Is Kabul the “end of the American era”?

25 August, 2021

Kabul airport. The iconic image of the end of the American era.
Kabul airport. The iconic image of the end of the American era.

The US is speeding up its chaotic evacuation of Kabul amid an apocalyptic chorus from its own allies. The European and American press comes daily full of articles and editorials about the “end of the American era” fed by bombastic declarations about “the debacle”. But what does the “end of the American era” mean: the end of the US as a global imperialist power capable of acting alone anywhere in the world? The end of US economic, military and ideological hegemony?

Table of Contents

The end of the American era?

Biden chose to make statements on Afghanistan by standing under an epic portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, the president of US imperial expansion in 1898. Nothing could be more symbolic of "the end of the American era." But is the US really going to take a back seat in the imperialist conflict? It could not even if its political leaders wanted it to. Imperialism is not a policy, but a phase in the life of global capital.
Biden chose to make statements on Afghanistan by standing under an epic portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, the president of US imperial expansion in 1898. Nothing could be more symbolic of “the end of the American era.” But is the US really going to take a back seat in the imperialist conflict? It could not even if its political leaders wanted it to. Imperialism is not a policy, but a phase in the life of global capital.

European leaders are not particularly given to acknowledging mistakes or defeats. That’s why Borrell calling the Afghanistan withdrawal a “catastrophe” was remarkable. But the tone was rising by the day. Laschet, a CDU chancellor candidate and by now Merkel’s most likely successor, went even further: “This is the biggest debacle NATO has known since its founding, we are facing an epochal change.”

Epochal change? The U.S. press itself was laying it out on a platter. New Yorker wondered whether this was ” the end of the American era“, Salon spoke of “empire’s collapse” picking up on the fear, expressed by Bloomberg over the previous days that the Afghan withdrawal would jeopardize the defense of Taiwan and the imperialist offensive against China.

Significantly it was clear to the Hong Kong press that this was not going to happen. No matter how much the official Beijing media were quick to describe the U.S. “humiliation,” no one in the Far East has any doubt about the fact that the exit from Afghanistan is the preamble to an even more aggressive imperialist policy in the Indo-Pacific, with Taiwan as a hot spot.

But even more enlightening to understand what is stirring in the imperialist landscape was the debate in the British parliament. Labour and Conservatives rebuked Johnson over the British military’s inability to sustain itself for a single day without the US.

Theresa May rhetorically asked where the much touted Global Britain, promised as a post-Brexit policy, was now. Johnson retorted with the obvious: the US did not consult with its NATO allies on the withdrawal or its dates, and the British – and Europeans in general – do not have the capacity to replace the US military force in a foreign location such as Afghanistan. The “end of the American era” will not be the end of the “special relationship”, but it will mean the definitive loss of one of the most cherished illusions of the British ruling classes: their ability to influence Washington by virtue of a two-way global alliance.

The “end of the American era” and the EU’s role

Laschet on the Afghanistan withdrawal and the supposed “end of the American era”: “This is the biggest debacle NATO has seen since its founding, it is an epochal change we are facing.”

The Afghan fiasco is worrying for Europe not because it will mean the “end of the American era”, but because it has once again shown that Biden’s US has no more regard for the EU than Trump did. In fact, just this week Biden broke the agreement he had reached with Merkel in June and imposed new sanctions on companies linked to Nord Stream 2, the new gas pipeline that will link Russia and Germany in a few weeks.

With the mood of the evacuation tensions running high and EU officials accusing the U.S. military of obstructing the departure of Europeans and their collaborators, European media and think tanks began commissioning analyses on both sides of the Atlantic, querying whether they can truly bring to a close an era of American unilateralism and resume sovereignty in the design of their own imperialist policies or whether what had happened, quite simply, was that the turn to China by U.S. capital had left them even more out of the imperialist game.

In France, Le Monde was pleased about the French army leaving Afghanistan in 2014 in view of the fact that…

When US officials briefed their European partners in NATO on the organization and timing of the withdrawal, attempts by a few (British, Germans, Turks) to influence the course of things were swept aside. «America first» is the tune both with Biden and Trump

It’s not like they’re calling it a done deal either. France and Britain asked the U.S. yesterday to extend evacuation operations beyond Aug. 31. Significantly, they did not do so through NATO’s internal channels or in phone calls between presidents, but at the G7 meeting. They are aware that prolonging the evacuation puts Biden in a bind and could end in a pitched battle with the Taliban. That is why they did it, to force Biden to stage the predicament and difficulties. Biden just rejected the petition.

But the first blow of the end of the American era seems to be landing on France, not the US. The economic and military support of the major EU countries for their Sahelian war is coming into question.

The summer is proving particularly bad for the French and the blue helmets in Mali. After the Russian-sponsored self-coup in the Malian government, France wrapped up the Barkhane operation. But this does not mean that its troops are leaving the country. On the contrary, they are doubling in number under a new name but that is, they will act on their own independently outside the local government.

What lesson do the military and German and even Spanish senior bureaucrats take away from Afghanistan? That they cannot repeat the U.S. formula with fewer means in the Sahel and that it is time to “squeeze” the regional governments and France.

The outrage and speeches about the “end of the American era” do not anticipate a German withdrawal, of course. On the contrary, Germans see an open door – and an urgent need – to step up military action to defend their imperialist interests. Christoph Heusgen, a senior bureaucrat who served as German ambassador to the UN and personal adviser to Merkel, made this clear in an article for the European Council on Foreign Relations, one of the leading Atlantist think tanks.

After all that went wrong in the end, it may seem logical to want to end all foreign engagement. But this is unrealistic: Germany needs to continue to take responsibility for crisis management. If we don’t, who else will? German interests are at stake: the future of millions of jobs; of the German economy, which is heavily dependent on trade and open markets.

“The end of the American era” and the transformation of the US towards a war with China

USS McCampbell destroyer, armed with guided missiles, in the Taiwan Strait. The “end of the American era” signals in the U.S. the transition to an era marked by the prospect of war with China.
USS McCampbell destroyer, armed with guided missiles, in the Taiwan Strait. The “end of the American era” signals in the U.S. the transition to an era marked by the prospect of war with China.

Although the English-speaking press is fond of making big headlines about “the end of the American era”, the US bourgeoisie is still worried about the real bottom line: that the concentration of forces in the battle against China will be interpreted by the various regional powers as an opportunity to assert their own interests leading to a real generalization of the war.

When US Vice President Kamala Harris emerges in Indonesia asserting that “the US is still a global leader” – something an unquestioned global leader has no need to say – she is in fact calling for caution from her rivals. But Washington and its associated think tanks in Europe are not fooled:

The end of the US intervention in Afghanistan confirms in a way the de-Westernization of interventionism, which is already operating in Libya and Syria […] The United States must accept that with its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is losing influence and de facto outsourcing the future of the country to regional powers.

In a special column in The Economist significantly titled “Why the end of the American empire will not be peaceful,” Niall Ferguson gave the British perspective on the end of the American era: the US is now living through what the British empire lived through a century ago. According to Ferguson, the prospect is world war and the US cannot constrain its military buildup, as Chamberlain’s Britain did, because of fiscal prudence, inflationary fear or considerations of public opinion.

For Ferguson, Taiwan has all the makings of being the new Czechoslovakia. Subjected to forced reunification by China it would inevitably escalate into a new world war for which he sees the US as less prepared than imperial Britain once was… unless it renationalizes assets and production at full speed. Precisely the strategy started by Trump and continued by Biden.

Another difference, in many ways more profound than the fiscal deficit, is the U.S. negative net international investment position (NIIP), which is just under -70% of GDP. A negative NIIP essentially means that foreign ownership of U.S. assets exceeds U.S. ownership of foreign assets.

Britain, by contrast, still had a hugely positive NIIP between the wars, despite the amounts of foreign assets that had been liquidated to finance WWI. From 1922 to 1936 it was consistently above 100% of GDP. By 1947 it had dropped to 3%.

Selling the remaining imperial silver (to be precise, forcing British investors to sell overseas assets and hand over the dollars) was one of the ways Britain paid for World War II. The United States, the great debtor empire, has no equivalent savings. It can afford to pay the cost of maintaining its dominant position in the world only by selling more of its public debt to foreigners. That is a precarious basis for superpower status.

Significantly, he does not fail to remind that Americans today, like the British in the 1930s, “are succumbing to self-hatred”, i.e., that the ideological game and the revolts of the petty bourgeoisie have reached a point that is contradictory to the imperialist interests central to US capital. The end of the American era would be manifesting itself as the end of U.S. ideological hegemony.

A crucial source of British weakness in the interwar period was the revolt of the intelligentsia against the Empire and, more generally, against traditional British values. Churchill recalled with disgust the Oxford Union debate in 1933 that had passed the motion, “This House refuses to fight for King and country.”

As he noted, “It was easy to laugh at such an episode in England, but in Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent and degenerate Britain took deep root and influenced many calculations.” This, of course, is precisely how China’s new generation of “wolf-warrior” diplomats and nationalist intellectuals view the United States today.

This last idea is picked up by none other than Francis Fukuyama:

The far greater challenge to America’s global position is internal: American society is deeply polarized and has had difficulty finding consensus on virtually anything. This polarization began over conventional policy issues such as taxes and abortion, but has since evolved into a bitter struggle over cultural identity. [….] Today roughly half of Republicans believe that Democrats pose a greater threat to the American way of life than Russia.

There is more consensus on China: both Republicans and Democrats agree that it is a threat to democratic values. But this only brings the United States so far to a much bigger test for U.S. foreign policy than Afghanistan: Taiwan.

If it is directly attacked by China. Will the United States be willing to sacrifice its sons and daughters in the name of that island’s independence Or, for that matter, would the United States risk military conflict with Russia if the latter were to invade Ukraine? These are serious questions with no easy answers, but if a reasoned debate about the U.S. national interest is conducted it will likely be through the lens of how it affects partisan strife.

Like Ferguson, Fukuyama notes that the identitarianist ideological outburst brewing in American universities over the past twenty years and brought to the political forefront by Democrats against Trump is dysfunctional for US imperialist interests and weakens its “soft power.” The intellectual revolt of the racialist and feminist petty bourgeoisie would have limited the capacity of its cultural imperialism…and domestic recruitment.

They mean that when the world watches “The White Lotus” on HBO, “The Headmistress” on Netflix or the last season of “The Good Fight” at Paramount do not see a model to envy, copy and support, but an anti-social power play between political prudery, feminist sexism and black racialism, a particular form of “self-hatred” within American power. The US would need a change in the ideologies exported by its TV platforms and its think tanks if it is to be able to maintain its global ideological hegemony and “sacrifice its sons and daughters” with a chance of success in the coming war.

What does “the end of the American era” actually mean?

US fleet in the China Sea. The supposed "end of the American era" is in reality the beginning of a stage in which the war with China - which would be worldwide - is already directly recognized as the horizon of global imperialist conflict.
US fleet in the China Sea. The supposed “end of the American era” is in reality the beginning of a stage in which the war with China – which would be worldwide – is already directly recognized as the horizon of global imperialist conflict.

The supposed “end of the American era” is actually the journalistic name for a process we have been chronicling for the past several years:

1 The US is heading for a global war with China, but does not have the economic capacity to militarily defend its imperialist interests in every corner of the globe as it prepares for it.

Keeping its military out of the battles in the region the Anglo-Saxons call the “Middle East” has become a priority and a strategic necessity.

2 It wants to focus its military pressure on China’s borders and abandon areas where the advantage brought by U.S. military presence is lower from the standpoint of the war to come. It inevitably seeks to discipline reluctant allies into forming a bloc and divide control of the most troubled regions among its members without losing global hegemony.

3 But this is not an easy task. The dominant trends today, as we have seen, are centrifugal forces. It is no coincidence that the most pro-American countries until the day before yesterday have been the first to bring out in procession the scarecrow of “the end of the American era”.

4 What is foreseeable is that “de-Westernization” of regional conflicts which, with the unedifying example of Syria and Libya, the American think tanks keep pointing out. Conflicts contained until now, such as those of Morocco and Algeria in the Maghreb, are likely to be reactivated. Yesterday Algers broke diplomatic relations with Rabat. And South America will increasingly reflect the tensions over mineral resources and the fight for control of trade routes.

5 Under this general movement, the thinking heads of the US and British bourgeoisie are putting the accent on what should be “changed at home”. Far from thinking of the “end of the American era” as a stage of social transformations, it is a matter of distilling an ideology useful for imperialist warfare. Something as powerful as anti-fascism was in its day, allowing to “sacrifice their sons and daughters” and to exert attraction on the population of their potential allies.

6 All Anglophone and Chinese analysts point to Taiwan as the possible near-term trigger for a head-on war between the US and China. Anglophones expect a Chinese invasion and see it as the moment when the U.S. could put everything on the line with a better chance of victory than the odds it would get were the US to wait for an additional five to ten years. The Chinese repeat the script of the Chinese party-state’s furious nationalism.

But in reality Taiwan is far from the perfect scenario for the Americans and the timing is far from acceptable to Beijing. Wahington has not even managed to effectively align South Korea and Japan against China… and it is still far from succeeding in imposing its strategy on Europe. And, above all, it does not count on the fact that China’s strategy is not about igniting a world war just a few kilometers from its shores, but to first consolidate its global imperialist strategy by multiplying hotbeds of conflict far from its continental territory.

7 What Kabul definitely opens is not “the end of the American era”, but a stage in which world war is now directly recognized as the main prospect and in which we will see a new string of highly internationalized regional wars, an aggravation of the tendencies towards trade war and protectionism – largely developed through the “Green Deal“-will be accompanied by an ideological renewal ever more openly linked to the prospect of framing workers for the war effort.