The professional pundits of foreign policy are busy discussing the parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam. But the fact is that the US was a whole different country at the end of the Vietnam war: it was deadlocked with the USSR in a struggle for world domination, its internal politics were beset with the winds of change, welfare statism and economic growth were on the rise, and the new directions that the polity of the ‘Empire’ would take were being thrashed out.
At present, the social upheavals due to racial tensions, the extreme shifts in the politics of both the Republicans and Democrats, and the challenge presented by the Dragon in the East, do make it appear as though we are back in the 60's and the 70's. But we can sense that we are dealing with a very different America. Like President Joe Biden, the US is growing old, its grip on power is waning, its ability and commitment to expanding and maintaining its vast Empire is declining.
First of all, let us look at America's finances. The US government's deficits and borrowing have been consistently high since the Great Recession. It is expected that the US' debt-to-GDP ratio will reach 277% by 2029, surpassing Japan's 272%, making it the country with the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world. Corporate debt, i.e. the debt of the real gods of America, has been steadily increasing as well. It has reached a high of nearly $11 trillion this year, causing grave concern for the Federal Reserve.
The result is that the huge expenses that are needed to maintain America's military might become exceedingly irrational. A quick look at the numbers from the last ten years would indicate that despite the Iraq War having been brought to an end by the Obama administration in 2011, the military budget of the United States has grown by nearly $80 billion. A third of the budget of the Department of Defense is spent on personnel and maintenance, which will probably rise by 100% by 2024 due to retirement and medical care costs. Moreover, the Department of Defense estimates that it is operating with 21% excess capacity in all its bases, since Congressmen cannot afford to allow their constituents to lose the jobs that these bases provide.
It becomes simply impossible to make sense of this kind of wasting of money when the US national debt is touching $22 trillion. It also goes to show that America's massive military might is built on a Jenga of dollar bills that simply cannot withstand that kind of weight. So, when America under the Trump administration brokered the deal with the Taliban and moved to exit swiftly from Afghanistan under the Biden administration, it did so just like that rich bully whose daddy had just been declared bankrupt.
On the corporate side of things, the burgeoning debt signals its own kind of decline, i.e., the dependence on a chain of debt to sustain the investment and expenditure activities instead of consumer spending. When this is seen along with a real average wage that has the same purchasing power as in 1979, one can see that American corporations are not delivering on the free-market capitalist promise of a market economy that works for everyone. The consequence is that the power and ability of corporations to control American affairs and to benefit from the exploitation of the resources that form part of its Empire is dwindling. The very fact that workers are refusing to take up jobs despite there being a demand in the labour market is symptomatic of the extent to which American corporations are losing their god-like status.
None of these present day crises can compare with the situation prevailing at the time of the Vietnam War. The total cost of the said war when compared with the $2 trillion cost of the Afghanistan War was a paltry $738 billion, when adjusted for inflation. The debt-to-GDP ratio actually decreased during the years of the Vietnam War. It stood at 43% in 1965, when America entered the war, and reduced to 32% in 1975, when America exited Vietnam.
Not only does America stand materially diminished in its ability to engage in the enterprise of Empire, its influence over its allies is waning as well.
Allies are the grease which keep the war machines of an empire well-oiled, they are the support system that holds up its edifice. The British Empire in India was built on the Indian aristocracy and financial class switching loyalties from the Mughals to John Bull. It was Oxbridge-educated Indian civil servants, politicians, lawyers, etc., who ran the Empire in India and beyond. The British Empire began to falter the moment the elite class of Indians decided to no longer support the British Raj. From Gandhi to Nehru to Jinnah to Ambedkar, an overwhelming number of India and Pakistan's founding fathers were from elite Indian families, with a quintessentially British upper class education. In fact, it was this upper class education that exposed these leaders to ideas such as liberty, equality, and democracy, which they then used to dismantle the ideological core of the Empire.
America is losing the allies that make its Empire possible in a manner that is no different from the way in which the British lost their allies in India. In an attempt to bombard its allies with its own ideology, America has made its politics, food, music, and culture a global spectacle and phenomenon. From fast food joints to Marvel movies, America's allies, i.e. 'the West', are bombarded with assertions of the Empire's superiority. While at the time of the Vietnam War this cultural messaging united the West in service of the supposedly rules-based, international world order championed by America, it is now coming back to bite America in the behind.
As American media and American culture infect the world, the conflicts and the issues that plague that culture seize the imagination of its allies. As America struggles so heavily with its nationalistic propaganda on one hand and the consequent backlash against the same on the other, the same point of conflict is assuming the centre-stage in very many Western countries.
In Britain this phenomenon has led to Brexit and a renewed call for Scottish independence. In France, we see the rise of Marine Lé Pen. In Germany, we see the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland. These nationalistic movements question the American hegemony, they call out the skewed nature of the relationship the West has with the US. Serious strains have developed in the 'special relationship' between the UK and the US. In fact, China has even proposed an Africa Quad with France and Germany. The fact of the matter is that American nationalism and populism has made its allies swerve towards their own kind of nationalism and populism as they begin to ask themselves whether accepting American hegemony should really be such an important priority.
Moreover, it's not like America is trying to keep its allies in mind when formulating its foreign policy objectives. This became starkly apparent during the Trump-era. Trump went straight ahead and questioned the usefulness of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Alliance) in a NATO summit itself. He berated Europe for its supposed inability to protect itself and even torpedoed the Iran nuclear deal – coming very close to starting a war with the country, much to the chagrin of key allies like France. In fact, President Macron of France had to step in to try and neutralise the situation after Trump exited the nuclear deal.
While Trump's America First policy is not being imitated in its rhetoric by the Biden administration, it is quite apparent that the Biden administration does not intend to change course. Biden's sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan and his statement that intervention would be written out of America's defence and foreign policy toolkit is symptomatic of how Biden is as uninterested in the Empire as Trump. The end of the Vietnam War never brought into question the Empire itself. That project was abandoned because it stopped making business sense after a point of time. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is being abandoned because the very task of maintaining world dominance seems too taxing for America to handle any longer.
Finally, there is the issue of social upheaval. Both the Vietnam War and the Afghanistan War were accompanied by a period of intense social unrest in America. With the benefit of hindsight, one can observe that the two are hardly comparable. The Vietnam War came at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. It was accompanied by the Sexual Revolution, the Hippie movement, the growth of subaltern literature, and, of course, the Johnson Presidency's welfare reforms. All of these movements ultimately served to reinvigorate American exceptionalism. These movements did critique the American Empire, but they were ultimately the birth pangs of a new age of American domination, not a challenge to the core of the Empire. The abolition of the Jim Crow laws and the implementation of Medicaid made America fairer and more equal, they did not question America itself.
In contrast, the social unrest that has plagued America since the Great Recession is of a far more sinister kind. When the riots began after the killing of George Floyd, they did not merely call out racial injustice, they questioned the very existence of America as an entity which was built by slave-owners and continues to be exploitative of racial minorities. The protesters did not have a "dream" when they took down Robert E. Lee's statues, they had a pent up rage that had found its outlet through violent protest. The same sentiments were echoed in the Occupy Wall Street movements, the very basis of America, i.e., capitalism was brought into question by those movements. Large portions of the American populace are hitting the streets to express a desire to "eat the rich" at this point of time. A man calling himself a socialist would never have any popularity during the Vietnam War years, but in 2019, Senator Bernie Sanders nearly bagged the Democratic nomination for the Presidency.
Seen in this light, the end of the Afghanistan War comes at a time when the American populace is questioning America itself. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan is an expression of exhaustion from a bloody conflict that the US just cannot afford. It is part of a series of events, both inside and outside America, which indicate that the torch of American hegemony is about to go out very soon, and far more horrifically than we may imagine. May God truly bless America.
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