The Winner in Afghanistan: China

By Alfred McCoy is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author most recently of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books). His latest book (to be published in October by Dispatch Books) is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change. Originally published at TomDispatch.

The collapse of the American project in Afghanistan may fade fast from the news here, but don’t be fooled. It couldn’t be more significant in ways few in this country can even begin to grasp.

“Remember, this is not Saigon,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a television audience on August 15th, the day the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital, pausing to pose for photos in the grandly gilded presidential palace. He was dutifully echoing his boss, President Joe Biden, who had earlier rejected any comparison with the fall of the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, in 1975, insisting that “there’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”

Both were right, but not in the ways they intended. Indeed, the collapse of Kabul was not comparable. It was worse, incomparably so. And its implications for the future of U.S. global power are far more serious than the loss of Saigon.

On the surface, similarities abound. In both South Vietnam and Afghanistan, Washington spent 20 years and countless billions of dollars building up massive, conventional armies, convinced that they could hold off the enemy for a decent interval after the U.S. departure. But presidents Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam and Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan both proved to be incompetent leaders who never had a chance of retaining power without continued fulsome American backing.

Amid a massive North Vietnamese offensive in the spring of 1975, President Thieu panicked and ordered his army to abandon the northern half of the country, a disastrous decision that precipitated Saigon’s fall just six weeks later. As the Taliban swept across the countryside this summer, President Ghani retreated into a fog of denial, insisting his troops defend every remote, rural district, allowing the Taliban to springboard from seizing provincial capitals to capturing Kabul in just 10 days.

With the enemy at the gates, President Thieu filled his suitcases with clinking gold bars for his flight into exile, while President Ghani (according to Russian reports) snuck off to the airport in a cavalcade of cars loaded with cash. As enemy forces entered Saigon and Kabul, helicopters ferried American officials from the U.S. embassy to safety, even as surrounding city streets swarmed with panicked local citizens desperate to board departing flights.

Critical Differences

So much for similarities. As it happens, the differences were deep and portentous. By every measure, the U.S. capacity for building and supporting allied armies has declined markedly in the 45 years between Saigon and Kabul. After President Thieu ordered that disastrous northern retreat, replete with dismal scenes of soldiers clubbing civilians to board evacuation flights bound for Saigon, South Vietnam’s generals ignored their incompetent commander-in-chief and actually began to fight.

On the road to Saigon at Xuan Loc, an ordinary South Vietnamese unit, the 18th Division, fought battle-hardened North Vietnamese regulars backed by tanks, trucks, and artillery to a standstill for two full weeks. Not only did those South Vietnamese soldiers take heavy casualties, with more than a third of their men killed or wounded, but they held their positions through those long days of “meat-grinder” combat until the enemy had to circle around them to reach the capital.

In those desperate hours as Saigon was falling, General Nguyen Khoa Nam, head of the only intact South Vietnamese command, faced an impossible choice between making a last stand in the Mekong Delta and capitulating to communist emissaries who promised him a peaceful surrender. “If I am unable to carry out my job of protecting the nation,” the general told a subordinate, “then I must die, along with my nation.” That night, seated at his desk, the general shot himself in the head. In South Vietnam’s last hours as a state, four of his fellow generals also committed suicide. At least 40 more lower-ranking officers and soldiers also chose death over dishonor.

On the road to Kabul, by contrast, there were no heroic last stands by regular Afghan army units, no protracted combat, no heavy casualties, and certainly no command suicides. In the nine days between the fall of Afghanistan’s first provincial capital on August 6th and the capture of Kabul on August 15th, all of the well-equipped, well-trained Afghan soldiers simply faded away before Taliban guerrillas equipped mainly with rifles and tennis sneakers.

After losing their salaries and rations to graft for the previous six to nine months, those hungry Afghan troops simply surrendered en masse, took Taliban cash payments, and handed over their weapons and other costly U.S. equipment. By the time the guerrillas reached Kabul, driving Humvees and wearing Kevlar helmets, night-vision goggles, and body armor, they looked like so many NATO soldiers. Instead of taking a bullet, Afghanistan’s commanders took the cash — both graft from padding their payrolls with “ghost soldiers” and bribes from the Taliban.

The difference between Saigon and Kabul has little to do with the fighting ability of the Afghan soldier. As the British and Soviet empires learned to their dismay when guerrillas slaughtered their soldiers in spectacular numbers, ordinary Afghan farmers are arguably the world’s finest fighters. So why wouldn’t they fight for Ashraf Ghani and his secular democratic state in far-off Kabul?

The key difference would seem to lie in the fading of America’s aura as the planet’s number one power and of its state-building capacities. At the peak of its global hegemony back in the 1960s, the United States, with its unequalled material resources and moral authority, could make a reasonably convincing case to the South Vietnamese that the political mix of electoral democracy and capitalist development it sponsored was the way forward for any nation. Today, with its reduced global clout and tarnished record in Iraq, Libya, and Syria (as well as in prisons like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo), America’s capacity to infuse its nation-building projects with any real legitimacy — that elusive sine qua non for the survival of any state — has apparently dropped significantly.

The Impact on U.S. Global Power

In 1975, the fall of Saigon did indeed prove a setback to Washington’s world order. Still, America’s underlying strength, both economic and military, was robust enough then for a partial rebound.

Adding to the sense of crisis at the time, the loss of South Vietnam coincided with two more substantial blows to Washington’s international system and the clout that went with it. Just a few years before Saigon’s collapse, the German and Japanese export booms had so eroded America’s commanding global economic position that the Nixon administration had to end the automatic convertibility of the dollar to gold. That, in turn, effectively broke the Bretton Woods system that had been the foundation of U.S. economic strength since 1944.

Meanwhile, with Washington mired in its self-made Vietnam quagmire, that other Cold War power, the Soviet Union, continued to build hundreds of nuclear-armed missiles and so functionally forced Washington to recognize its military parity in 1972 by signing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Strategic Arms Limitation Protocol.

With the weakening of the economic and nuclear pillars on which so much of America’s paramount power rested, Washington was forced to retreat from its role as the great global hegemon and become a mere first among equals.

Washington’s Relations with Europe

Almost half a century later, the sudden, humiliating fall of Kabul threatens even that more limited leadership role. Although the U.S. occupied Afghanistan for 20 years with the full support of its NATO allies, when President Biden walked away from that shared “nation-building” mission, he did so without the slightest consultation with those very allies.

America lost 2,461 soldiers in Afghanistan, including 13 who died tragically during the airport evacuation. Its allies suffered 1,145 killed, including 62 German soldiers and 457 British troops. No wonder those partners held understandable grievances when Biden acted without the slightest notice to or discussion with them. “There is serious loss of trust,” observed Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to Washington. “But the real lesson… for Europe is this: Do we really want to be totally dependent on U.S. capabilities and decisions forever, or can Europe finally begin to be serious about becoming a credible strategic actor?”

For Europe’s more visionary leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, the answer to that timely question was obvious: build a European defense force free from Washington’s whims and so avoid “the Chinese-American duopoly, the dislocation, the return of hostile regional powers.” In fact, right after the last American planes left Kabul, a summit of European Union officials made it clear that the time had come to stop “depending on American decisions.” They called for the creation of a European army that would give them “greater decision-making autonomy and greater capacity for action in the world.”

In short, with America First populism now a major force in this country’s politics, assume that Europe will pursue a foreign policy increasingly freed from Washington’s influence.

Central Asia’s Geopolitics

And Europe may be the least of it. The stunning capture of Kabul highlighted an American loss of leadership that extended into Asia and Africa, with profound geopolitical implications for the future of U.S. global power. Above all, the Taliban’s victory will effectively force Washington out of Central Asia and so help to consolidate Beijing’s already ongoing control over parts of that strategic region. It, in turn, could prove to be the potential geopolitical pivot for China’s dominance over the vast Eurasian land mass, home to 70% of the globe’s population and productivity.

Speaking at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan in 2013 (though nobody in Washington was then listening), China’s President Xi Jinping announced his country’s strategy for winning the twenty-first-century version of the deadly “great game” that nineteenth-century empires once played for control of Central Asia. With gentle gestures that belied his imperious intent, Xi asked that academic audience to join him in building an “economic belt along the Silk Road” that would “expand development space in the Eurasian region” through infrastructure “connecting the Pacific and the Baltic Sea.” In the process of establishing that “belt and road” structure, they would, he claimed, be building “the biggest market in the world with unparalleled potential.”

In the eight years since that speech, China has indeed been spending over a trillion dollars on its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) to construct a transcontinental grid of railroads, oil pipelines, and industrial infrastructure in a bid to become the world’s premier economic power. More specifically, Beijing has used the BRI as a geopolitical pincers movement, a diplomatic squeeze play. By laying down infrastructure around the northern, eastern, and western borders of Afghanistan, it has prepared the way for that war-torn nation, freed of American influence and full of untapped mineral resources (estimated at a trillion dollars), to fall safely into Beijing’s grasp without a shot being fired.

To the north of Afghanistan, the China National Petroleum Corporation has collaborated with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to launch the Central Asia–China gas pipeline, a system that will eventually extend more than 4,000 miles across the heart of Eurasia. Along Afghanistan’s eastern frontier, Beijing began spending $200 million in 2011 to transform a sleepy fishing village at Gwadar, Pakistan, on the Arabian Sea, into a modern commercial port only 370 miles from the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Four years later, President Xi committed $46 billion to building a China–Pakistan Economic Corridor of roads, rails, and pipelines stretching nearly 2,000 miles along Afghanistan’s eastern borderlands from China’s western provinces to the now-modernized port of Gwadar.

To the west of Afghanistan, Beijing broke through Iran’s diplomatic isolation last March by signing a $400 billion development agreement with Tehran. Over the next 25 years, China’s legions of laborers and engineers will lay down a transit corridor of oil and natural gas pipelines to China, while also building a vast new rail network that will make Tehran the hub of a line stretching from Istanbul, Turkey, to Islamabad, Pakistan.

By the time these geopolitical pincers pull Afghanistan firmly into Beijing’s BRI system, the country may have become just another Middle Eastern theocracy like Iran or Saudi Arabia. While the religious police harass women and troops battle festering insurgencies, the Taliban state can get down to its real business — not defending Islam, but cutting deals with China to mine its vast reserves of rare minerals and collect transit taxes on the new $10 billion TAPI gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan (which desperately needs affordable energy).

With lucrative royalties from its vast store of rare-earth minerals, the Taliban could afford to end its current fiscal dependence on drugs. They could actually ban the country’s now booming opium harvest, a promise their new government spokesman has already made in a bid for international recognition. Over time, the Taliban leadership might discover, like the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran, that a developing economy can’t afford to waste its women. As a result, there might even be some slow, fitful progress on that front, too.

If such a projection of China’s future economic role in Afghanistan seems fanciful to you, consider that the underpinnings for just such a future deal were being put in place while Washington was still dithering over Kabul’s fate. At a formal meeting with a Taliban delegation in July, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi hailed their movement as “an important military and political force.”

In response, Taliban head Mullah Abdul Baradar, displaying the very leadership that American-installed President Ashraf Ghani so clearly lacked, praised China as a “reliable friend” and promised to foster “an enabling investment environment” so that Beijing could play “a bigger role in future reconstruction and economic development.” Formalities finished, the Afghan delegation then met behind closed doors with China’s assistant foreign minister to exchange what the official communiqué called “in-depth views on issues of common concern, which helped enhance mutual understanding” — in short, who gets what and for how much.

The World-Island Strategy

China’s capture of Eurasia, should it be successful, will be but one part of a far grander design for control over what Victorian geographer Halford Mackinder, an early master of modern geopolitics, called the “world island.” He meant the tricontinental land mass comprising the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. For the past 500 years, one imperial hegemon after another, including Portugal, Holland, Britain, and the United States, has deployed its strategic forces around that world island in a bid to dominate such a sprawling land mass.

While for the last half-century Washington has arrayed its vast air and naval armadas around Eurasia, it generally relegated Africa to, at best, an afterthought — at worst, a battleground. Beijing, by contrast, has consistently treated that continent with the utmost seriousness.

When the Cold War came to southern Africa in the early 1970s, Washington spent the next 20 years in an arm’s-length alliance with apartheid South Africa, while using the CIA to fight a leftist liberation movement in Portuguese-controlled Angola. While Washington spent billions wreaking havoc by supplying right-wing African warlords with automatic weapons and land mines, Beijing launched its first major foreign-aid project. It built the thousand-mile Tanzania-to-Zambia railway. Not only was it the longest in Africa when completed in 1975, but it allowed landlocked Zambia, a front-line state in the struggle against the apartheid regime in Pretoria, to avoid South Africa when exporting its copper.

From 2015 on, building upon its historic ties to the liberation movements that won power across southern Africa, Beijing planned a decade-long trillion-dollar infusion of capital there. Much of it was to be designated for commodities-extraction projects that would make that continent China’s second-largest source of crude oil. With such an investment (equaling its later BRI commitments to Eurasia), China also doubled its annual trade with Africa to $222 billion, three times America’s total.

While that aid to liberation movements once had an ideological undercurrent, today it’s been succeeded by savvy geopolitics. Beijing seems to understand just how fast Africa’s progress has been in the single generation since that continent won its freedom from a particularly rapacious version of colonial rule. Given that it’s the planet’s second most populous continent, rich in human and material resources, China’s trillion-dollar bet on Africa’s future will likely pay rich dividends, both political and economic, someday soon.

With a trillion dollars invested in Eurasia and another trillion in Africa, China is engaged in nothing less than history’s largest infrastructure project. It’s crisscrossing those three continents with rails and pipelines, building naval bases around the southern rim of Asia, and ringing the whole tricontinental world island with a string of 40 major commercial ports.

Such a geopolitical strategy has become Beijing’s battering ram to crack open Washington’s control over Eurasia and thereby challenge what’s left of its global hegemony. America’s unequalled military air and sea armadas still allow it rapid movement above and around those continents, as the mass evacuation from Kabul showed so forcefully. But the slow, inch-by-inch advance of China’s land-based, steel-ribbed infrastructure across the deserts, plains, and mountains of that world island represents a far more fundamental form of future control.

As China’s geopolitical squeeze play on Afghanistan shows all too vividly, there is still much wisdom in the words that Sir Halford Mackinder wrote over a century ago: “Who rules the World Island commands the World.”

To that, after watching a Washington that’s invested so much in its military be humiliated in Afghanistan, we might add: Who does not command the World Island cannot command the World.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


    1. Keith Newman

      Indeed. It is clearly in China’s economic interest for countries far and wide to become outlets for its exports and sources for its imports of raw materials and other basic materials. This could be potentially beneficial for all parties. Whether it turns into an imperialist venture remains to be seen. Do the Chinese elite and people want to devote vast resources to the military to dominate other countries? After seeing the failure of the Soviet Union and the US, I have my doubts.

      1. Richard

        N.B. Not a word in this discussion of China’s world strategy on combating global warming. Development, resources, growth, all the way down.

        I think this reflects reality, not the author’s omission, and I think it is something we should very carefully consider.

    1. Ian Perkins

      If McCoy is right, and I think he is, a whole swathe of countries, from Iran in the west, Russia to the north, China in the east, Pakistan and India (to the extent it chooses not to side with Japan, Australia and the US against China) to the south, and various nations in between, stand to win. A vast chunk of Asia looks set to become increasingly interconnected via a network of roads, railways, pipelines, ports and trade, with strong links to Africa and South America, and much of Europe waking up to this new reality. If the US wants to see all this as a threat, so be it. It’ll have a hard time finding allies for any new military ventures, beyond the likes of Israel and Saudi Arabia which are as likely to play it as follow its lead, and its relative economic power is waning fast.

      1. Christopher Horne

        Ha, ha, ha! My last post on this site, in a discussion dominated by
        a lot of serious and famous economists was exactly about the
        China/Africa future. Ignored!
        Nice to feel a certain schadenfreude, Yves.

    2. Larry Y

      US flooded Afghanistan with dollars, just very little of it was wisely spent.

      China will use the same playbook as elsewhere – work with whoever is clearly in charge, and build useful stuff like infrastructure – ports, roads, rail, and soccer stadiums. And be a lot less preachy about it.

      1. Ashburn

        Most of it went into the pockets of US contractors (90%?) or the corrupt pockets of our collaborationist Afghan hirelings.

    1. James E Keenan

      It does not. Chinese spending of US dollars has little effect on the rate of price increases in the United States. Such increases as we are currently experiencing are much more strongly explained by supply-side constraints which have been well covered in the press.

      1. MonkeyBusiness

        Really? The sudden infusion of 4 trillion dollars + 120 billion per month in QE didn’t count eh? So if everyday the Fed were to print 4 trillion dollars, the problem will still be supply side constraints?

    2. Louis Fyne

      on the fringes, yes.

      China sends tube socks to the US. US pays in dollars. Some polite chap in an industrial park uses those dollars to get global cotton, local coal electricity, and reserve global shipping cargo space.

      Now scale up that chain to toys, books, anything-everythimg in your house to the tune of $x00+ billion, juiced by all that pandemic stimulus used to buy non-US made goods.

  1. Neil Bryson

    McCoy’s analysis that Japans and German exports were the main instigator in ditching the gold standard is in contrast to Michael Hudson’s. Hudson maintains that the vast majority of post WWll Bal of Payments was in military spending, The French and others demanding gold fearing the devaluing of the US dollar.

    1. Questa Nota

      Guns inflation as defense contractors found creative ways to procure weapons, hammers and toilet seats.

      Butter inflation elsewhere as LBJ social programs ramped up.

    2. TimD

      Neil, it is an interesting period. The US was offshoring production so companies could make more money, Japan and other countries were getting that investment, the Vietnam war was ending and then there was the oil crisis. Somewhere in the early 70s was the last time the US had balanced foreign trade and now the annual trade deficit is in the $800 billion range.

  2. James E Keenan

    I’ve been an admirer of Alfred McCoy’s work since hearing about The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia as an undergraduate in 1972. I recall that it was a major source of material for the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s production, The Dragon Lady’s Revenge.

    I have only one quibble with his analysis: Why should we assume that the PRC will have any easier time establishing hegemony in Afghanistan than did the British, the Soviet Union or the US — particularly given the Pakistani government’s major role in creating and sustaining the Afghan Taliban?

    1. lyman alpha blob

      I think the first commenter nailed it – too much of an imperialist mindset here. It’s quite possible that China doesn’t want to be a hegemon at all. The author notes that China played a big role in developing the African continent over 40 years ago and that hasn’t been followed up by invasions and destabilizing nations, which is more than the US can say.

      Maybe they just want to peaceably trade and keep their people fed? Yes, China has had imperial ambitions during its history, but it’s also quite possible that they’ve learned some valuable lessons after watching the US military flail and fail on several continents in recent decades.

      They seem to be much better at long term thinking than US “leadership”.

      1. Ian Perkins

        All true, except for ‘the first commenter nailed it’. I don’t see what in McCoy’s piece shows ‘a Western 19th-century imperialist mindset’, nor any indication he thinks China wishes to replace the US as a global hegemon. On the contrary, I read the article as saying China’s going about things in a totally different way to the US, and with very different ends in mind, as you and Tom Pfotzer also seem to read it.

        1. lyman alpha blob

          This to me is imperialist mindset –

          As China’s geopolitical squeeze play on Afghanistan shows all too vividly, there is still much wisdom in the words that Sir Halford Mackinder wrote over a century ago: “Who rules the World Island commands the World.”

          Not “trading with Afghanistan for the benefit of both countries” but “geopolitical squeeze play”. Followed immediately by the insinuation that doing so will allow them to rule the world, even though that quote used as justification was from a Western imperialist, not the Chinese.

          1. John

            Ruling the World Island implies influence, clout, not hegemony.The USA switched from 19th century imperialism to so-called dollar diplomacy. The difference as I see it is that China builds the infrastructure which benefits the country in which it is situated. China benefits with, for example, Zambian copper or rare minerals in the future from Afghanistan.I see it more in the manner of the tributary relationships that existed under the empire. Tribute being trade in disguise. All this is fueled as one commenter put by, “patience and money”. Our efforts in Afghanistan were a one-way street… and too preachy by half.

    2. Tom Pfotzer

      “Why should we assume that the PRC will have any easier time establishing hegemony in Afghanistan than did the British, the Soviet Union or the US”?

      Here are some good reasons:

      a. The BRI parties took their time to lay the political infrastructure. They did gradual deals, built trust and built facilities joint-owned. The parties to the deal are bought-in.

      b. China is a credible economic engine. It can build the infrastructure components, it’s got big domestic demand for the trade-partners’ goods, and it’s creating huge markets for all the materials and goods the partners can now and will produce. China has very large cash reserves, too. They can afford the bill for the BRI.

      c. The BRI players know the West’s game-moves. They have prepared and planned to counter them. And they are coordinated due to SCO, etc. You can imagine what the conversations are @ SCO meetings: making deals and exchanging technique to counter the West’s interference. They’ve been doing this for a few decades now.

      d. The West created enemies of each of the key BRI players by trying to isolate, divide, starve and otherwise squash them down. The BRI players have common anti-West interests, and the West worked diligently since WWII to create that animosity.

      e. While China has emphasized trade as policy for decades, the Russians are now watching and learning. Russia has energy and materials to trade, and is using the proceeds to build its own economy to move up the value-chain. Russia has a lot of good moves available to it, and it can get security and prosperity via political cooperation and trade instead of military domination. Russia has figured this out, and is committed to that policy.

      f. China is setting a very good example of how to run a society and to run an economy that supports that society. China raised more people out of poverty faster than any society in history. Others have noticed, and want to learn from / adopt from China. They have accumulated a lot of “soft power”.

      As others have noted, the author spent a lot of ink talking about military adventures, battle technique, and top-down geopolitical domination. That’s wasted effort.

      The story is “countries are banding together to move beyond the model of external exploitation and are actually helping their people prosper”. Multi-polarism. Trade. Making deals. Cooperation.

      The article says nothing about what the West could learn from this situation.

      1. Ian Perkins

        I think the implicit lesson for the West is obvious, though not directly spelled out. Stop treating this emerging World Island as the enemy, and become a willing part of it. Europe shows signs of heeding this, though I wonder if the US ever will.

        1. Tom Pfotzer

          Ian: of course you’re right. It’s obvious.

          And it’s just as obvious that there’s a durable and systematic reason that we don’t do the obvious.

          There seems to be a parasitic ethos permeating our society; it’s concentrated at the top (the so-called “elites”) and there’s a big tranche of sub-feeders, hangers-on and apparatchiks that are on the gravy train. It’s not just the MIC or the plunder-weak-nations’-resources crowd; the ethos is also endemic to the the health care, finance and education con-games.

          There isn’t going to be a top-down learning until things get really, really bad.

          There can certainly be bottom-up learning, wherein the bottom layer of the extraction pyramid – those who are not part of the scams – that bottom layer finds ways to “sprout legs and walk away”.

          And let what remains of the pyramid feast upon itself.


          In a comment below, Jack has set it out clearly:

          “Our greed, or rather our allowing the greed of our elite to govern our country will be our downfall”.

          It’s not just the elites, though. The scams have a lot of buy-in. There’s a reason we “don’t look too closely”.

          It seems like the time has come to define a line of demarcation between the scam-operators (parasitical ethos) and the creative-ethos folks that want to build a viable society.

          1. Kouros

            Name one whistleblower honored and reward for looking too closely and sharing his/her findings with the public, in any domain, not only national security… I wouldn’t call it therefore buy-in. There are some carrots, true, but there are lots and lots of sticks…

            1. Tom Pfotzer

              Plenty carrots. MIC has huge payroll; most of defense budget is payroll. Don’t overlook that. Same for finance, health care, education. There are a lot of people funding their household ops by buying-in.

              I’m not refuting your assertion. There are plenty of sticks. But there are waaay more carrots operative. That’s why MIC has operations in most congressional districts. They are experts at co-option.

              Think about all the commentary you’ve seen vilifying the whistle-blowers. It’s not all top-down vitriol. Lot of lateral “yer a traitor” talk.

          2. Rolf

            I’m late to this great discussion. But am in strong agreement with many of these points. And defining this line in the US, identifying parasitic versus creative behavior of broad social benefit, cannot come too soon.

    3. 3_man

      You’re assuming that the Chinese are that bothered about hegemony, at least in the conventional sense of the word. I would imagine their main concern is with influencing the Taleban to keep the likes of IS and Al Qaeda out of the Uyghur region, at least for now. That and poking the Americans in the eye.

      It’s difficult to imagine the Chinese resorting to the same kind of military adventurism as the others did.

  3. H. Toin

    An interesting overview of facts on the different economic projects launched by China, but there’s a total projection of the Anglo-Saxon mindset, as in any powerful nation has the overwhelming desire to conquer and dominate the planet.

    Of course China is developing and protecting their interests, but the reality of BRI and associated projects has nothing to do with the urge to dominate Eurasia (or very little). As it stood twenty years ago, all of their economic supply routes were maritime and could be destroyed by the US in case of a conflict. It’s not for nothing the US have many bases all around the Indian Ocean, South and East China Sea, Yellow Sea. With the belligerence coming out of Washington it would have been suicidal not to develop land routes. Germany in WWI shows what happens otherwise.

    On top of the skewed analysis, IMHO, we have a few howlers :
    – Mackinder a master of modern geopolitics? Hardly. The world island theory was cooked up to justify retrospectively the Great Game between the British and Russian empires and put a “rational” sheen on more imperialist ventures. It’s a massive understatement that the world today is nothing like it was at the end of the 19th century, and just lazy to state this theory still holds. Though a lot of politicians and analysts still believe in it, hence actions like the invasion of Afghanistan.

    – Portugal and Holland had a bid to dominate Eurasia? Yeah right, I’d like to have what he’s on.

    – And as for the visionary Emmanuel Macron, that had me laughing. I know he’s much loved and admired outside of France, he’s as smooth as Obama, but being French and living here, he’s just your classic run-of-the-mill authoritarian neo-liberal atlanticist, as we’ve had so many in Europe since 9/11.
    The fantasy of an independent European defence is something that has been trotted out at regular intervals since the sixties, it’s that old. But the treaty instituting the EU in 1992 states that European defence is taken care of by Nato (art. 42), so I’ll start believing in an independent European army when hens will have teeth (quand les poules auront des dents, meaning never).

    1. Ian Perkins

      there’s a total projection of the Anglo-Saxon mindset, as in any powerful nation has the overwhelming desire to conquer and dominate the planet.

      What do you see in McCoy’s article to suggest this in the case of China?

      1. H. Toin

        The first paragraph after the title : Central Asia’s Geopolitics
        potential geopolitical pivot for China’s dominance over the vast Eurasian land mass, home to 70% of the globe’s population and productivity
        And just the general undertone of the description of a lot of China’s moves. Even thinking of this conceptually is bizarre, 70% of the population is a lot of people. But maybe I read too much into it here, you see it so often in geopolitical analyses though.

        @Louis Fyne below :
        Touché, probably my own bias against the perfidious Albion getting into print; even though I grew up there and like it a lot. Should have written Anglo-European mindset. The French certainly had their share of going around the planet to do some dominating.

        1. Ian Perkins

          China’s dominance

          China has a huge landmass, a huge population, and a huge economy. It can’t really avoid dominance. It can’t pretend to be a little country like Zambia or Laos.

          That doesn’t imply it has the overwhelming desire to conquer the planet. It’s shown little sign so far of wanting to bomb, invade, destabilise or sanction other nations, let alone nations on the other side of the world. Its actions in places it regards as historically Chinese, such as Tibet and Hong Kong, may be questionable, and it has had wars with its neighbours such as India and Vietnam, but with no apparent intention of conquering them.

          I wonder if the general undertone you detect in McCoy’s piece is projection, a result of decades of US foreign policy that poses every question in terms of whether to attack militarily or not.

    2. Louis Fyne

      minor nit pick….please don’t blame the Anglo-Saxons :)

      the historical direct line to the English Establishment (basically the nobility/landed gentry below the titular Crown) comes from the Viking-Norman-French.

      the Anglo-Normans were pretty brutal to the Anglo-Saxon natives post-1066, and then set the precedent for imperial expansion by going after the Welsh and Irish (partly financed by all their french holdings)

      “anglo-saxon” exceptionalism was created by English historians who wanted to whitewash the English Establishment’s common ties with the French given Napoleon, etc.

      if anything, the world probably would be a better place had the Normans lost 1066. Though the Americas probably would look very different and I wouldn’t be here tapping this comment out

    3. Randy G

      H. Toin — Greatly appreciated a number of your points, particularly your critique of the areas where McCoy has simply crammed historical events into his monomaniacal narrative based on Mackinder’s imperial ‘world island’ perspective. That said, McCoy remains one of the most insightful American historians with a legacy of valuable contributions.

      It was amusing to see McCoy refer to Chinese “geopolitical pincers movement” as if this were almost as sinister as the thousand U.S. military bases dotting the planet or the endless bombing campaigns and invasions. The phrase ‘pincer movements’, seems more appropriate to military historians such as David Glantz, describing Soviet and Nazi conflicts on the Eastern Front.

      Wait a second… these ‘pincer movements’ consist of train tracks, infrastructure, trade, and ports? And the Chinese won’t be killing millions of people in wars in East Asia and the Middle East? Don’t they know how to run an Empire?

      Can’t imagine a more oxymoronic statement than a “visionary European leader” at this point. I also had the impression that Macron is nothing more than a French Obama, signifying little more than a stale product with a “new and improved” marketing campaign. Well, at least some French citizens also see it that way. By the way, in earlier writings, McCoy praised the deep geopolitical ‘insights’ of Obama, particular his “pivot to Asia”, which seems beyond parody.

      Blasé European leaders, however, simply cannot match the abysmal and delusional ‘elites’ floating to the top in the English speaking world. Boris Johnson. Scott Morrison. Trudeau. Trump. Biden and Kamala Harris. Maybe Trump again — or someone worse such as Ted Cruz or Tom Cotton.

      A pass to Ardern, who at least comes across as a decent human being. Nonetheless, New Zealand is a tiny nation whose main value, at least for certain outsiders, is that it will serve as a refuge of last resort for the billionaires and oligarchs once they have made the rest of the planet unlivable.

      What can American and Western politicians learn from the debacle in Afghanistan? Well, if you have a collection of ossified and neutered oligarchs whose role is to serve the MIC and Wall Street, probably nothing.

      Congress has just resolved to give the Pentagon 37 billion more for next year’s budget. Things went so well in Afghanistan, we need to get ready for a war with China. What could go wrong?

      1. Ian Perkins

        I thought McCoy used the phrase ‘geopolitical pincers movement’ intending it as a somewhat amusing and deliberate contrast to its usual usage. The very next sentence explains that it consists of infrastructure projects, freeing the region of malign US influence ‘without a shot being fired.’ US foreign policy can’t conceive of geopolitics without a major military dimension front and centre, while China sees it in terms of trade and infrastructure – which seemed to me what the article was overwhelmingly about.

        1. Ian Perkins

          And what country was caught in this ‘geopolitical pincers movement’? Surely the USA, unless you think the previous Afghan government held sway over anything.

  4. Jack

    Reading this article gave me pause to consider the difference between a nation that is guided primarily by its goals as a nation, FOR the nation, vs. a nation guided primarily by its goals FOR enriching private interests. You can debate the reasons why Xi and the communist party does what it does, but it’s actions seem to be primarily for China as a whole and not private business. On the other hand the US now and historically seems to do little that does not benefit private business interests and indirectly various special interest groups. Our greed, or rather our allowing the greed of our elite to govern our country will be our downfall. We are already experiencing accelerating declines in every aspect of our society; health care, housing, food, and income. How soon before that becomes a free fall? I really have no solution to suggest that could take the blinders off of our populace and make them see what the reality is. Yet, we revel in our celebration of patriotism marking an event that happened 20 years ago where less than 3,000 individuals lost their lives one day, while we ignore the over 4,000 deaths that occurred in a single day and total over 660,000 over the last 1.5 years. As a nation we never bothered really to try and find out exactly why 9/11 really happened. And as a nation we certainly have made little effort to discover the root cause of Covid or deal with the effects it is having on our society. Our inability to deal with the Covid crisis while China has done so is another example of how China has out done us as a nation.

  5. samhill

    Was waiting for McCoy’s outlook on recent happenings. For me looking back at the post war/cold war years what actually seemed “so well thought out” i.e. our successes, after all that’s happened from Reagan onwards, looks now like we were always just winging it. Why would the USA be so casual about things so critical? Because we can, that’s the privilege of being the hegemon, someone else at home and abroad always pays the price, but the hegemonic juggernaut rolls on. As long as it lasts, different world these days with both Russia and China global capitalists. You can’t isolate them like during the Cold War, that would be the market amputating an arm and both legs not a finger and a toe like back in 1945, it’s not going to happen, the hegemony will unravel. The privileged overlords of the hegemon seemingly don’t get that or are at a total loss for an answer, but their vassals get it which is why it will unravel as they try to wiggle their balls out of the vice and seek the shiny new lucre, just like they sought the shiny old lucre. Most entertaining part is watching Blinken, Sullivan, and Harris telling the vassals that the other guy’s vice will be worse. “Err, yeh, we’ll take our chances if you don’t mind.”

    1. samhill

      Just to follow up on myself :-) the other option, the scary one, is that if the technical in-a-nutshell definition of fascism is the merging of the market and state power then if the USA fails at winning over the vassals’ hearts and minds for a second round, for the new era, only thing left is to tighten the vise down harder, real hard. You see it everywhere, install ever more corrupt, incapable, mindless regimes across the vassals, EU states included, so as to apply ever more surveillance state blackmail on those nations’ compromised elites. Where would that self applied iron fist take the West with regards to Russia and China? Well, where fascism aways takes things…

    2. Ian Perkins

      the other guy’s vice will be worse

      The Empire keeps warning of the ‘debt trap’ China is preparing with its overseas infrastructure investments. Perhaps someone will correct me, but its solution when debts can’t be repaid seems to be along the lines of giving China control of the port it’s just built for the next 99 years. A bit of a contrast to the Western approach of demanding everything be privatised, foreign companies allowed to plunder whatever they want, unemployment left to soar, and all social safety nets abolished. Not to mention assassinating leaders who don’t comply.

      1. hunkerdown

        Tightened up a bit:

        Neoliberals HATE them! See how China is creating things They CAN’T buy… with this one weird trick!

  6. TimD

    China is better at playing the long game and focusing on economics over power. They had the world’s largest copper mine in Afghanistan when I heard about it in 2008, even though there was a war going on. BTW – security for it was provided by an American company. America is focused on projecting power while China is investing in infrastructure that will supply raw materials to its factories and ensure they can transport goods to markets that they are developing.

    I found it interesting that the US spent $2.3 projecting power in Afghanistan – about double what the Chinese have spent on BRI. It is pretty clear who got the better deal. Projecting power, by punishing those who work against your goals, keeps people in line but it does not necessarily generate the funds to pay for it. The US national debt has increased by $22 trillion since the start of the Afghan war, I how much it will cost to beat-up the next country to get out of line.

    1. Susan the other

      After first reading the Link on the “irreversibility of job creation risk” above, talking about “strictly positive profits” it is mind-boggling to read McCoy’s detailed account of China’s business model. They are undoubtedly giving people the means to create their own, and China’s, prosperity. While we are hesitant at best. The only thing I wonder about is how China, after creating all this global infra, will guide it, manage to maintain it and make it sustainable. The maintenance and sustainability of progress is an orphan. All the attention goes into the up-front construction. And quick profits. I’m sure China has plans. I read periodically about their environmental efforts. But that’s a whole-lotta-production they are setting up to maintain. We have become too cautious. Our lack of nation-building expertise extends even to our own nation. That’s because (imo) we do it all for profit. Profit first, sustainability afterward. I sense that it might be just the opposite for China. They can certainly see that the Achilles’ Heel of neoliberalism was profiteering. Growth and inflation were our means of maintenance, creating even bigger problems. So what will China do? Will China realize that profits push inflation and exploitation?

      1. Abi

        In Nigeria’s experience, China hasn’t been a good partner (can’t say for the rest of Africa). They’ve been building a 10 lane road/rail project in Lagos for more than 5 years now. I drive past it almost on a daily bases. Everyone around here is like “these foolish Chinese” how do you start such a monstrous project and abandon it since covid? The workers haven’t been back. Then also, Nigerians are now waking up to the fact that Chinese ppl have been illegally mining…they’ve literally carted away all our redwood. I don’t know but I don’t think everyday Nigerians are enamored with them, not sure what the relationship will be like going forward but right now I’m not sure we really benefit

  7. Louis Fyne

    to read between the lines, I’ll guess that on the political spectrum Professor tilts to the Wilsonian “liberal interventionist” pole.

    from 1946, the West has stumbled from defeat to defeat thinking that its arms will bring a solution to a political problem.

    in modern usage, ‘isolationism’ / ‘America First’ has been toxic and abandoned by the Left (obviously cuz of the WWII-era usage)….but the
    left has to hitch the ‘”liberal interventionists/hawks”.

    the West/US can’t act like a hegemon and should return to Westphalian/Talleyrand model of being just one nation at a table of nations with sometimes aligning/sometimes conflicting aims.

    But as Dems/Reps in DC love swaddling themselves in Athenian/Roman iconography and mentality, I am not holding my breath for the US to act more modestly/humbly for the rest of the century.

    there is a chance that the US will arrogantly break someone’s (Russia?/China?) red line and then the Pentagon will bet its butt whipped because this isn’t 1945 anymore. End-stage empires have a habit of going out with a catastrophic bang, versus a whimper.

    i hope i am wrong.

  8. Synoia

    No discussion about the US’ embrace of Neo-:liberalism, and the death of its manufacturing capacity.

    From where would the current Afghans buy manufactured goods?

    Two who would the current Afghans sell most raw materials?

    Afghanistan can export by train. to the east and west. They have no ports to export to the US.

    After spending a Trillion or more Dollars on the Afghan wars, there is little one can point to in Afghanistan,for example: infrastructure or modern farming, that was built by the US and benefited the Afghan people.

  9. Phil in KC

    Some observations and reactions:

    1. We knew during the Vietnam conflict that the government was corrupt and full of arrogant, cowardly kleptocrats who had disdain for their own people. We didn’t care. We just wanted to roll back the Commies, in the same way we did Korea. And we surely knew at least a decade ago that the Afghani government was just as lousy as any other government we have propped up in the name of fighting communism/terrorism. So no, there’s been no diminishment of our capacity to export democracy and capitalism and build nations. We’ve never had that capacity in the first place, so there was nothing to be diminished except our capacity for self-delusion.

    2. The Chinese are just smarter than us when it comes to investing in other countries. We invest in governing regimes and building militaries by selling arms. They invest in economic infrastructure which might actually improve the lives of the common people. Question: does the average Pakistani, Syrian, or Tanzanian revile the PRC the same way they might revile the US? If not, can we learn a lesson?

    3. I will interested to see how the warlords of Afghanistan regard any collaboration between the Taliban and the PRC, especially in regard to extracting mineral wealth from the ground. Yes, Britain failed, The USSR failed, and now we have failed to “tame” Afghanistan. Why do we assume the Chinese will succeed?

  10. HH

    The U.S. government is effectively controlled by squabbling plutocrats with no coherent view of the national interest. Their presidential hand-puppets, like Bush, Clinton, Obama, and Biden, are effectively powerless. The mainstream media play along because they are also plutocrat controlled, and the general public is too ignorant and irrational to change the game. American decline will not stop until the people are shocked out of their trance of complacency and delusion. Probably nothing less than a military catastrophe will accomplish this awakening.

  11. Temporarily Sane

    I get this uneasy feeling reading stuff on Tom Dispatch – they are regarded as anti-imperialists but often their articles come across as a lament for imperialism done wrong. Oh if only the US could do imperialism the right way! Alfred McCoy’s article is a perfect example of this.

    For McCoy it’s not about FINALLY ending a pointless and ignoble 20 year-long war that has killed thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Afghans and bled the treasury of over 2 trillion dollars – it’s about how the US’ defeat and withdrawal is benefiting China.

    Let’s see…China and Afghanistan share a border and China taking an interest in what is going on there is somehow sinister? Give me a break. When will dinosaurs like McCoy realize that the American global domination project is a busted flush, a failure of magnificent proportions that benefits no one, least of all Americans. When will they stop projecting and assuming that every powerful country that isn’t under US control is out to replace the US and rule the world?

    Tom Dispatch reminds of those CIA adjacent publications of the 1960s that on the surface looked like they challenged US power but actually just criticized aspects of how that power was exercised.

    1. Ian Perkins

      What makes you think McCoy sees China’s moves as sinister? I read his article completely differently – China’s been investing in trade and infrastructure, likely to benefit all concerned.

  12. Gulag

    I have great admiration for the writings and analysis of Alfred McCoy–but he may have underestimated the bounce-back potential of U.S. military power in the world.

    As Wolfgang Streek has correctly emphasized (and as many Social Democrats in the U.S. have largely ignored) it is primarily the State which has the resources to acquire any new, large or centralized means of destruction and to build and maintain the necessary labor forces required for military deployment. As a consequence of such state evolution, the U.S. state has become, in the 21st century far more that a mere committee for managing the affairs of bourgeoise or simply a superstructure of the capitalist mode of production.

    Today the Pentagon and the rest of the U.S. military/intelligence complex seems to me to be moving away from counter-insurgency (and the tremendous expense of on-the-ground armies).

    What we may in fact be witnessing is an attempted renewal of U.S. planetary power by the U.S. military elite through a firm commitment to a more confrontational approach to China based on the dramatic expansion of the present center of U.S. military strength (high-technology weaponry. the Space force, the modernized navy and extensive R and D-investment–see recent writings of Adam Tooze).

    The Afghan “adventure,” is now closed–but their will be no retreat (unfortunately) from global power for our ever expanding, state led military megamachine. And this is the primary reason our military is throwing its support behind Biden–despite his catastrophic decisions around the withdrawal.

    1. Ian Perkins

      Tooze doesn’t seem to explain what use the USA will find on the world stage for its weaponry and Space Force. How’s it going to prevent Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan and perhaps India forming this World Island, independent of its machinations? Even Germany’s effectively given the US the middle finger with the new Nordstream pipeline. The US could bomb it – it almost certainly has the technical capability – but what would that achieve?

    2. steelyman

      I’m not all that impressed by Tooze. His recent New Statesman article (posted in Links a couple of days ago) was riddled with all kinds of flawed thinking and just plain old errors of fact. While he is correct regarding the continued dominance of the US in global trade and finance, his hypothesis regarding the US growing its military power post Afghanistan and positioning itself for another century of “global dominance” struck me as truly deluded. He talks about the Pentagon denying cutting edge weapons technology to the Chinese military but doesn’t even appear to be aware that Russia already deploys and fields real hypersonic weapons (like the Avangarde, Khinzal, Zircon) and can offer these technologies to the Chinese.

      See this far more sobering assessment from a real military professional:
      War with Russia & China would ‘destroy world’ & America must find ways to make peace with its Eastern rivals, top US general warns (RT Russia & Former Soviet Union)

      The quotes in the article are from the Vice Chairman of the JCS, General John Hyten.

  13. Tom Bradford

    i had intended this as a response to the ‘9/11 20 years on’ thread, but it seems to me to be just as appropriate here.

    I’m old enough to be able to remember the response of my parents, and other adults around me, to the Suez Crisis in 1956 in the UK. To quote the Imperial War Museum on the matter:

    “Its outcome highlighted Britain’s declining status and confirmed it as a ‘second tier’ world power. Domestically it caused a massive political fallout in Britain and resulted in an economic crisis, while internationally it further complicated the politics of the Middle East, threatening Britain’s key diplomatic relationships with Commonwealth nations and the United States-United Kingdom ‘special relationship’.”

    That outcome lead to a recognition but all but the most myopic public school types that the days of Britain’s greatness were over and that an acceptance of this and the resulting changes was necessary. When from the other side of the world i saw the Towers fall my response, in addition to horror and sympathy for those directly affected, was to realise that some chickens had come home to roost in the US, and to hope – nay expect – that this realisation would also strike home in the US itself and lead to some navel gazing. In that I was disappointed.

    Now Afghanistan to the US is perhaps an even more parallel experience to that of the Suez Crisis to the UK in 1956. The latter substantially changed the UK’s perception of itself and its place in the world, but only because the painful lesson was learned. Both 9/11 and its failure in Afghanistan could be valuable lessons for the US if it is willing to face the pain that accompanies them. I fear it is not.

  14. PlutoniumKun

    A little late to this, but I’d just observe that I think sometimes geopolitical thinkers read the wrong maps sometimes. They look at maps of continents and see somewhere like Afghanistan and say ‘look at that big important place right in the middle of a continent! And its full of minerals!’

    Whereas if they looked at a topographical map, or even historic maps showing natural trade routes, they would see Afghanistan for what it is – a remote, inhospitable landscape of poorly connected valleys that has no value to anyone but the people who live there. Its only value to outside nations or empires is its potential for destabilisation. Even the old Silk Roads generally avoided it, it only had value as a through-route when circumstances blocked off better roads. It is, in short, like Scotland or Ireland or Germania was to the Roman Empire. Somewhere to keep an eye on, but not worth investing legions.

    The old Soviet Union only intervened there in order to prevent an overspill of chaos into its muslim hinterlands. The Pakistani’s and Iranians are primarily concerned with control of the shared mountain areas in order to preserve internal security, with the borders something of an accident of history. China has little to no historic interest in it. It did show an interest in its minerals, but quickly learned the lesson of why they are of little value – its simply too expensive and difficult to build up the connections needed to extract them. Its main strategic interest is in making sure it is not a haven for Uighur insurgents. It has far bigger interests in its other neighbours, specifically those which it has territorial claims based on dubious historical precedents (basically, all its neighbours).

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