Different ages, similar problems
As soon as he was appointed Emperor by the Senate, Hadrian faced strong disapproval for pursuing retrenchment policies both in the Balkans and along the recently enlarged eastern frontier. In a few years, the new emperor had given up on much of the territorial gains achieved by the Republic under Trajan, imposing a strategic retreat to the Roman troops stationed in Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria (117 C.E). Similarly, at the peak of the Third Century Crisis (271 C.E), newly elected Emperor Aurelian decided to abandon the entirety of the Province of Dacia, whose defense had become unbearable. Around twenty years later, following a period of dramatic reforms prompted by Diocletian, the Roman Empire was once again a stable and well-oiled superpower. Thanks to their strategic, tactical, military and even political transformation, the romans would dominate the world for another two hundred years.
Edward Gibbon, one of those few writers who hold as high a place in the history of literature as in the roll of great historians, stressed that <<our question is not “why did the Roman Empire fall?” but, rather, “why did it last so long?”>>. In a few words, we can answer as follows: showcasing a great deal of adaptability, most generations of Roman rulers chose to learn from the strategic errors of their predecessors. The Empire proved resilient in the long run because it accepted to modify either its foreign or domestic behavior depending on the enemies it was fighting against, whether they were other great powers, financial crises, or violent pandemics. Importantly, the romans did so even when certain policies (retrenchment policies/strategic retreats) could result in humiliating blows to their “hegemonic reputation”.
IR mechanics at work: On the Rise and Fall of Great Powers
International relations dynamics and great powers politics are based on perception, both of oneself and of the other. Modifications in the balance of power generally take place in two ways: either dramatically, following a large-scale war including all (or most) great powers, in what is usually called an “hegemonic war” (Robert Gilpin, 1981), or in softer and slower fashions, in which economic, strategic, and reputational factors sum up determining new international hierarchies. However, although reputational damages can compromise the legitimacy enjoyed by hegemons, we should bear in mind that it takes more than lower credibility to upset global hierarchies, or worse, enact hegemonic transitions. Is there anything we can draw from IR mechanics?
Those analysts who argue that international perception is more important than any strategic dividend have recently concluded that U.S. credibility as a superpower has been drastically reduced, if not destroyed, by the withdrawal from Afghanistan. In an article that appeared last week in the New York Times, Bret Stephens stated that “every U.S. ally – Taiwan, Ukraine, the Baltic states, Israel, Japan – will draw the lesson that it is on its own”.
The Chinese government, il va sans dire, instrumentalized the American debacle in Afghanistan writing that “the fall of Kabul is an omen of Taiwan’s future fate”. Although the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan clearly wasn’t a victory for Washington, it did not mark a strategic disaster for the U.S., and probably will not in the near future. On the contrary, deciding not to continue an infinite war for far-from-crucial interests does not mean the United States would not fight in the case much-more-vital objectives were at stake.
Drawing inspiration from Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, this article provides an alternative reading of the U.S. retreat from Kabul. In the aforementioned publication, the Yale historian had taken a wide lens view of history to investigate why great powers\hegemons of the past – Athens, Sparta, Rome, Spain, France, Germany, and England – eventually embarked in a path of decline, only to be replaced by new more powerful actors in the international arena. The exhaustion of vital resources throughout a process known as imperialist over-expansion, according to the author, is what trapped all-times great powers into the roller coaster of rise, decline, and fall.
It might sound a bit mercantilistic to express the concept in this way, but resources are usually essential to build up military power, and military power is usually essential to protect and expand resources. If, however, too many of the hegemon’s resources are diverted from wealth creation and allocated in the defence budget, than that is likely to lead to a misalignment between expenditure and wealth, which in turn translates into a weakening of the hegemonic potential. By the same token, the conquest\influence over large territories or the waging of long and costly wars aggravates the imperialist over-expansion, contributing to the decline of great powers.
In short: hegemons seeking to preserve international orders – which they usually create in the first place – should monitor the equilibrium between imperialistic commitments (wars + international spending) and wealth creation-related activities. Superpowers who proved unable to either adjust or simply decrease their commitments when needed, failed to preserve hegemony.
What to make of the U.S. withdrawal?
If we look closely at the reasons that led to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, many of them prove that the American Empire – while paying a price in terms of reputation – has acted sensibly with respect to its strategic priorities. First, Afghanistan had lost its strategic value. Officially, however illusory, the objective set forth by the American agenda was already achieved after the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2010.
Importantly, the ending of American unipolarity and the beginning of a new era of great power competition – putatively against China and, for the sake of romanticism, against Russia – requires the US to pivot towards two key geopolitical regions: the South China Sea\Indo-pacific, paramount to the containment of Beijing, and the Eastern European plains, where Russia and NATO allies remain cheek to cheek, eyeball to eyeball.
Second, the Afghan infinite war drained Washington’s resources. The shock and awe invasion against Al-Qaida ordered by Bush Jr in 2001 and labeled as “Enduring Freedom Operation” had turned into a quasi-permanent peace-keeping presence in the graveyard of empires. To sustain its activities boots on the ground, the hegemon spent approximately 2 trillion U.S. Dollars, suffering more than 2400 casualties.
Third, what if the Afghan chaos overflows into Russia and China? In the last twenty years, Beijing and Moscow could free-ride the law-and-order systemestablished by the U.S. and her allies in Afghanistan. Free from the commitments of hegemonic leadership, Washington’s competitors increased their power at the expense of the western bloc. Whether China and Russia succeed to make agreements with Afghanistan’s new leaders – the Talibans – is of lesser importance: the Bear and the Dragon will have to spend huge resources to make sure the Afghan shadow does not extend over their territories.
Fourth, the withdrawal from Afghanistan sets the clock of American military doctrine back twenty years. The decision to leave Kabul conforms to the offshore balancing doctrine that the U.S. was forced to abandon in the wake of the 9\11 attacks. At a time that sees the U.S.-relative superiority thinning, Washington is implementing retrenchment to better-allocate its resources and decrease the cost of its commitments. If the Pentagon plays it well, however, the U.S. will preserve a deep-engagement approach in those regions deemed crucial for the American security priorities. Disengaging regions that are too expensive to keep under control would reduce Washington’s over-expansion while slowing down its global and regional competitors: Iran, China, Russia, and Pakistan have enjoyed U.S. guarantees for too long in the region. It’s time for them to learn the lesson that it is on their own.
If a negative note is to be made, however, the shameful way Washington handled the retreat will impact U.S. perceived reliability among allies. That is not to say that U.S. hegemonic reputation has been disrupted, as a few makeshift analysts argued. Rather, it means that the U.S. could no more be seen as universal guarantors of peace, but rather as that grumpy father that is better not to bother. Afghanistan marks a watershed between a before and an after in the perception of the United States, but it counts for nothing in the wider battle for hegemony.
This article did not seek to prove successful the twenty-years long American engagement in Afghanistan. For a few reasons. Beginning in September 2001, both U.S. and NATO operations consistently suffered from the lack of clear and predetermined objectives. Military and nation-building operations simply did not match with each other, leaving behind a long trail of failures and half-victories during the longest conflict ever fought by Washington.
Humanitarian and regime-change objectives weren’t met either: the installation of a democratic government in Kabul – held up by American dollars – was not followed by the commitment to the integral transformation of the country advocated by Bush Jr. The billions spent on training the Afghan army were also a failure: as soon as the White House gave orders to carry out the Doha agreements (signed in January 2020), the Afghan military disbanded. These critical issues add up to the reasons why the retreat from Afghanistan was not a strategic disaster.
At the end of the day, while the Taliban takeover might have future side-effects for Washington, the closing of the Afghan file will ease the reorganization of the American Empire.
 Michael Kryzanek, Paul Kennedy Vintage, 1988
 The latest victims date back to August 26, when a terrorist attack killed thirteen American soldiers and dozens of civilians at the Kabul airport.
About the author: Samuele Vasapollo is vice-president of Renovatio Imperii. After graduating in Political Science and International relations at the Catholic University of Milan, he has obtained a specialization in Middle Eastern Studies (High School of Economics and International Relations of Milan) and Global Affairs (Moscow State Institute of International Relations – MGIMO). Currently, he is finishing his academic career in International relations & Diplomacy at the LUISS University of Rome.
Want to read more articles written by the same author? Have a look at Ascesa e Declino dell’Impero ottomano, Analisi storica del Contenimento della Cina nel Pacifico and L’Impero romano ai tempi di Teodosio.