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End of an American Mindset

Aug 18, 2021
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

The image of the Afghan Taliban moving swiftly across Kabul, the nation’s capital, and seizing the presidential palace shocked the world. It signals not only the failure of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan over the course of 20 years but also the failure of the anti-terrorism mindset that underpins American diplomacy.

It has been widely suggested that U.S. foreign policy should shake off its Cold War framing. Meanwhile, since the start of the 21st century, counterterrorism thinking has also been a dominant theme in the ideological foundation of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. was shocked to the core by terrorism on 9/11, and the counterterrorism thinking has been buttressed in the global war on terrorism subsequently launched by the U.S., with implications for foreign policy in three aspects.

 First, the U.S. has failed in its attempt to build a new international order free of terrorism by virtue of military force through the war on terror. The U.S. says terrorism is a common enemy for the whole world and demands that no country should harbor, tolerate or assist terrorists. Countries around the world must choose: Either they are with the U.S. or against it.

Both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq were launched in the name of fighting terrorism. But in both wars, as soon as military strikes ended, the goal shifted to promoting American values and democratic nation-building. Such a simple dichotomy does not seem to win global support for the U.S. effort to build a new international order. Germany and France, among its European allies, did not support the war in Iraq, and terrorist organizations barely took heed of the concept of international order. With Al Qaeda continuing to operate and ISIS emerging in the Middle East, facts indicate that U.S. efforts to create an international order free of terrorism through power have failed.

 Second, diplomacy has been put on the back burner. Since 2001, the U.S. has made counterterrorism its top priority in foreign policy and leveraged its superior military power to practice unilateralism in foreign relations. Diplomacy seems to have become an option that could be dispensed with in U.S. statecraft.

Early this century, Dr. Henry Kissinger’s book “Does America Need a Foreign Policy” expressed concern for the future of American diplomacy in the era of globalization. The overwhelming U.S. military victories in the first months of warfare, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, led the U.S. to believe that a military solution could be found to any international problem, and the neoconservatives were convinced that military interventions presented faster and more efficient alternatives than protracted diplomatic negotiations for political solutions. A climate of distrust and reluctance to engage in dialogue has led to a gradual decline in the role of political diplomacy in U.S. foreign policy and a growing inclination toward the militarization of diplomacy. The fear of future attacks typical of victim psychology also gave rise to preemptive actions against terrorism. In a sense, the escalation of tensions in both the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues were spurred by this mentality.

 Third, the counterterrorism thinking of the past 20 years has rendered the U.S. public oblivious to the changes in the world, with people’s mood evolving from excessive arrogance after the initial military victory to heightened anxiety and then a lack of confidence after the 2008 financial crisis.

Once the war on terror began, the high walls and tight barbed wire that characterized heavy security at U.S. overseas missions erected corresponding high mental walls separating the U.S. from the world. People cannot help but think the U.S. has entered an era of self-imposed isolation. The thinking has hindered the innovation of U.S. strategic thinking, taking a toll on innovation in various mechanisms at home and abroad, as resources were focused on counterterrorism.

It was also during these 20 years that emerging economies are flowering. After the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. believed the war on terror had helped create an enabling environment for countries that challenged the U.S.-led international order. It has been the consistent intent of successive presidents since Obama to end the anti-terrorism era, but the powerful gravity of anti-terrorism thinking has forced them to move forward slowly. President Barack Obama declared the end of the war in Afghanistan after first increasing troop deployments to kill Osama bin Laden, but he was less forthcoming when it came to withdrawing U.S. troops.

President Donald Trump made an unprecedented move to negotiate with the Taliban and announced a U.S. troop withdrawal by May 2021. It was not until after President Joe Biden took office that the U.S. finally announced a complete withdrawal.

The U.S. made a hasty military withdrawal out of concern for regional instability and fear of a resurgence of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, and it has been criticized at home and abroad for this. On the 20th anniversary of the start of the U.S. global war on terrorism, the Biden administration’s decisive withdrawal from Afghanistan signifies an end to the era of counterterrorism-dominant American foreign policy, which in itself is to be welcomed.

Counterterrorism thinking has reinforced a sense of xenophobia in the United States, and it’s difficult for a country to grow when it constantly relies on fear. If the U.S. can take this as an opportunity to effect a complete reversal of its counterterrorism mindset, there will be a positive impact on the stability of international relations. The problem, however, is that while the counterterrorism mindset may gradually fade, the Cold War mentality is again taking hold. 

Counterterrorism thinking over the past 20 years teaches the lesson that reliance on military power has failed to get the U.S. anywhere near resolving international conflicts. By the same token, military confrontation is unlikely to resolve the challenges of great power competition stemming from major changes in the international power structure. The lessons of counterterrorism thinking merits sober and serious reflection. 

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