After the attacks on the U.S. on 9/11, then President George Bush vowed revenge and stated to the world, “You are with us or against us.” A coalition was built, and the U.S. went after the terrorists. Four presidencies later, current U.S. President Joseph Biden said, “The U.S. cannot afford to remain tethered to policies creating a response to a world as it was 20 years ago. We need to meet the threats where they are today.”
Those threats are right where they were 20 years ago: still in Afghanistan, and now backed by the strength of a state. Kind of with the U.S., and kind of still against it.
What happened to America, that “shining city on a hill” that beckoned brightness to its shores and won allies? Some self-delusion, a belief that it was still the global monarch after World War II. And mostly, the inability to distinguish between friends and foes over the last two decades.
At the time of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. dominated world discourse. Its multinational companies were global entities, with outposts everywhere. A triumph was persuading China to join the World Trade Organization, with the U.S. and Japan doing the hard work of bringing it on board. U.S. banks and the U.S. Treasury were the big shots, intertwined.
The attacks didn’t bring any of this to a halt. They added a new dimension to the U.S. economic and policy calculation: defence. America’s foreign policy became suffused with security, to support which, the defence industry expanded.
While U.S. soldiers were fighting in Afghanistan, ordinary Americans were out shopping. By 2006, U.S. consumers were king. Cheap goods from China flooded western, especially U.S. markets, where everyone now could buy that aspirational cashmere sweater for a mere $59.99. Invisible was the fact that wages weren’t rising, and ever more reliable manufacturing jobs were being outsourced to China.
The warning bell had rung, but few heard it. With no productive domestic economy to lend to, American banks created new exotic financial instruments to play with – resulting in the housing crisis of 2007, and the 2008 western financial crisis.
Washington bailed out the big boys on Wall Street, with almost no consequences. The productive economy of America’s cars and textile factories and widgets, was replaced by a dazzling digital display from California’s tech and social media companies – and a massive defence industry of arms and security policy-makers.
And thus began the delusions and miscalculations of an America which confused friend and foe. The U.S., which understood Europe, preferred to be guided by the former colonial power of Britain when it came to South Asia. Missing from Washington’s calculus was that Britain has never forgotten or forgiven the loss of its Empire, making it a flawed guide. Britain created Pakistan as it departed, supported it, and the U.S. too turned to Pakistan as its South Asia shepherd. Our canny neighbour, down on funds and an unproductive economy, used the confused U.S. policies to get the billions in the fight on terror, for which it was awarded the title of ‘major non-NATO ally.’
“Pakistan manipulated America, and America was willing,” says Neelam Deo, a former diplomat who has studied the syndrome. “The American understanding of the world became clouded, and inexplicable, especially its comprehension of what motivates countries like Pakistan, where the state has clearly stated Islamic aspirations.”
Iran, which should have been a friend and initially helped the U.S. in Afghanistan, once again became a foe – the outcome of Israeli influence.
China meanwhile, used the U.S. preoccupations, to grow. Other new players came on to the scene, including India, with its GDP growing at 9% in 2008. America’s digital economy grew, as did the billionaires of Palo Alto.
But middle America was hollowing out. So were lots of other countries like Egypt, which saw ever more investment bypass it en route to China. The shadow and opportunities of China engulfed the former tiger economies of south east Asia, turning them into pygmies and vassals.
Job losses and rising inequity across the world sparked the Arab protests in 2011, and also the Occupy movement in the U.S. Social media giants like Facebook magnified these protests, a tool of the young to express dissatisfaction. The same social media companies became ‘Big Business,’ significant lobbyists in Washington pushing for a liberal agenda. But that didn’t help the 99%.
The pushback to this was the election of Donald Trump, a businessman who called out China for its unfair mercantilism and spreading the Covid-19 pandemic. He neutralized the West Asia oil economies by encouraging shale. And he cut off aid to Pakistan. But like all U.S. presidents, he fell short, and did not call out its perfidy. Nor did his successor, Joe Biden. Their one-stop consulting shop on Afghanistan is still Pakistan, and the U.S. go-to guy on Afghanistan is still Afghan-American appointee Zalmay Khalilzad from 20 years ago, despite his continuing failure and lack of accountability.
Now, 20 years later, the threats of the past are back and visible in the future. The Taliban is back in Afghanistan, unchanged. It is planning fresh terror wars with the help of Pakistan, protection and assistance from China, perhaps other Islamic states and Russia.
The U.S. is not back. Instead, America is isolating from Europe, and though it says it will turn its attention to Asia and Chinese domination, its allies – old and new – aren’t sure. The U.S. military has a more powerful arsenal than ever – but China is approaching parity, with the largest navy in the world. Biden has a $3.5 trillion plan to rebuild U.S. infrastructure – but Americans are engulfed in anxiety. “There’s a tapestry of perceived victimisation in the U.S.,” says Frank Schell, a former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. “The fall of Wall Street and the ensuing recession destroyed a lot of 401Ks, and that’s led to a rising interest in socialism, which is no longer at the fringe.”
Observers of America reiterate that country’s unique ability to reinvent itself, to build capabilities anew. It may. An acknowledgement of its mistakes and a sincere rethink of its friends and foes, could draw it back towards its pole position in the world – if the Taliban and Pakistan will let it.
This article was first published in The Indian Express.
Manjeet Kripalani is Executive Director and co-founder, Gateway House.