“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.” said Joe Biden, while addressing the nation on “his” decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, which resulted in a quick takeover by Taliban only within months—something that the US Intelligence Agency (seemingly) failed to see coming.
Biden’s speech is a major turning point in how the United States wants the world to see their actions as, and the value behind their actions. What makes it a major turning point is because America’s War on Terror has always, always been explicitly intertwined with interjecting democracy into the base of their nation building. While the goal is to eradicate terrorism—one that marks the beginning of US-led intervention in Afghanistan to curb down Al Qaeda in 2001—the main pursuit was always to spread freedom around the world that becomes the fuel for the War on Terror, the drive that continues their stay and stretch it for over 20 years later there. To say that projecting democracy should not be the end goal, marks a new territory of American foreign policy.
Democracy was always marked as the superiority of the American way of life, the soul of the American foreign policy. It was also the foundation of the foreign policy doctrine in the post-Cold War, to fill in what the US can do to maintain its presence across the world. Now that Biden openly spoke about democracy as not being the end goal, prompts a big contradiction to the whole identity that makes America, the United States of America. This, at least, tells two things: one, it tainted what the US has done over the years in exporting democracy abroad, and brought upon the reflection of those intervention in the name of “democracy”; and two, about how the US will justify their military activities from now on.
Democracy and democratization of the “failed states” have always been something that the US prided themselves on. It’s always the heroic narratives that are brought to justify the amount of cash flows for the military investment abroad, and to justify the bloodbath of civilians. The claim has always been the same: only with democracy, humanitarian rights and peace are more likely achieved, and so is the protection of the lives of the American people because the threat is less likely to appear in a democratic regime. And so goes that achieving a regime change and cemented the nation on the basis of a “democratic” nation is the price that the American military paid to have. Whether or not democracy is a “good” regime type in general is always going to be debatable, but it sure does indicate the motive behind every American military intervention.
Biden’s speech was a delayed realization, one that was late for over 20 years, that humanitarian help does not need to come in the form of a forced regime change. The shift in the projected goal from “nation-building” to only “counter-terrorism” says less about the projected goal, but more about the extent of the US capacity. It’s a realization that nation-building is much more complicated than what the previous presidents and military advisors could comprehend their heads on. For so long, the US has relied solely on their preponderance of military power, without so much acknowledging the reality on the ground. One’s internal characteristics such as their social and political attributes matter a lot to the success of nation-building. Deep ethnic-root causes, religious animosities, fragmented groups and inequality, their openness to new cultures, all play a role to a country’s hesitancy to nation-building powered by a political outsider, not especially when the generator is the West—an outsider, a party very different from them. Instilling democracy to a soil with low level of cohesion and barely existing secular civil society, would only result in a worsening power struggle, instead of an integrated nation-building process.
Afghanistan is not the only case in point here. Among many great powers, the US is probably the most active nation-builder the world has ever witnessed, with a legacy of more failures than success. Back in 2003, when President Bush declared to overthrow Saddam Hussein and to bring democracy to Iraq, which he did, he meddled in far too deep that it only resulted in more chaos. The US-backed Shiite government was the prelude to the deepening divide between Sunni and Shiite. Again, another failed attempt at nation-building. Another failed attempt at exporting democracy.
If it shows a telltale of how the future US military engagement in foreign soil would look like, it’d be exciting to look forward to how the US will justify their military engagement without the premise of democracy. For so long, the US has been using the principle of “democratic peace”, building a sustainable regime that will indeed protect both the stability of the world order and the US from threats that might occur in a non-democratic regime to deploy troops in foreign soil. Biden’s line just undermines the core value of the process of exporting the system of democracy—that was once the US pride and joy. If it is implied that democracy should not be the extent of countering terrorism, it bugs the question of whether or not democratic peace is worth the fight, as what they once deemed it to be. The Taliban takeover of Kabul allows the US to reflect on that. If it’s worth pursuing democracy on foreign soil, 20 years of stagnant—if not worse, progress, shows that the seemingly most powerful military capacity in the world, has failed to project their world order.
If it indeed isn’t worth the fight, then maybe, democracy is not as noble for humanity as what the US claimed all these years by injecting it in foreign soil. Maybe, it’s a confirmation that the US was merely using it as a justification for them exerting their power to maintain relevance during and after the Cold War. Either way, it’s a slap in the face that American Exceptionalism—both its political and military power, and in the way they construct their superior value of democracy—has run its course, only now after 20 years on Afghan soil, after billions of failures and prolonged wars, do they finally begin to make some sense out of it.
Kori Schake last wrote on Foreign Affairs that it was President Biden’s cynical defense.
Desperate time requires desperate measures—in this case, leaving Afghanistan when an insurgent group is still alive around the corner is a big deal that requires huge, desperate justification. Now—when they can no longer freely insert the premise of exporting democracy to base their military engagement, whether his justification is a cynical defense, or indeed marking a new turn in the US military engagement with the world, is surely something to wait and see.
Pei, M., & Kasper, S. (2003, May 24). Lessons from the Past: The American Record on Nation Building. https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Policybrief24.pdf.
Zarifa Emily is an International Relations student in Universitas Indonesia. She can be found on Instagram with the username @zarifaemily