The US withdrawal from Afghanistan was messy, and, for some, embarrassing. But it was deliberate – going out now, irrespective of the consequences, and even at the cost of abandoning what was invested in Afghanistan during a 20-year war. The message was clear. Wars for no clear reason and that have no clear ends are in the past.
And it is not only in Afghanistan: US military bases across Europe are getting smaller, and some are disappearing. In the Middle East, decades-long US navy and airforce presences in different parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf are being reduced, and local partners are being strongly encouraged to assume much greater defence responsibilities. Even in Latin America, which was always seen in Washington as America’s backwater, the US is disengaging from most dossiers that do not have international implications.
These withdrawals and disengagements have nothing to do with lessons learned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or from disappointments in allies’ commitments and positions. They are about the future.
For over a decade now, the US has been transforming its strategic positioning in the world to amass the most important of its capabilities in East Asia, the theatre that will witness the first phase of its strategic confrontation with China.
Strategic confrontation does not mean war, although military clashes are scenarios both the US and China have in their calculations. At heart, however, strategic confrontation means competition in the political, economic, cultural and technological domains so as to secure one side’s objectives.
The key issue now is that the two sides’ objectives are clashing. The US wants to perpetuate its primacy as by far the most powerful, advanced and richest country in the world. China’s objectives have changed in the past few years. Over the past two decades, China has been trying to carve out for itself a sphere outside the dominion of the US. Now it is striving to significantly widen that sphere and impose its own rules on it. These rules are vastly different from America’s, as we’ll discuss in the next article in this series.
Views differ within the US on how to engage with China. Some call for a measured approach that acknowledges that China’s rise necessitates some form of Chinese dominion, primarily over large parts of East Asia. This view is supported, and often championed, by a wealthy US lobby whose financial interests are in an open Chinese market, integrated supply chains between US and Chinese manufacturing and technology companies and meshed US and Chinese financial systems.
But there is another view. In this view, highly integrated US and Chinese economies and financial systems mean acquiescence in China’s rise to become an equal of the US, which would be something tantamount to defeat. This is something the US has never accepted, from its earliest days of rebelling against the British Empire to the last days of the Cold War when former US president Ronald Reagan challenged the former Soviet Union.
In this view, the US must work to secure its decades-long primacy, which means halting or at least slowing down China’s rise. In decision-making circles in the US, this translates into three work streams.
First, there is external concentration. This is the idea of disengaging from all that is not a priority for major US military and economic interests. It is the thinking that has led the US to lessen its positioning and commitments in Europe and the Middle East and the Gulf in a major way and to actively deepen its alliances in the entire Pacific region.
Second: there is agenda reorganisation. This means putting an end to the US practice after the end of the Cold War of engaging separately yet simultaneously in realpolitik, state building, human-rights promotion, international development and global free trade. The past three decades have made it clear that opposing objectives are not conducive to coherent strategy – something has to give. This is why the US is increasingly reorganising its agendas by region. Already some voices are warning of potential inconsistencies. But where strategic choices are being made, inconsistency is seen as discretion and prioritisation.
Third: there is internal reconstruction. There is a view both inside and outside the US that the country’s politics has fallen into a fantasy that is leading to failure. This means, many say, that US politics have become a show in which populism, marketing gimmicks, hollow rhetoric and sensationalisms of all sorts dominate over serious debates and reflections. In this view, the result is a descent of both real representation and judgement in decision-making.
For some, all this represents an acute decline in US democracy. For others, it is also a threat to the country’s national security because it opens the legislative and executive branches of government to external influence and an obsession with the short-term and pushes both of them into mediocrity. These are hardly the requirements of a superpower embarking on a strategic confrontation to secure its primacy against a highly organised rising behemoth like China.
It is why efforts are underway in the US to significantly improve competitive dynamics in key industries, to curb the excesses of major concentrations of capital, to widen the common ground in politics so as to reduce alarming social polarisation, and to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into new infrastructure.
The thinking behind these three factors (concentration, reorganisation and reconstruction) focuses on the long term. It follows the memorable words of Bill Donovan, the founder of the Office of Strategic Services, out of which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) emerged, “establish and nurture”.
The US is establishing a new base on which to stand as it exits the three decades during which it was the world’s sole superpower and enters its new strategic confrontation with China. “Nurturing” entails discipline and determination, which are needed because many in the US are doubtful that it can win this confrontation. This is new in US history and is vastly different from anything it witnessed throughout the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
The US has always seen itself as having far superior intellectual foundations, resources, capabilities and capacities for mobilisation than any of its opponents over the past 200 years from the Spanish Empire to Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia. Today, the decay inside the US has left some wondering, however, which is why there are voices strongly advising against entering this strategic confrontation.
But the train has already left the station. The three work streams identified above and already in action are seen as the pillars of the strategy to secure US primacy.
The key principals of US decision-making – in the two big political parties as well as in the most powerful state institutions – are indeed aiming to win and not only to engage in perpetual engagement. This is important because whereas perpetual engagement with China would have aimed at maintaining the status quo, winning means curbing some of the successes that China has already secured – for example in asserting its influence in large parts of the Pacific.
It is for this reason that the currently strong US move towards Asia is much more than signalling. It is direct action exerted on the borders of the area China already considers to be its immediate sphere of influence.
We will not see another Bay of Pigs soon – the dangerous moment in 1961 when the US and Soviet Union seemed to be perilously close to nuclear war. But the world has already entered a new phase. The post-Cold War order has ended, and a new order is emerging. The US is leaning forward – partly anxious, partly relishing the challenge, and certainly taking an assertive posture.
The level of intensity of this strategic confrontation – and of the first stage of the nascent global order – will depend on China’s calculus and way of operations, which we will examine in the next article in this series.
* The writer is the author of Islamisim: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.