US global power remains strong, despite Afghanistan mistakes

While the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has been deeply flawed in execution, does this really mark "the end of the American era" as foreign affairs reporter Robin Wright argues in a New Yorker op-ed? Not at all – and in fact, the US will emerge from this crisis not only with important lessons learned but in a position of power. Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst explain why in this edition of The Red Pen.


Today we are taking our red pen to a recent column from New Yorker contributor and veteran foreign affairs reporter, Robin Wright, a good friend, very, very smart. It's titled "Does the Great Retreat from Afghanistan Mark the End of the American Era?" And I mean, that's quite an argument. Over the course of the past couple of weeks, I've had quite a bit to say about the story, of course, and all the horrible images that we've seen coming from Afghanistan, and even Qatar in the last 24 hours, the transit. While the withdrawal, from my perspective, was the right decision on balance, there had been huge mistakes and missteps in the execution. That much, I think that many of us agree on, but is this particular moment the end of the United States as the number one global power? No, I don't think so, and that's why we're getting out the red pen on this article. So let's get into it.

First, Robin argues that the United States will be widely perceived by the world today as having lost the war on terrorism, because Afghanistan will, again, almost certainly become a haven for like-minded militants. Well, first of all, we need to break out the US perspective on this because the threat of foreign directed Islamic terrorism against the US Homeland, which is of course the reason the US engaged in the War on Terror has vastly diminished since 9/11. There have been incidents, including the Boston Marathon bombing and the 2015 San Bernardino attack, along with various domestic based attempts by Islamists, but US counter-terrorism capabilities have vastly improved in the two decades since 9/11. In fact, by far, the biggest terrorist threat in the United States today comes from white nationalists. That's a very different red pen to write. I have zero sympathy for the Taliban, and I certainly think that Afghanistan will increasingly become more of a haven again for radical Islamic terror, in part because the Taliban won't be able to control most of their territory. Though, I will say that I don't believe that the Taliban wants to repeat their previous mistake of embracing Al-Qaeda, because that would make them much more of a target for the West. So again, I agree in part with that comment.

Whatever the historic truth decades from now, the U.S. will be widely perceived by the world today as having lost what George W. Bush dubbed the "war on terror"

Wright calls the withdrawal an epic defeat for US forces at the hands of a ragtag militia with no air power or significant armor or artillery in one of the poorest countries in the world. I want to be clear, the Taliban didn't militarily defeat US forces. US forces haven't been fighting for quite some time there. That's why they weren't US casualties. The United States forces left. Like so many other commentaries that have attended the Taliban's resurgence to power, Robin's piece suggests that the United States lost without specifying what it would mean for Washington to have won. America's choices this year weren't defeat and victory, but a range of bad alternatives that would have each involved very, very painful trade-offs. Biden's options ranged from bad to really horrible, not from acceptable to superb, and Robin acknowledged that in a column she wrote on March 24th, writing that, "Biden has no good choices. Neither does the US military, which has reduced troop levels from 15,000 when the US-Taliban pact was signed a year ago, to around 3,000 today."

...The U.S. is engaged in what historians may someday call a Great Retreat from a ragtag militia that has now air power or significant armor and artillery

Three, next, Wright laminates that, "Afghanistan and Iraq have proved that the United States can neither build nations nor create armies out of scratch," warning that the repercussions of this failure will long endure. Oh, I agree with that, but I would argue that that's a good thing. The realization is that Washington needs to reevaluate its democracy promotion model, and focus on advancing aims of open societies by means other than military force. In other words, working within the confines of reality in other countries, rather than trying to mold the world in America's own image. I mean, beyond enhancing US influence abroad, I also think that kind of a shift would free up a lot of sums of money that we could be spending on the United States, think trillions of dollars of infrastructure, for example.

...both Afghanistan and Iraq have proved that the United States can neither build nations nor create armies out of scratch...

Wright also argues that America's post-withdrawal standing is "profoundly weakened," and questions "how the United States salvages its reputation or position any time soon." And I am sympathetic to this point, but I think it's overdone. Despite some fiery statements from European officials, leaders from London, to Tokyo, to New Delhi and beyond remain pro-US. Washington's very much blown exit from Afghanistan doesn't mean we won't be able to form a coalition if say, China invades Taiwan. In fact, for all the world's criticism over the last 18 months and the last five years, really, if one begins with Trump's election, which was not popular with American allies, clearly, actual US power vis-à-vis the allies, has increased since the start of the pandemic. America's financial system has only become more important, America's technological prowess has only improved. The US is far stronger now than its G7 allies. And don't get me started on China, which continues to self-inflict wounds by stonewalling on COVID-19 origins, producing poorly performing vaccines, and inflaming tensions with almost everybody; India, Australia, Canada, Europe. So much so with Europe that Brussels has frozen ratification of its own investment accord with Beijing. So, I mean, if the United States has made big mistakes with Afghanistan, I'd argue that China's mistakes over the last year have been even greater. And don't get me started on the demographic challenges. So if you had to pick a country that you wanted to be in today's messy, GZERO world, from a power position, it's clearly the United States, and Afghanistan doesn't change that.

America's standing abroad is profoundly weakened...It's hard to see how the United States salvages its reputation or position anytime soon.

Finally, Robin concludes by writing, "On Sunday as America erased its presence in Afghanistan in a race to get out, I wondered: Was it all for naught? What other consequences will America face from its failed campaign in Afghanistan decades from now? We barely know the answers." Very good question. The Taliban's return to power will be devastating for human rights in Afghanistan, especially for women, children, LGBT people, and ethnic and religious minorities. There's no avoiding that very tragic conclusion. The strategic consequences of US withdrawal are likely to be much more limited, in my view. In fact, President Biden's disdain for open-ended wars suggests that Washington will avoid stumbling into another one soon; I would argue that's a good thing. And drawing down from Afghanistan will also enable the US to focus on the biggest foreign policy challenge. Wright's worst-case scenario, the collapse of US power remains, for now at least, really just the scenario.

What other consequences will America face from its failed campaign in Afghanistan decades from now? We barely know the answers.

So that's your Red Pen for this week, stick with GZERO Media for more analysis of the unfolding situation in Afghanistan, and the upcoming anniversary of the 9/11 terror attack. See you again very soon.

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Germany's historic moment of choice is finally here, and voters will stream to the polls on Sunday for the country's first post-World War II vote without a national leader seeking re-election. They will elect new members of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. The leader of the party that wins the most seats will then try to secure a majority of seats by drawing other parties into a governing partnership. He or she will then replace Angela Merkel as Germany's chancellor.

If the latest opinion polls are right, the center-left Social Democrats will finish first. In coming weeks, they look likely to form a (potentially unwieldy) governing coalition with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Democrats, which would be Germany's first-ever governing alliance of more than two parties.

Change?

Though he's a man of the center-left, Olaf Scholz, current finance minister and most likely next chancellor, wouldn't represent a radical break from Merkel. He's among the more fiscally frugal of Germany's Social Democrats, and after decades in German politics, he's an experienced technocrat and a skilled manager of political alliances.

Nor would a change in government radically shift Germany's foreign and trade policies. Its new government, whoever it includes, will keep strong security ties with the United States and NATO and protect opportunities to expand economic relations with China. Germany's dependence on Russian energy will demand a continuation of Merkel's pragmatic approach to Vladimir Putin's government.

Scholz's conviction that a strong and cohesive EU is good for Germany will limit any temptation to get tougher with the governments of Poland and Hungary over their violations of EU rules and principles. And aware that COVID can widen gaps between richer and poorer EU countries, and that anti-EU economic populism remains a potent force in Italy and elsewhere, he's likely to support a generous approach to pandemic recovery in southern Europe.

But climate policy, an area where Merkel concedes she should have done more, will be an important and interesting story to watch. Given its leadership within the EU and its standing as the world's fourth largest economy, the influence of Germany's next government on climate policy will be crucial to global climate strategies. A new German government with Scholz as chancellor will likely push the pace of transition from carbon to renewable energy, at least in part because the Green Party coalition partner will push for this as hard as it can. The Greens must show progress on the climate front to maintain political credibility and popularity. If the Free Democrats are indeed part of the coalition, they'll push hard to limit tax increases to pay for tougher climate action, but they won't blow up the coalition that gives them a seat at Germany's governing table.

Merkel's legacy

Even in a country that values stability and continuity, Angela Merkel's 16-year run is remarkable. More than once she's proved the maxim that it's not the smartest or strongest who survives, but the one most adaptable to change. Merkel is smart and strong, to be sure, but she'll be remembered longest – by both devoted admirers and bitter critics – as the leader who insisted Germany could and should do more to help indebted countries survive Europe's sovereign debt crisis (2010-12) and to manage the surge of migrants that followed unrest in the Middle East (2015-16). Her improvisational talents also led her to change tack on nuclear power (after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan) and on common European debt.

But the main reason Merkel leaves power with an 80 percent approval rating is that, whether she receives more credit than she deserves, she has presided over a period of economic expansion and prosperity in Germany that few other world leaders can match. It's all the more remarkable then that her party looks set to find itself in opposition once a new government is formed. It's Merkel that German voters like, not her political family.

Bottom-line: Whatever he accomplishes as Germany's next chancellor, Olaf Scholz will find Angela Merkel a tough act to follow.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen a lot during her 16 years in power. She's navigated a global economic recession, multiple wars in the Middle East which sparked an EU refugee crisis, and now a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Often the only woman in the room, Merkel has had to learn to tactfully deal with dozens of idiosyncratic world leaders. Many have come and gone since 2005, but Merkel has won elections again and again. We take a look at who she's dealt with from the top five democracies (by economic size) throughout her tenure.

In May 2020, economic historian Adam Tooze told GZERO World he feared 1 in 5 American workers could still be out of job now due to COVID. It didn't happen. Why? Tooze says he failed to anticipate how quickly we'd get highly effective vaccines, and the scale of the economic stimulus the government was willing to put up. During the 2008 financial crisis, he explains, "we were still beginning to flex our muscles with regards to economic policy, and the scale of fiscal and monetary stimulus that we've seen is as unprecedented as the shock of the spring of last year."

Watch Tooze's interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television starting Friday 9/23/21. Check local listings.

Will Evergrande be China's Lehman Bros? Chinese authorities are bracing for the increasingly likely default of Evergrande, the country's most indebted property developer. If Evergrande — a gargantuan corporation with properties in 200 cities across China — stiffs its creditors, that'll send shockwaves throughout the country's financial system, and the wider Chinese economy and society. The possible ripple effects on home buyers and countless companies and individuals that do business with or are owed money by Evergrande have invited comparisons with Lehman Brothers, the US investment bank whose 2008 collapse triggered an American financial crisis that quickly spread to the entire world. Although in principle authoritarian China has ways of containing the fallout, the potential for social unrest is real — and opacity could make it worse. More broadly, the demise of such a big player in the country's once-booming real estate market, which accounts for over 7 percent of GDP, would expose the shaky foundations of China's debt-driven economic growth model, eroding confidence in China both at home and abroad.

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Betrayal. Treason. Duplicity. These are some of the words used by the French government to describe the US' recent decision to freeze Paris out of a new security pact with the UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, which nixed a contract for Australia to buy French submarines.

Macron's subsequent tough stance against one of its oldest and closest allies is unusual, including his decision to briefly recall the French ambassador from Washington, the first time a French president has done so. But this headstrong strategy is also a deliberate diplomatic choice.

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43: Eight months into the job, US President Biden's approval rating has hit a new low of 43 percent, a six-point drop since August. Of all the US presidents elected since World War II, only Donald Trump had a lower approval rating at this stage of his presidency. It sure looks like Biden's honeymoon period is over.

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