shadows.
Events in Afghanistan soon made it clear that a superpower can seldom just walk away. Even as America tried to disengage from Afghanistan, it could not ignore the chorus of calls reminding it of its responsibility-to-be-responsible about its withdrawal. First came calls to aid Afghans who had served American forces in various capacities, and then to aid Afghan civilians fleeing their own country. Now, the pressure to ease sanctions and release monies for humanitarian purposes continues to mount.
The rallying force
Russia’s buildup of its forces on Ukraine’s border even more forcefully brought home the reality that the US could not simply disengage from the rest of the world. President Biden’s efforts to rally NATO countries and, indeed, all nations to condemn Putin’s invasion and enforce sanctions, reflect the fact that the US remains the rallying force when it comes to international security matters.
Within ten days after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began, Robert Gates, the former Director of the CIA and Secretary of Defense under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama, declared in a Washington Post op-ed piece that this event “has ended Americans’ 30-year holiday from history.” He sees China and Russia threatening the international order that has kept the peace among great powers for seven decades.
Gates is no isolationist. Rather than retrenchment, he urges that “a new American strategy must recognize that we face a global struggle of indeterminate duration against two great powers that share authoritarianism at home and hostility to the United States.”
Gates suggests that America’s alliances and the power inherent in acting together represent a crucial non-military strategy to dealing with these threats. At the same time, he underscores that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine reminds us of the importance of military power. He advocates a larger, more advanced military, with enhanced technologies and greater air power and an increased military presence in Europe and Asia.
It is true that there are many in America who want to reduce defense spending and see a new isolationism as a necessary precondition to focusing on domestic issues, a rebuilding of America itself.
But self-indulgence is a luxury that is not a realistic option. The global challenges that America faces will not go away.
The question is whether America’s leaders still believe that what happens around the world matters to the future of this country and its people. Since its founding, that belief has guided America’s policies. There is little reason to abandon it now.
The notion that America is retreating on the world stage is illusory.
Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 15 April 2022
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