As Troops Chaotically Leave Afghanistan, Will an Overdue Discussion About the Limits of American Power Materialise?

Jack Clayton discusses the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and what it means for American foreign policy going forward.

The chaotic and violent scenes of the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan since American and Western troops began to withdraw after nearly twenty years, makes it harder to imagine how it could have gone much worse.  Consequently, President Joe Biden felt the need to defend his decision to press ahead with the withdrawal under an agreement negotiated by his predecessor, President Donald Trump. Biden dismissed concerns about the Taliban potentially taking over the country and the Afghan government collapsing, as well as the possibility of the exit being comparable to Vietnam as “highly unlikely”[1] as recently as July. Only just over a month later, the Taliban took over, the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country, and the Secretary of State Antony Blinken was forced to reject comparisons to America’s exit from Saigon[2].

The fallout of the withdrawal has understandably provoked strong opinions and condemnation from across the political spectrum. Critics of U.S foreign policy and its military interventionism, who argue it is a form of imperialism, have claimed that the withdrawal signals the fall of U.S power[3]. Others criticised Biden’s approach to Afghanistan as a moment of humiliation for America that undermines its global reputation and trustworthiness as an ally because they showed a lack of will[4]. Some have even gone as far to say that America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan represents a retreat into isolationism[5]. Big moments in international politics, and particularly U.S foreign policy can often prompt grand assessments or statements. Francis Fukuyama famously declared that the end of the Cold War marked “the end of history” and “the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”[6]. Over three decades later however, he has made another sweeping declaration that America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan spells the “end of American Hegemony”.[7] All of these are very different assessments of what the future for U.S foreign policy and geopolitics may be.

Nevertheless, they are equally as hyperbolic as each other by using rhetoric in almost absolute terms. According to much of the commentariat, America has either been in the ascendancy, or, as we are now reading, in decline and on a path towards isolationism. But they miss the woods for the trees. For one thing, America undoubtedly still possesses the strongest military in the world with its defence expenditure approximately equivalent of the next seven largest military budgets[8]. Furthermore, it has almost 800 military bases in 70 countries[9]. America therefore, does not seriously appear to be adopting an isolationist foreign policy approach any time soon.

The debate about whether America is in decline is more complex. America is certainly not as powerful on the international stage post-World War Two when Europe began to depend on America far more economically through the Marshall Plan. Today, China’s rapidly growing economy and global influence suggests that America has stiffer competition on that front. However, as Professor Josef Joffe of John Hopkins University says about the U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan, “decline however, this is not. Great powers falter when their material assets wane – as in the case of Britain in the 20th century. By contrast, the U.S remains the greatest economic power, backed up by technological advantage and the world’s most sophisticated army that can intervene anywhere on the planet, not to speak of the vast cultural clout China and Russia do not have”[10]. There does not seem (at least yet), to be a nation, or group of nations, willing or able to take on the global leadership role that much of the world regards America as having.

Perhaps what is unfolding therefore, is not a shift towards isolationism or an outright decline of U.S power and hegemony. Commentators often frame America and geopolitics in absolute terms. America has been portrayed as being in the ascendancy post-Cold War. For example, Charles Krauthammer argued that it was a “unipolar moment”[11], now many say America is in decline. Instead, what might be developing as the Afghanistan intervention ends, is the beginning of a foreign policy approach that America has struggled formulate for decades. One that begins to recognise its considerable, but nonetheless, limited power. This may not mean intervention is out of the question in the future. There is a high probability that future international crises will occur, and that the world will look to America to respond.

However, if there are lessons from Afghanistan, policymakers may take into greater consideration the amount of domestic and international support for intervention, as well as the plausibility of an exit strategy. The latter seemingly being especially timely. So rather than “the end” of anything, this may be the beginning of America assessing its limits of power. Something perhaps towards the doctrine of what Joseph Nye coined as “smart power”[12], that combines U.S military and diplomatic clout. Whether America is ready for that discussion is something only time will tell.

[1] Joe Biden, “Remarks by President Biden on the Drawdown of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan” July 8, 2021.

[2] ‘This is manifestly not Saigon’: Blinken defends US mission in Afghanistan. The Guardian. August 15, 2021.

[3] ‘Afghanistan And The Fall Of US Power’. Owen Jones. YouTube. August 22, 2021.

[4] Michael Day, ‘Taliban victory in Afghanistan is a humiliation for President Joe Biden and undermines US reputation’. i News. August 15, 2021.

[5] James Bloodworth. ‘After the Afghanistan withdrawal, the West will soon learn “troops out” has consequences’ The New Statesman, August 17, 2021.

[6] Francis Fukuyama. “The End of History?”. The National Interest (16): 3–18. 1989

[7] Francis Fukuyama. “Francis Fukuyama on the end of American hegemony”. The Economist. August 18, 2021.

[8] National Priorities Project. “U.S. Military Spending vs. the World”.

[9] Julian Borger. “After the chaos in Kabul, is the American century over?”. The Guardian. August 21, 2021.

[10] Ibid

[11] Charles Krauthammer. “The Unipolar Moment”. Foreign Affairs. 1990.

[12] Richard Armitage & Joseph Nye. “CSIS Commission on Smart Power. Center for Strategic and International Studies. 2012.


Jack Clayton is a SOAS PhD student researching the Vietnam Syndrome and the influence of American public opinion towards US military intervention post-Iraq War.

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