As the United States leaves Afghanistan in chaos, despite repeated warnings from home and abroad, four doyens of international relations - Robert D. Kaplan, Henry Kissinger, Francis Fukuyama, and Niall Ferguson - wrote in The Economist about whether the United States will be able to keep its influence in global politics intact in the future. An excerpt of their articles have been published here.
'A favourable geography gives US the freedom to make calamitous mistakes'
Robert D. Kaplan
In his piece in The Economist, author Robert D. Kaplan identified several reasons why the geography of the United States places it in a better position than most of its rivals, allowing it to maintain an imperial-like position with extensive economic and military commitments across the globe.
The first reason he gives is that it has an abundance of water resources and is not surrounded by powerful or hostile neighbours.
According to him, "Notwithstanding the pathologies of this tighter, more interconnected world - terrorism, viral pandemics, ransomware - America, unlike China, is self-sufficient in hydrocarbons…The southern border, which American conservatives wail about, involves only poor migrants, and not the soldiers of two armies facing each other like on China's southern frontier with India."
"That geography helps explain why America can miscalculate and fail in successive wars, yet completely recover, unlike smaller and less well-situated countries which have little margin for error. Thus, stories about American decline are overrated," he added.
The fact that the United States is currently facing a slew of unwanted internal threats, including wealth inequality, has little bearing on this position.
In the words of the author, "America's geographical bounty still provides it with an edge against great-power adversaries. This is true despite internal threats. They include challenges to America's social cohesion from new technology and wealth inequality that geography cannot wholly defend against (and which roil other countries too, notably China and Russia, which vie for "great power" status)."
This geographical advantage, however, has its limitations. With domestic tensions exposed, it may be unable to save the United States from all of the crises that it is likely to face in the near future. Thus, the United States must strive to build and maintain good relations with other countries.
Robert said, "America's large and well-endowed landmass certainly helps in a drawbridge-up environment of protectionism. Yet the country still requires allies and credible deterrents in a smaller and claustrophobic world where Russia threatens Ukraine and China threatens Taiwan."
He added, "Geographical bounty cannot solve every problem. It is, as Morgenthau put it, a crucial component of power among others."
'The US has torn itself apart because of its inability to define attainable goals'
Former US Secretary of State
The former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger discussed some of the reasons he believed contributed to the failure of the United States in Afghanistan.
To begin with, he states that when the United States endangers the lives of its military, puts its prestige at stake, and makes decisions concerning the future of other countries, it must do so with a combination of strategic and political objectives, which it has always failed to do.
He said, "The United States has torn itself apart in its counterinsurgent efforts because of its inability to define attainable goals and to link them in a way that is sustainable by the American political process. The military objectives have been too absolute and unattainable and the political ones too abstract and elusive."
"The failure to link them to each other has involved America in conflicts without definable terminal points and caused us internally to dissolve unified purpose in a swamp of domestic controversies," he added.
Second, it failed to understand that changing Afghanistan into a modern state with democratic institutions and a government that ruled in accordance with the provisions of a constitution could not have prevented the re-establishment of terrorist bases.
He stated, "The destruction of Taliban bases was essentially achieved. But nation-building in a war-torn country absorbed substantial military forces. The Taliban could be contained but not eliminated. And the introduction of unfamiliar forms of government weakened political commitment and enhanced already rife corruption."
Third, by being overly focused on the destruction of the Taliban when they should have been focusing on containment, the US had overlooked a viable alternative combining achievable goals.
Indeed, as the author has argued, "The politico-diplomatic course might have explored one of the special aspects of the Afghan reality: that the country's neighbours - even when adversarial with each other and occasionally to us - feel deeply threatened by Afghanistan's terrorist potential."
He added, "Would it have been possible to coordinate some common counterinsurgency efforts? To be sure, India, China, Russia and Pakistan often have divergent interests. A creative diplomacy might have distilled common measures for overcoming terrorism in Afghanistan."
Because of its global importance, the United States will not be able to avoid its responsibilities in combating terrorism anytime soon. To avoid failure in the future, it can develop and implement a comprehensive strategy that is compatible with domestic and global needs.
According to Kissinger, "How to combat, limit, and overcome terrorism enhanced and supported by countries with self-magnifying and ever more sophisticated technology will remain a global challenge."
He added, "It must be resisted by national strategic interests together with whatever international structure we are able to create by a commensurate diplomacy."
'America survived an earlier, humiliating defeat'
In a recent article published by The Economist, renowned political scientist Francis Fukuyama shared his thoughts on the future of American hegemony.
The hegemonic status of the United States peaked between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the financial crisis in 2007-09, which has been declining since then, with some other countries making notable progress in various sectors, according to the author.
He stated, "The country was dominant in many domains of power back then- military, economic, political and cultural. The height of American hubris was the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when it hoped to be able to remake not just Afghanistan (invaded two years before) and Iraq, but the whole of the Middle East."
"The degree of unipolarity in this period has been relatively rare in history, and the world has been reverting to a more normal state of multipolarity ever since, with China, Russia, India, Europe and other centres gaining power relative to America," he added.
Addressing the abrupt withdrawal of the United States troops from Afghanistan, he said, "Afghanistan's ultimate effect on geopolitics is likely to be small. America survived an earlier, humiliating defeat when it withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, but it quickly regained its dominance within a little more than a decade, and today it works with Vietnam to curb Chinese expansionism. America still has many economic and cultural advantages that few other countries can match."
However, the most serious threat the global standing of the United States faces today is that its society is deeply polarised, making it difficult for people to reach consensus on nearly everything. The ongoing pandemic has only made it more severe.
According to Fukuyama, "This polarisation started over conventional policy issues like taxes and abortion, but since then has metastasised into a bitter fight over cultural identity. The demand for recognition on the part of groups that feel they have been marginalised by elites was something I identified 30 years ago as an Achilles heel of modern democracy."
"Normally, a big external threat such as a global pandemic should be the occasion for citizens to rally around a common response; the covid-19 crisis served rather to deepen America's divisions, with social distancing, mask-wearing and now vaccinations being not seen as public-health measures but as political markers," he added.
The existing polarisation has also affected the attractiveness of American institutions and society to people all over the world.
As the author pointed out, "It is hard for anyone to say that American democratic institutions have been working well in recent years, or that any country should imitate America's political tribalism and dysfunction. The hallmark of a mature democracy is the ability to carry out peaceful transfers of power following elections, a test the country failed spectacularly on January 6th."
The United States should not seek to reclaim its former hegemonic position. It should instead work with like-minded countries to institutionalise democratic values around the world for a better future.
However, as the author correctly points out, "Whether it can do this will depend not on short-term actions in Kabul, but on recovering a sense of national identity and purpose at home."
'The end of America's empire won't be peaceful'
In a recent Economist article, historian Niall Ferguson revisited Britain's history and compared it to America's current social, political, and economic conditions to determine whether the latter's days of dominance will end in the same way that the former's did a century ago. He reached the conclusion that the end of America's empire is likely to invite wider conflict for several reasons.
To begin, the patterns of growth in Britain's public debt at the beginning of the twentieth century and the current state of America's federal debt are similar.
As the author pointed out, "Britain's public debt after the first world war rose from 109% of GDP in 1918 to just under 200% in 1934. America's federal debt is different in important ways, but it is comparable in magnitude. It will reach nearly 110% of GDP this year, even higher than its previous peak in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that it could exceed 200% by 2051."
Second, just as the British economy was overtaken by not only America's, but also Germany's and the Soviet Union by the 1930s, America is now facing a similar problem due to China.
Ferguson stated, "America today has a similar problem of relative decline in economic output. On the basis of purchasing-power parity, which allows for the lower prices of many Chinese domestic goods, the GDP of China caught up with that of America in 2014. On a current-dollar basis, the American economy is still bigger, but the gap is projected to narrow. This year China's current-dollar GDP will be around 75% of America's. By 2026 it will be 89%."
He added, "It is no secret that China poses a bigger economic challenge than the Soviet Union once did, since the latter's economy was never more than 44% the size of America's during the cold war. Nor is it classified information that China is seeking to catch up with America in many technological domains with national-security applications, from artificial intelligence to quantum computing."
Third, the negative net international investment position (NIIP) of the United States also raises serious concerns about whether it will be able to keep its superpower status in the future.
In the words of Ferguson, "One other difference - in many ways more profound than the fiscal deficit - is the negative net international investment position (NIIP) of the United States, which is just under -70% of GDP. A negative NIIP essentially means that foreign ownership of American assets exceeds American ownership of foreign assets. By contrast, Britain still had a hugely positive NIIP between the wars, despite the amounts of overseas assets that had been liquidated to finance the first world war. From 1922 until 1936 it was consistently above 100% of GDP. By 1947 it was down to 3%."
"Selling off the remaining imperial silver (to be precise, obliging British investors to sell overseas assets and hand over the dollars) was one of the ways Britain paid for the second world war. America, the great debtor empire, does not have an equivalent nest-egg. It can afford to pay the cost of maintaining its dominant position in the world only by selling yet more of its public debt to foreigners. That is a precarious basis for superpower status," he added.
Finally, the possibility of further unnecessary wars in the future jeopardises the current dominant status of the United States.
He stated, "And yet it is all too easy to see a sequence of events unfolding that could lead to another unnecessary war, most probably over Taiwan, which Mr Xi covets and which America is (ambiguously) committed to defend against invasion- a commitment that increasingly lacks credibility as the balance of military power shifts in East Asia. (The growing vulnerability of American aircraft carriers to Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles such as the DF-21D is just one problem to which the Pentagon lacks a good solution)."
He added, "If American deterrence fails and China gambles on a coup de main, the United States will face the grim choice between fighting a long, hard war - as Britain did in 1914 and 1939 - or folding, as happened over Suez in 1956."