Pakistan, Afghanistan and the decline of American power

October 18, 2008

On the floor of the New York Stock Exchange/Brendan McDermidDoes the financial crisis mark the beginning of the end of American global dominance? And if so, what would the decline of American power mean for Afghanistan and Pakistan? It’s early days yet, but here are a few themes that are emerging from the maelstrom.

If you put aside the many arguments over whether the Americans were, or were not, guilty of latter-day imperialism, you can find consensus on two main points: that the U.S. model of free-market capitalism has been sorely challenged by the financial crisis; and that America’s reputation as a military superpower has been tarnished by its less-than-successful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In this respect, there are obvious parallels with the collapse of the British empire after World War Two, starting with its departure from India in 1947. Although Britain likes to think it won the war, its postwar situation carried all the hallmarks of defeat. It was virtually bankrupt and with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 it had lost the myth of invincibility that allowed it to rule an empire on which the sun never set.  With neither the money, nor the credibility, to hold India by force in the face of a powerful Indian independence movement, it mustered as much dignity as possible for an emperor stripped of his clothes and left abruptly, partitioning the subcontinent into India and Pakistan on its way out.

File photo, cleaning the statue of Mahatma GandhiiLet’s assume for the sake of argument that this analogy works for the United States, and that it too begins to draw in on itself. The lessons of British imperial history suggest that when empires collapse, they do so not gradually, but in big leaps that create chaos for those left behind (for example in the estimated one million killed at Partition).

In an analysis in TomDispatch.com, Aziz Huq writes about how Britain, even after being forced to withdraw from India, only properly realised the limitations of its power in 1956, after its hopelessly miscalculated attack on Egypt following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. “The country’s monetary weakness led directly to its military collapse in the crisis,” he writes. ”The Suez fiasco … also marked the end of British imperial ambitions.”

This is not to suggest that the Americans are about to suddenly abandon Afghanistan and Pakistan.  In the short term, both U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain are committed to stepping up the campaign in Afghanistan. At the same time, Western leaders are already lowering their sights on Afghanistan, according to this analysis from Reuters Kabul correspondent Jon Hemming. In a country that is ”famously unforgiving to foreign forces”, this may well have happened even without the financial crisis.

But it does suggest that whatever the next U.S. President decides to do about Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is unlikely to be smooth.

Iranian President Mahmoud AhmadinejadNow add into this mix the growing power of Afghanistan’s neighbours — Iran and Russia, traditional U.S. rivals buoyed up by petrodollars and so likely to benefit from the clipping of America’s wings that they have been dubbed along with Venezuela as a new “axis of oil“. Both Iran and Russia, along with India, supported Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban Northern Alliance when the Taliban were in power in Kabul, and are seen as likely to resist any attempt by the United States to seek reconciliation with the Taliban as a face-saving way out of the Afghan quagmire.

Then there is China, sitting on $2 trillion of foreign exchange reserves.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari just visited China to seek help to bail out Pakistan’s economy, in a trip that also marked out his independence from the United States. China has yet to fully show its hand in how far it intends to use its new-found economic might to exercise global political power.  But it’s worth remembering that the United States, when it rescued Britain from bankruptcy after World War Two, insisted on an end to British imperialism and a withdrawal from its overseas colonies. We don’t yet know what China will demand.

Does anyone want to hazard a guess how all this will play out? America’s status as the lone superpower looks vulnerable; Iran and Russia are loudly assertive, and China is quietly buying up the world’s economy.  Personally, I think there are so many variables that we can’t possibly know yet; but whatever happens, it’s likely to catch us by surprise.

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