Why Western Conservatives are Freaking about U.S. Decline

3 September 2021, 2000 EDT

I was just about to block “Afghanistan” as a key word in my Twitter timeline when I saw several people asking why British conservatives were even more freaked out about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan than American conservatives.

The question was in response to the UK defense secretary saying that the United States isn’t a superpower if it’s not willing to keep up its endless wars. A UK intelligence officer swimming in the same ideological current commented that Afghanistan withdrawal “…marks the end of an era of Western liberalism & democracy…” Okay, deep breath.

Plenty of people have dunked on these kinds of arguments, directly and indirectly, so there’s no need for that. But it’s worth pondering why partisans on another continent are howling louder than President Biden’s reflexive opposition at home.

The answer seems obvious enough: imperial nostalgia. American liberal hegemony was attractive to a lot of conservatives in the UK because it evoked the Victorian empire — liberal enlightenment rhetoric draped on military power and deeply unequal relations between Core and Periphery. In Australian foreign policy discourses too, which often shadows its Anglo kin, there’s a parallel fondness for Pax Americana and all its trappings. As James Curran recently argued, the great threat facing Canberra is that it literally cannot imagine a world order other than one centered on US power.

Anglo countries were deep believers in the uniquely American, uniquely militarized variant of liberal internationalism that has prevailed in the “West” since World War II.

The analytically sanitized version of this explanation is that the Anglo countries were deep believers in the uniquely American, uniquely militarized variant of liberal internationalism that has prevailed in the “West” since World War II, and especially since the end of the Cold War.

But if the mourning was solely strategic — that is, motivated by a theory of security based on a common commitment to alliances and the free movement of goods, capital, and people — the emotionalism wouldn’t make sense. Endless wars are not necessary for the existence of liberal internationalism (and if they were it would be a dangerous ideology), and none of the other stuff of liberal internationalism (alliances, free trade) was at stake in the Afghanistan decision. Plus, as I’ve commented many times, Biden is nothing if not assiduously liberal internationalist. It’s his only gear when it comes to foreign policy.

No, the freak out only makes sense if we appreciate the way in which Western conservatives derive a kind of identity security from unipolar-moment decision-making, even (especially?) when they entail wars in the periphery. American exceptionalism has been the West’s exceptionalism too, in part because it shares DNA with what a certain kind of conservative romanticizes as the apex of British power.

We don’t take seriously enough the role of “civilizational” thinking in powering the reactions of especially Western governments to geopolitics (to be clear, we shouldn’t be thinking in civilizational terms; we should be recognizing when others do). And because we too often have a blind spot for racial affinities, civilizational commonalities, and imperial wistfulness as foreign policy motivations, we’re surprised when serious policy officials make exaggerated, emotional takes in defense of militaristic folly.