US foreign policy as we know it is about to change

US strategy on China will transform the global economy
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After twenty years of occupation, US forces are pulling out of Afghanistan. President Biden has set 31 August as the last day of withdrawal. The absence of US presence will no doubt have serious repercussions for the country and the region. Already the Taliban have aggressively taken over large swathes of land, encouraged by the vacuum left by American troops. On Sunday 8 August alone, the Taliban seized control of three major capital cities in the north. Thousands of civilians are fleeing for Kabul seeking desperate refuge from atrocities. But as Afghanistan convulses in a bloody power-shift, there is something additional to consider. For US foreign policy, this moment could represent a fundamental change in direction.

Since 1991 the US has enjoyed its position as the lone superpower. Until recently it had no great power rival that could challenge it. Being able to impose its will across the globe, there was an opportunity to further intervene in other countries’ affairs for America’s interest. It was thought that encouraging the spread of democracy, economic interdependence, and the governance of international institutions would help promote peace. This new ‘liberal’ foreign policy dominated American thinking for years.

Afghanistan was no exception. Installing a working democracy in place of the Taliban regime was a key component of US strategy. Washington expected that a democratic Afghanistan would help subdue the terrorist threat originating from within the Middle East. Such intervention clearly failed in its purpose. Military presence did not remove Islamic extremism in the country, and a more democratic Afghan government is about to be taken over by the autocracy of the Taliban. Afghanistan, along with Iraq, Libya and Syria represent a failed enterprise of nation-building and social engineering that has resulted in trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost.

Liberal values in foreign policy are not prized as highly as they once were if US troops are withdrawing from an imminently less democratic and more extremist Afghanistan. For decision makers in Washington, ideas like democratic nation-building are being jettisoned in favour of more pressing considerations. Attention to America’s share of world power and realpolitik are likely to be the hallmarks of the new foreign policy.

This is primarily because of developments further to the East. Among the political elite in 2011, there were signs that an alternative strand of thinking was rising parallel to liberalism. Hillary Clinton who was then Sectary of State in the Obama administration spoke of “the pivot to Asia”. And while no serious commitment to the East Asian theatre away from the Middle East was realised at the time, China is increasingly becoming an area for strategic concern. Washington fears that if China displaces America as the most powerful nation on earth, it will pose major security threats to the US. Keeping the balance of power in America’s advantage will be the fulcrum of policy making. Not whether the Middle East is democratic enough.

There will be no full-scale abandonment of moral sentiments in foreign policy either. The Biden administration is using airstrikes in a bid to slow down the Taliban advance and their hold over the country. But a large-scale deployment of ground forces is out of the question. US public opinion, tired of committing loved-ones and fellow citizens to a far away land wrought with danger, has certainly held some sway over the shift in approach as well.

The focus in the coming years will be to a provide a solid fiscal base to preserve military superiority. President Biden has requested a Defense department 2022 budget of $715 billion. It includes a $5.1 billion allocation for its Pacific Defense Initiative – the Pentagon programme that aims to contain China’s power. The sequester for money and resources is urgent. With two rate rises expected by the Federal Reserve in 2023, the Pentagon must seize the initiative to minimise the cost of a bolstered military.

Economic competition with China is also more likely. Providing a credible alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative will help swerve finances away from China’s defence programmes. Further naval deployments in the South China Sea, and deeper strategic cooperation between frightened Asian allies like Taiwan, Japan and India will be the new priorities.

The Biden administration is deeply worried by a rising China. For Washington now, American foreign policy is about power, not liberalism.

Cover photo: Andre Kilmke/Unsplash via Wix