For most of the last century, human dignity has had a friend: the United States of America. We are a deeply flawed and error-prone nation like any other, but America helped defeat fascism and communism and helped set the stage for European peace, Asian prosperity, and the spread of democracy.
Then came Iraq and Afghanistan, and America lost confidence in itself and its global role – like a launcher that’s been bombed and no longer confident in its own affairs. Many on the left now reject the idea that America can be or is a world champion of democracy, and they find phrases like “the indispensable nation” or “the last best hope on earth” ridiculous. On the right, the wall-building caucus has given up on the idea that the rest of the world is even worth engaging.
Many people around the world have always resisted America’s self-proclaimed role as champion of democracy. But they’ve also been rightly dismayed when America sits down and lets genocide engulf places like Rwanda or allows dangerous regimes to threaten world order.
The Afghans are the last witnesses to this reality. The US flaws in Afghanistan have been well documented. We have spent billions of dollars and lost thousands of people. But the two-decade strategy of fighting terrorists, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, has meant that global terrorism is no longer seen as a major concern in American daily life. In recent years, a small force of American troops have helped prevent some of the worst people on the planet from taking over a nation of over 38 million people – with relatively few American casualties. In 1999, no Afghan girl went to secondary school. In four years, 6 percent were enrolled, and by 2017 that number had risen to almost 40 percent.
But America, disillusioned with itself, is now withdrawing. And there is a good chance that this withdrawal will produce a strategic setback and humanitarian catastrophe. The Taliban quickly seize the territory. It may not be long before Afghan girls get shot in the head for trying to go to school. Intelligence agencies see the arming of ethnic militias and worry about an even more violent civil war. Agencies are concerned about an influx of refugees and terrorist groups free to operate unhindered again.
History did not end just because America lost confidence in itself. As President Biden rightly notes, the world finds itself caught in a vast struggle between democracy and different forms of autocracy. It is not just a struggle between political systems. It is an economic, cultural, intellectual and political contest at the same time – a struggle between the forces of progressive modernity and of reaction.
Over the past decades, America and its allies have betrayed our values and compromised with tyrants countless times. But deep down, liberal powers radiate a set of vital ideals – not just democracy and capitalism, but also feminism, multiculturalism, human rights, egalitarianism, LGBTQ rights and the dream. of racial justice. These things are all intertwined into a progressive whole that puts individual dignity at the center.
If the 21st century has taught us anything, it is that many people, foreigners and nationals alike, do not like this package and feel existentially threatened by it. China’s rulers are not just autocrats, they believe they are running a civilized state and are ready to slaughter ethnic minorities. Vladimir Putin is not just a thug, he is a cultural reactionary. The Taliban defend a fantastic version of the Middle Ages.
These people are not leading the 20th century liberation movements against colonialism and “American hegemony”. They run a 21st century Kulturkampf against women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights, individual dignity – the whole progressive agenda.
You know that this is a war of cultures and not a traditional rivalry between great powers, because the threat to each nation is more internal than external. The greatest threat to America is that the national autocrats, inspired by a global authoritarian movement, will once again take control of the US government. The biggest threat to China is that internal liberals, inspired by global liberal ideals, threaten the regime.
Each civilization thus tries to attract believers to its own vision. How we present ourselves in the world matters a lot.
We never go back to the Bush Doctrine. But we’re probably not going to fight well for hearts and minds if we see ourselves abandoning our allies in places like Afghanistan. We are probably not going to do well if our own behavior begins to resemble the realpolitik of the autocrats. We probably won’t do well if we can’t look at ourselves in the mirror without a pang of heart.
I guess what confuses me the most is the behavior of the American left. I understand why Donald Trump and other American authoritarians would be ambivalent about America’s role in the world. They have always been wary of the progressive package that America has helped promote.
But every day I see progressives defending women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and racial justice at home and yet defending a foreign policy that cedes power to the Taliban, Hamas and other reactionary forces abroad. .
If we are to fight Trumpian authoritarianism at home, we must fight the most poisonous brands of authoritarianism that are thriving around the world. It means staying on the ground.