There are things being left unsaid that concern the role of the United States after the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the tragic consequences that follow from it, which are still unfolding. Especially in Italy, where Draghi’s silence, Di Maio’s mumblings and the big media that are now pretending to be post-Atlantic are woefully insufficient.
What is happening in that distant country has made visible and inescapable a trend that has been going on for years, which began with the defeat suffered in Vietnam, the outcome of which was in many ways similar to what is unfolding in Kabul: the decline of the relative power of the United States compared to the rest of the world.
It is a phenomenon of historic dimensions, which, because of its tragic potential, does not leave room for denials, not even partial denials, nor for indulging in schadenfreude—the barbaric pleasure that the suffering of one’s adversary can offer—on the part of those who traditionally see the great North American state as the main, if not only, root cause of the world’s ills. Suffice it to recall that the First World War—the one that the devotees of Realpolitik (for one paradigmatic example, Henry Kissinger) avoid including in their analyses, the one that no government of the time had wanted—was largely due to the almost simultaneous collapse of two empires, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman. This was because those systemic collapses created a power vacuum that was filled by initiatives and clashes of small and large actors, at first latent or contained, then no longer manageable.
Therefore, such developments are as dangerous as—and even more so than—the ecological deterioration of the planet, because they could have more rapid repercussions. The uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons is an example. Don’t be misled by the examples of Saigon and Kabul. Imperial crises are not only manifested as military defeats. They are also, perhaps above all, the result of an internal will that is no longer willing to bear the human and economic costs of an imperial policy.
The defeat suffered by the United States in Vietnam was the result of the combination of the Vietnamese people’s uncompromising defense of their independence and the refusal of the majority of the American people to continue bearing the costs of that war.
Joe Biden can and must be blamed for the obviously slapdash planning of the withdrawal of his troops. But one cannot blame him for the decision that followed the will of the vast majority, in the ruling class as well as in public opinion—a notable point on which he agreed with his predecessor and otherwise bitter enemy—to put an end to a commitment that had stratospheric economic costs—at least $2 trillion—and negative political results.
The U.S. military power and presence seems unaffected by the overall decline, still greater than that of the next five most-armed countries in the world put together. And that explains the need for a believable enemy—“a credible threat”—that would justify its costs after the end of the Cold War, replacing the latter with the War on Terror, for which the attack on the Towers had an accelerating effect, and which also explains the succession of victorious military interventions—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria—that ended in as many political failures. Hence the resurfacing of that isolationist impulse that constitutes a continuous and distinctive characteristic of a country protected by two oceans as well as by its military power, and in which that universal democratic vocation which once could be taken for granted counts fewer devotees today than in the countries where the U.S. was supposed to deliver its blessings.
The influence of the military-industrial complex remains, as denounced by President and General Eisenhower, which explains the continuing temptation to react militarily, without regard for allies and NATO’s existential justifications. The disruptive new element is constituted by the presence of an internal institutional crisis, whose outcome is still uncertain, in the context of the political defeat, which has dramatic manifestations mostly abroad.
It is a fact that the storming of Congress cannot be dismissed as the bravado of a group of outlaws, egged on by a president unworthy of the office, because at least a third of the U.S. electorate is convinced that the election was stolen; an accusation that can’t be definitively put to rest because of the absurdity of the electoral rules and mechanisms in force, which Biden is unable to modify because he lacks a large enough majority in the Senate.
Added to this is the staunch hostility of the Supreme Court, the final arbiter of all electoral challenges. Furthermore, there is also the stifling of the voices of truth, such as those of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning—a policy that has continued with the new administration so far—similar to that of Daniel Ellsberg at the time of the defeat in Vietnam. In other words, in this phase, both the “checks and balances” to executive power and the universality of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and the search for truth to all, have disappeared. From this point of view, the exclusion of Donald Trump from the main online platforms is, paradoxically, another sign of weakness.
Edward Gibbon, the great eighteenth-century historian of the Roman Empire, points to its inability to respect the rules it had imposed on its territories as the beginning of its decline.
It is not a time for schadenfreude. This is where realities and values come into play that are affecting the lives of everyone in a world on the verge of self-destruction, prey to a concentration of financial powers that are nullifying institutional roles, democratic or otherwise, inducing migrations to escape from material and political conditions arising from a crisis of Biblical proportions, with a technological revolution underway that is threatening to take away the meaning of work as we have understood it. Understanding the dangers of the waning of a hegemony that has lasted over a century means distinguishing the benefits that have been derived from it and what is still valuable to safeguard and emulate.
What responsibilities does this imply for those closest to us? First of all, we need to be aware of what is happening, which is particularly difficult in a country that is as submissive to the will of others as ours is. There is an urgent need for an independent strategy from an increasingly united Europe, but also for a taking over of responsibility for safeguarding what remains of a democratic heritage shared with the great power in decline. I beg the reader’s pardon if that doesn’t sound like much.
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