Last weekend marked 20 years since the attacks on the United States that launched the “Global War on Terror.” During that time, there have been not just two invasions, but also a global financial crisis, a pandemic and a foundational shift in relations among the world’s leading powers.
While former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, might encourage caution in drawing conclusions, two decades seem to be sufficient time to try to distill some lessons from this tumultuous chapter in world history.
First, the most powerful military in the world is the answer to some, but certainly not all, of the world’s problems. The Taliban were driven from power, al-Qaida vanquished and Osama bin Laden killed — but all those victories proved temporary. Many of those threats scattered and metastasized. Military capability is a critical element of national power and there are some problems for which it is the only answer, but we should also ask to what degree the use of the military helped our adversaries, alienating publics and amplifying a message that the U.S. was the real threat.
Second, the U.S. (and its allies and partners) must appreciate the limits of its power more broadly. Once again, a pipsqueak, Third World (terms meant to be incendiary) military managed to defeat not just the country with the greatest military, but one with the world’s largest economy, along with its allies and partners. The resources — financial, human, intellectual — of the world’s largest and richest countries were unable to prevail in the contest for the future of Afghanistan. They could not provide stability or the foundation for a self-sustaining government.
The third point follows from the first two: Strategy matters. War is still politics by other means. It is not an experiment in techniques and technologies; it is the pursuit of national objectives through a distinct means, and that relationship must remain foremost in the minds of politicians and planners.
In Afghanistan, The U.S. seemed to have lost sight of its main objective as the war slogged on. First, it paid off warlords to secure control of regions and provinces and deny terrorists safe harbor, but that tactic strengthened forces that frustrated attempts to build an effective central government in Kabul — which became the priority of Washington and its allies.
The original goal proved too ambitious and the U.S. and its allies settled for the maintenance of a semifunctional government or the avoidance of an embarrassing defeat. In the U.S., politicians seemed focused on short-term objectives — the political consequences of a decision to recognize reality in Afghanistan and either retake control of the country (a huge surge in forces) or cut losses (withdraw) — effectively undermining any longer-term strategy on the battlefield or among policymakers.
Fourth, patience is vital but patience is not a strategy. Evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould observed, “Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant.” Or as I prefer to put it, the U.S. is very good at blowing things up, but it has proven far less capable of building from the rubble.
The two-decade foreign presence in Afghanistan shows that Washington checked the impatience that often colors its decision making. That’s important, but so too is a relentless focus on objectives and a constant assessment of the gap between goals and current realities. In this, sunk costs can become an insurmountable counterweight, paralyzing decision making and encouraging an inclination to “stay the course” or, more pejoratively, to kick the can down the road. Riding momentum is not always the best option; good judoka use their opponents’ momentum against them.
Fifth, the international system has proven to be resilient. The decision to invade Iraq disregarded international law and institutions — U.S. President George W. Bush was not prepared to let the United Nations stop him. But since then, and despite several other important moments during the last 20 years that showed equal disdain for international law (and not just by the U.S.), the international order — after two wars, a global financial crisis and a global pandemic — remains strong, bent perhaps, but not broken.
Indeed, even the governments that oppose the order as it currently exists have defended it when it has been assaulted by other governments. The international order is frayed, however, and could soon be strained to the breaking point. Critical now is getting more governments to actively support that order and demonstrate that a renewed consensus, one that (almost) all nations back, can be effective and sustained.
Sixth, at the same time, we must better appreciate the limits of that consensus. While Francis Fukuyama has admitted that the declaration of an end to history was premature, there remain evangelists who insist that connectivity, either physical, digital or ideological, can create some global commons.
Plainly, that is not true. There are individuals, groups and even some governments that are prepared to pay a price for space and autonomy within the international order. Nobumasa Akiyama, a professor at Hitotsubashi University, warned that some countries professed support for the global order to mask their pursuit of great power competition behind the scenes. There is no shared vision on a grand scale and connectivity is being used in some cases not to bring us together, but to create space. We must either be prepared to fight back or we must recast that consensus to better reflect a reduced sense of shared purpose. (I suspect we’ll end up doing both.)
Seventh and finally, the greatest danger to the United States is not an external threat but is internal division. In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. came together and combat that threat. But the nation did not contribute to that response equally. Sacrifices were made by a very small part of the population. For many, if not most, the best way to defeat extremists was to follow then-President Bush’s admonition “to go shopping” to demonstrate that ordinary Americans were not intimidated and they would continue to live as they always had.
While Bush insisted that the ensuing struggle was not a battle against Islam, seeds of fear and distrust were planted. They germinated over the next two decades as physical insecurity combined with a demographic and economic transformation of the United States (and the world) that challenged foundational assumptions about order and power held dear by many Americans.
Cracks widened during the Obama and Trump presidencies and have hardened in ways that challenge not just the ability of the federal government to function, but its legitimacy as well. Without a middle ground, politics careen, further eroding confidence in the U.S. government at home and in the country more generally among foreign audiences.
It is, for the most part, a depressing list — and by no means exhaustive. A failure to take these items seriously will only ensure that the list gets longer and the problems get worse.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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