Will US Withdrawal from Afghanistan Mark the ‘Ebbing of an Imperial Tide’?

In April, President Biden announced that the US will pull all of its troops out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. On this episode Dan talks with Watson Senior Fellow Stephen Kinzer about what this withdrawal might mean for Afghanistan -- and for the US. As Stephen makes clear, this news brings up questions about US foreign policy that are much bigger than any one conflict or country, and that will have ramifications for the entire world.

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DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. In April, President Biden announced that the US will pull all of its troops out of Afghanistan by September 11th of this year.

JOSEPH BIDEN: I'm now the fourth United States President to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan. I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth.

DAN RICHARDS: For Watson senior fellow Stephen Kinzer, this moment couldn't have come soon enough. Stephen's written and reported on US military intervention under eight presidents by my count. And on this episode, I talked with him about what this withdrawal might mean for Afghanistan and what it might mean for the US. Because as Stephen puts it, this withdrawal brings up questions that are way bigger than any one conflict or country.

STEPHEN KINZER: We need now at this moment when the balance of power in the world is changing to recognize that the dominance the United States enjoyed for much of the 20th century, is not going to return the question is can we adapt to a world that we don't dominate?

DAN RICHARDS: We explore this shifting balance of global power and look at what a 21st century non-interventionist US foreign policy might look like. But we started back in Afghanistan. Steven explain to me how getting out of that country might not be as simple as President Biden made it seem. Hear Stephen.

STEPHEN KINZER: The United States doesn't have much experience withdrawing from countries. We don't end wars, we really don't have any background in doing this. In the old days when we first set out to create an overseas empire, the early imperialists like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge used to say that the American flag should never be pulled down any place where it is once flown.

Now we're pulling down the flag, and we're not quite sure how to do that. So, are we going to pull all American soldiers and military personnel out of Afghanistan? It seems yes. Are we going to pull all the contractors out? Maybe. Are we then going to allow Afghan factions and Afghan groups to work out their own fate without our interference? I doubt that. Will we establish essentially Afghan military bases in countries around Afghanistan so that-- although we don't have troops in country we're still trying to guide the country's future by military means? We don't know.

It's such a new experience for us. And although there will be bumps in the road, I still think in the long run it may prove to be quite positive as the last time we did this proved positive. And that was of course, in Vietnam. There was a horror of the idea that the Americans would give up and just allow the local peasants to have defeated us. But what happened? There was a period of fierce repression after we left and many of the people that collaborated with us suffered or were killed.

But then a new generation took over, and things evolved. Vietnam is now a very vibrant country and it's actually a partner of the United States. I could see the same thing happening in Afghanistan, as long as the United States is willing to carry out its commitment and make a withdrawal a true withdrawal.

DAN RICHARDS: But I guess I wonder, then given the uncertainty of all this, why is Biden making this announcement right now? Like what are the politics behind this type of proclamation?

STEPHEN KINZER: Well, you're absolutely right to use the word politics, this is all political. I think there was always a sense that America would stay in Afghanistan until we won. Nobody knew what it meant to win, but until we achieved our goals. And we never figured out what our goals were, that kept changing. The idea that the United States should stay in Afghanistan until we have some kind of a triumph was like the emperor that had no clothes.

Somebody had to say this is never going to happen. And I think Biden made a political calculation that he could get away with this, and actually I think he has. There's been a lot of pushback, but not enough to change his mind. Biden also felt he needed to get this done quickly. There's no point in putting it off and trying to do it in your second or third year, if you want to get it done, get it done this.

This Afghanistan project was a bleeding wound, but nobody could stop it. Obama wanted to stop it too, but he never managed to. The same thing was true of Trump. So I take my hat off to Biden, and he was finally able to say, actually if I stop the war there's enough latent frustration and impatience with the war despite all the public statements, so that's staying forever that I'll be able to get away with. And it looks like that was a correct calculation.

DAN RICHARDS: And you bring up President Obama and President Trump. And something that I thought was particularly interesting was that this idea of we need to be removing ourselves from Afghanistan was one of the few policy items that Biden carried over from the Trump administration. You know at least rhetorically this was the kind of thing Trump was saying during his whole presidency as well.

Is there more of a bipartisan understanding that we need to get out of these types of entanglements? Are like, what does that say about this type of activity that both presidents were advocating for this?

STEPHEN KINZER: Well, first of all both presidents had a lot of pushback. The Republicans didn't like it when Trump said he was going to pull out of Afghanistan, but they accepted it because they supported him. Now the Democrats feel the same way, many of them really were committed to this, and have been making these rock speech as for years about how we're going to stay there until Afghanistan has accepted all the ideas of gender relations that we have in America. Some other new goal that we wanted to achieve.

But finally with Biden saying we're out, many of the Democrats went along relatively quickly. What I think this shows is something that I think is occasionally lost in discussions of foreign policy. If you believe in a restrained foreign policy, if you believe that the United States doesn't have to maintain military bases all over the world and pressure every country and be sure that the wrong party doesn't get into power in this country that country, if you believe that we should mind our own business more and not try to interfere in other countries, does that make you a person of the left? Or does that make you a person of the right?

I don't think those distinctions are actually useful in foreign policy. The idea that Trump and Biden would agree that withdrawing from Afghanistan is a good idea reflects a consensus that should bind people across the political spectrum.

DAN RICHARDS: You wrote recently about the turning of an Imperial tide for the US potentially with pulling out of Afghanistan, you also write about how sort of nodes of power, geopolitical power are shifting. And I guess it brings up a question of, what are the risks or downsides of countries that maybe don't share the US's Democratic values taking on a bigger role in international affairs?

STEPHEN KINZER: Balances of power tend to shift over time. Now there's long been a view in American ruling elites that we as a nation have transcended history. We are the unique combination of virtue and power. There have been a lot of powerful countries, but they were evil. And then there were good countries, but they were weak. Finally we have this country the United States that combines all of this, and therefore we're uniquely endowed to lead the world.

The fact is that history does apply to the United States like it applies to all other countries. If you look at the countries, the civilizations that have survived the longest over history for example, China or Iran, formerly Persian empire, you find something very clear. These are countries that over the course of history managed to bend with the tides of time. They understand that no country has ever dominant forever.

Look at the history of say Iran and China, just as two examples. They were the huge powers, then they were not so powerful, and they were way down, they were falling apart. Then there were world powers again, then it was down again. That's why they have a longer view of history. The United States is a young country, and we're very impatient, we want to achieve things right away. But we need now at this moment when the balance of power in the world is changing to recognize that this is an inevitable shift, and that the dominance the United States enjoyed for much of the 20th century is not going to return. The question is can we adapt to a world that we don't dominate?

So I think the great challenge now for the United States is whether we can adjust in a peaceful way to a new world order. If we can we can play a great role in that world order. But the idea, that there has to be a set of rules that govern the world and the United States is going to set them, is something that's no longer sustainable. I fear that we're trying to hold on to or return to a world that's never coming back, and that's going to make it more difficult for us to adjust to the real world that we're entering into.

DAN RICHARDS: And speaking of changing status of the US, you've also written a really fascinating and kind of disturbingly about the riots on the capital in January, and you've tied it to the sort of inherent fragility of democracy generally, and you compared it to countries where you've reported on backsliding of democracy and complete changes in governance like Nicaragua, Turkey, and more recently to some extent India. What do you think the US can learn from other countries that had these sort of populist anti-democratic moments?

STEPHEN KINZER: This tremendous frustration in many countries with the failure of institutions to address the needs of ordinary people. That's true in countries that are under authoritarian rule and under a more open rule. The way to fight that tide is for Democratic governments to show that they can meet people's needs. Instead of us focusing on maintaining military bases around the world and trying to shape the future of all other countries, we should be focusing more on our own country. That is going to make us an example, a city upon a hill that will make people in the United States and elsewhere believe that democracy is the right path.

So democracy in itself has no intrinsic value, you can't eat it, you can't live on it. It's just a theory. The only reason that countries choose democracy is because democracy leads you to things that actually are good. It brings you to an open society, it brings you to society where you have health care for everybody, where everybody can get a good education, where there's fair distribution of economic resources, where the environment is protected, where public health plans are firmly in place and funded, then when democracies can do that better than autocracies, they're showing their superiority.

But that doesn't always happen. And that's why I'm not always against every dictatorship and in favor of every democracy. Those are just means of getting to certain places. What I ask is, is this government providing real progress for the people in the country? Are more people getting running water and electricity? Are more people being COVID by health care? Is economic opportunity expanding? Those are things that are real.

So if democracies can do them better than autocracies, the idea of democracy will spread. That's what we need to re-establish, instead of trying to push a model on the rest of the world, let's come up with a good model for the United States and then we will see that people around the world will recognize its superiority.

DAN RICHARDS: Are there any sort of authoritarian regimes right now that you think are kind of doing a good job providing for their citizens?

STEPHEN KINZER: Dan, I want to suggest that you sign up for my course this coming spring at Brown, and that's going to be a seminar called, Rwanda, Yesterday and Today. By all rights, Rwanda should be totally destroyed country based on what happened there and all of its history. But it's not, it's thriving. It's the darling of the development community, but it's the demon in the human rights community. It's actually one of the few countries in the world where the people that are interested in pulling populations out of poverty love it, and people that are interested in human rights hate it.

So I would point to Rwanda as an interesting case, where you don't have the right to descend from the ruling system, but you have all these other rights. So you can travel, you can earn money, you can do everything you want, you just can't criticize the ruling system. Now that wouldn't be good for me, I wouldn't like that, I'm part of that very small minority of people in the world that want to be able to criticize my government.

But most people in the world don't put that anywhere near the top of their hierarchy of needs, they want to be able to walk safely on the streets, they want to have a good job, they want to be sure their kids will have a better life than they do, they want to have opportunities, they want to have health and education for their families. So that comes way ahead of the desire to have the right to criticize the government or publish your own Dissident Newspaper. It's not so noble that autocracies produce better outcomes than democracies, but it shouldn't be assumed that it can never happen.

DAN RICHARDS: All right, well, I'll have to sign up for that class. So one issue where I feel like a lot of these ideas we've been talking about sort of overlap, it has been issues regarding immigration in the US and the crisis at the US Mexico border. I guess what I mean by that is we're seeing these surges in migration from Central America to the US largely as the result of economic devastation, environmental devastation, and violence in the region. And it seems to me at least like in order to solve this crisis, one of the things the US would have to do is help support these countries in ways that make it so that their citizens don't feel like they need to flee.

And I guess I'm wondering that in itself is another type of foreign intervention, and as you more than maybe anyone knows the US doesn't have a Sterling reputation when it comes to intervening in Central American politics and economics. What do you think an intervention might look like that could help this type of crisis, but that wouldn't just be a continuation of our sort of imperialist attitudes? Or are we just totally lay-off?

STEPHEN KINZER: What's happening in Central America is totally heartbreaking, especially for me. I lived there for years, I know these countries very well. And to see them having collapsed this way is truly heartbreaking. That so-called Northern Triangle Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, is now the most violent place in the world. Other than in a war zone, there's no place where people are killed more often with more impunity, with more savagery, with less government control, than in those countries where I spent so much time.

entral American government in:

We wanted Central America to develop in certain ways and we didn't want it to develop in certain other ways. Those decisions are made according to the interests of American corporations. We suppressed repeatedly Democratic movements in Central America because we knew the Democratic governments in that region we're going to make it more difficult for American corporations to operate freely there. We're now seeing the result of all that.

military intervention in the:

The president's brother in Honduras has just been convicted in New York City as being a major drug kingpin. And there was testimony that the president was receiving huge bribes. This is a government that we helped placed in power. So, what I would think is we need ways to aid these countries that don't go through governments that are clearly corrupt.

Now let me give you one example of the kind of thing we can do. The United Nations was involved in a wonderful project in Guatemala that stretched over many years. It was known by the acronym CICIG. It was a commission against impunity in Guatemala. The United Nations sent investigators from all over the world to plow through records and to arrange prosecutions of corrupt officials in Guatemala. They were really making progress. But then, President Trump in order to make a deal with the Guatemalan president so he would recognize the changing of the capital of Israel withdrew American support for that UN mission.

What we should do is reverse that. We should be back in the CICIG project in Guatemala. We should say that's the kind of thing we want, because that's going to start cleaning government, and produce the kind of government that offers services to people, and protection to people that's going to let them stay there. We should be promoting that kind of project in other parts of the region as well. So there's a tremendous amount the United States can do to help strengthen institutions and end the culture of impunity in Central America.

It's almost kind of horrifying to think I'm urging the United States to use its power in Central America because that power has always been used for such horrific ends. Nonetheless, maybe that's even a reason why the United States can stay engaged in this wonderful region that's so close to our own borders in ways that are not coercive, but that are actually going to try to build the institutions that we have fought so hard to prevent from emerging over more than a century.

DAN RICHARDS: Well, the CICIG group in Guatemala, was that organized by the United States? Or

STEPHEN KINZER: It's the United Nation's project. But it was funded and supported and encouraged by the United States. Once the United States pulled out its support, the Guatemalan government felt free to expel it.

DAN RICHARDS: Yes so that's kind of an example of the US, still kind of being a ringleader, but at least not being the one who's setting all the terms for every type of intervention.

STEPHEN KINZER: There are positive movements and forces in these countries in Guatemala. The peasant movement is very strong. The indigenous and environmental movements in Honduras are powerful. That's why it's one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be an environmentalist, Because they're so effective. The corporate bureaucracy they're actually organizes the execution, the killing of environmental activists in Honduras. So there are many, many people there that are just waiting for the kind of support that the United States has traditionally given to repressive regimes.

There's a lot of raw material in Central America, it's not a pit of horror. There are fantastic movements and projects underway there. The United States should hook on to those, but the reason we're reluctant to do that is because we see them somehow as slipping out of American influence and perhaps supporting socialist solutions to problems that we find a little bit repugnant.

So I think we should allow the movements that have emerged in these countries to guide us. Central America would be a good place for us to test another approach and listen to people down there rather than try to tell them how they can change their societies so they'll be so great like ours.

DAN RICHARDS: So I wonder in your ideal world, the next time President Biden, he gave this speech about the withdrawal from Afghanistan from the treaty room of the White House, and in your ideal world the next time Biden gives another big announcement on foreign policy, what would he say?

STEPHEN KINZER: Many years ago, in another century literally, I was a speechwriter for a politician, so I'm going to take on that role again now. What I write for President Biden to say in his next major foreign policy speech in that historic treaty room upstairs in the White House, I'd like him to say this, first of all, we are completing a true full withdrawal from Afghanistan. Second, we're on the brink of signing a return to the nuclear deal with Iran, but I don't want to stop there. If it's right for us to try to establish cooperative relationships with Afghanistan regardless of who's in power there, and cooperative relationships with Iran regardless of who's in power there, why not transfer that policy to other countries in the region?

So I've decided that we're no longer going to try to shape the course of events in Syria, we're not going to be determined to overthrow the government of Syria anymore and we're not going to try to divide Syria, we're now going to support a United Syria under the Syrian government.

We're going to do the same thing in Iraq. We're going to withdraw our military forces. And beyond that, I'd like to see the ebbing of this imperial tide take on a particular aspect that would be both tangible and symbolic. Our country the United States maintains 800 military bases around the world. All the other countries in the world together have about 25.

So today I'm announcing my goal for the end of my four year term. By the end of my term, I want to cut the number of American military bases abroad in half. I truly believe that the United States can be secure by maintaining only 400 military bases abroad. I don't think we're going to die with only 400 military bases. So by the end of my term, I'm going to close the other 400. And we're going to take the massive resources that we have poured into places like Afghanistan, and pour them into our own country and make the United States the city on the hill the John Winthrop hoped we one day would become.

DAN RICHARDS: Stephen Kinzer, thank you so much for coming in to talk with us on Trending Globally. And let's do it again and see how close or far he's come to that pronouncement.

STEPHEN KINZER: Well, it's great to be with you here at Watson, and let's hope we can do that in a literal way before too long.

DAN RICHARDS: Sounds good. Bye.


DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards and Olina Coleman. Our theme is music is by Henry Bloomfield, additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you like the show please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, it really helps others find us.

And if you have a friend who you think might like the show, tell them to subscribe. You can find it on all your favorite podcast listening apps. For more information about this show and all of Watson's other shows, visit our website and we'll put a link in the show notes for that Thanks for listening. We'll be back next week with another episode of Trending Globally.

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Sarah Baldwin '87

Host, Trending Globally
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Dan Richards

Producer and Co-Host, Trending Globally.