The US no longer wants to be the world's policeman

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Now that the war in Afghanistan is just about concluded, less than 24 hours before all of the remaining American troops wrap up their mission in Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, after over 100,000, mostly Afghan civilians, as well as American and coalition partners evacuated from the country. One thing to point to is just how much the United States and the American people have changed in interests, in what presence, what the role, what the mission of the United States globally is and should be.

As everyone now is very keenly aware, this war became very, very unpopular among Democrats, among Republicans. If there was anything you could find people agreeing on in foreign policy, it's, "We're angry at China, we want to end the wars. The war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, why are we doing all this stuff?" In other words, the idea that the United States is the global policeman. A role that the Americans had accepted to a great degree during the cold war, accepted to a significant degree after 9/11, really doesn't accept any more. And so, I think one of the reasons why people give such a hard time to this America is back idea of Joe Biden is that, there are many things about America's history that a lot of Americans increasingly aren't up for. The idea of being the global policeman. The idea of being the architect of global trade. The idea of being the promoter of common values, of an open society and rule of law and human rights.

And these things that back after World War II, the United States set up the United Nations, did the lion share of drafting the UN charter, the universal declaration of human rights, increasingly something the Americans are focusing on for themselves, but not focusing on for the rest of the world. We've talked about various manifestations of this over the years. This idea that if the average American citizen increasingly believes that their own government is not representative, is not taking care of them, the social contract isn't working. We're letting all of these new immigrants in and the composition of the country's changing, but you're not taking care of me and my family. Then suddenly the country that has the Statue of Liberty, the country that made itself great on the back of accepting all of these downtrodden people from around the world who wanted to make better lives for themselves, suddenly that doesn't seem as attractive for a lot of Americans. And the idea of sending our young men and women around the world to defend liberties and to help improve the lives of others and defend other countries from internal and external menace becomes something we're not as interested in doing. If there's violence on the American streets and policing isn't taken care of, and why are we doing all of these things?

So, I do think that the one notion that America has to provide for American citizens before it can effectively provide global leadership, certainly in terms of being a leader by example, is a very important lesson, and one that needs to be a work of a generation. It is not just a work of a single administration, whether Democrat or Republican. I'm so conflicted in terms of the war in Afghanistan, it was a relatively small presence at the end. The Afghan defense forces were doing almost all of the fighting, you weren't seeing Americans go back in body bags. But I also completely am empathetic to how unpopular the war had become even in a very different manifestation of how much less of the burden was on Americans, and how useful it was to be working together with a coalition. All of these things are very challenging, but they're so much more challenging when the American population isn't onboard with the mission.

And I do think that today's America presence globally is not an isolationist presence at all. It's not that the United States is suddenly saying we're disengaging from the rest of the world. Certainly, the US will still be providing a lot of humanitarian aid. The US will still have significant boots on the ground all over the world, in bases in the Middle East and in South Asia and Europe and Latin America and Asia. No other country in the world has or is interested in promoting the kind of military strength that the Americans do. But the idea of the American's as global policeman has taken a very big hit. And instead of isolationism, I think what's increasingly replacing it is a nationalism, is a mercantilism, is a sense that the US power should be used first and foremost, to ensure that there are no free riders and that the Americans are benefiting. And that means that alliances need to be more transactional than they have been and less about common values.

And that is going to make it hard to build up this notion of common democracies fighting for an individual good. I do think that one of the advantages that the Americans have had historically, vis-à-vis the Soviets and vis-à-vis China, is that American values, given the choice, are better values. And I would say that yes, in 2021. But I do think the gap has diminished. And the reason the gap has diminished in part is because Americans don't really know what American values are anymore. And to the extent they see the way many in America behave, not to mention how divided the country is, they are less willing to stand up for democracy and openness and freedom of speech and all of these values that are bedrock principles for the United States.

And if you look at the first year of the Biden administration, his successes have largely been domestic. They've been $1.9 trillion for the American bailout, the $3.5 trillion that I think is going to come soon for infrastructure, which is a very significant and broadly speaking, supporting the social contract in the US. Not to mention vaccine rollout, which will now include booster shots for Americans, well before most of the world has gotten their first jab. This is a US foreign policy for the middle class. I think if you made Biden choose, would he rather have more success in Afghanistan and less at home? The answer is absolutely not. And again, I think that we can all be sympathetic to any individual political leader that feels that way. The challenge is that the world for the last 50 years has banked on a level of leadership from the most powerful country that increasingly it is not likely to get. And that is going to be challenged from both the left and the right. And as it is, nobody else is going to replace it.

If the United States had spoken with its allies earlier and told them, "Hey, we want to pull out of Afghanistan, but will you guys do it?" I think that would have been a smarter thing to do because it would have been collective decision making, but I don't think the allies would have put up many, if any troops at all. I think the same thing is, unfortunately, we've seen this play out with NATO. The Americans saying, you promised to put 2% of GDP spend into defense and the biggest country other than the United States in NATO economically is Germany, they're not close and they're not going to get close. And so that willingness to provide burden sharing is going to be more challenging as the United States does less in terms of collective leadership, global leadership. The allies are hard pressed to fill any of that space.

And frankly, so are the Chinese. The Chinese may talk a great game and they've accomplished an enormous amount. But belt and road investment has fallen off precipitously over the last 10 years from what it was when it was first announced. And China's facing some serious challenges domestically right now. Their demographic challenges, their debt challenges, growth challenges, the private sector becoming more of a difficulty for them. So yes, China's certainly going to continue to extend its influence around the world. But the idea that the Chinese will in some way fill a vacuum that's left by the United States, that's not coming. And of course, you wouldn't see that from the Russians either. There's plenty of leadership to go around, but it's not global. And increasingly it's not international and multilateral, it's regional, it's domestic it's backyard. And that creates lots of space for bad actors, it creates lots of space for local conflict. That's what I think we're increasingly seeing.

And I think that if the lesson of Afghanistan has taught us anything, it's that lesson. It's that whether it was Obama or Trump or Biden, they were all feeling this obvious pressure that the role that the United States was willing to play, was willing to assume in the cold war, and after 9/11, is increasingly one that is not supported or sustained by American domestic politics on either side of the aisle. And that's something that I think the allies had not yet fully appreciated. They thought that Trump was more of an aberration as opposed to a structural response to things happening in the United States, that are much deeper and much longer lived.

So anyway, that's just a few moments for me today. I hope everyone's doing well. And I certainly hope that we can get on from this chapter as smoothly and painlessly as possible. Everyone, talk to you soon.

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