The United States’ debacle in Afghanistan has created an abrupt end to an era, but it’s not an ending that the world hasn’t seen before. In many ways, the US retreat is just the latest remission of the West after almost 500 years of nation-state globalism; a trend that will continue despite what lofty dreams are thought up in Davos, Switzerland every year.
For America, it’s been a century of manifest destiny driven by technology advantage; an advantage that has arguably been commoditized since the end of World War II. Industrial manufacturing and innovation are commonplace in many nations that have the wealth, infrastructure, and workers to create a worldwide co-dependency made more costly mostly by the stubbornness of politics.
The American arsenal of democracy is now, in reality, a co-op of nations with dissonant motivations who have in common the desire to ensure access to free trade. Everybody takes turns shooting up pirate ships, both nation-sponsored and privateer kinds. Naval confrontation, where it does happen, often has more to do with access to fishing and oil drilling rights. That’s a long way from the days when ships of the line hurled cannonballs at each other for the glory of nobles and nations.
For most of the last 500 years since the discovery of the New World, the ancient order of the global economy between east and west has lain dormant.
The land route from the Pacific to the Atlantic across Eurasia was costlier to navigate than the maritime trade routes, even if they required the very first versions of intermodal transportation crossing two oceans and transshipping through a continent.
It’s still not the easiest thing to build a land bridge from the industrial base of Eastern China to the consumer-rich lands of Western Europe that costs less than slow boats from China.
But that could change.
As the vestiges of colonialism and the Cold War recede from the paths walked by Marco Polo, the political calculus of economic co-dependency may shift from sea to land. That’s certainly not lost on those who stand to gain from rail and highway alternatives to shipping.
The problem has always been the political unsettledness of the regions between the eastern gateway to Europe in Istanbul, Turkey, and the westernmost Kashgar Prefecture of China.
Skipping the regions of India and Pakistan and the diplomatic realities of routing through the former Soviet states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan – and Turkmenistan for now, Afghanistan’s importance suddenly begins to rise.
Bear with me on this list of key cities:
- Kashgar Prefecture, China
- Kabul, Afghanistan
- Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan
- Herat, Afghanistan
- Mashad, Iran
- Tehran, Iran
- Tabriz, Iran
- Doğubeyazıt, Turkey
- Ankara, Turkey
- Istanbul, Turkey
Don’t be surprised if they become household names in the next 10 to 75 years. These have the potential to be stopping points and marshaling yards along with a rail system that could eclipse the importance that the US Transcontinental Railroad made to the ascendance of the United States onto the world stage did in the 19th century. Freight, high-speed rail, maybe even hyperloops. Those are the possibilities that happened when wars end and new eras begin.
But it’s not a shoo-in.
They become the key to a greater Eurasia requires three very tenuous cultures to integrate. The European, Islamic, and Chinese. These are cultures that have interacted for centuries on less than good terms and, as the world has seen many times, deep wounds heal slowly.
They are not cultures founded on chaotic pluralism principles like the United States. There are deep internal cultural fissures in these countries that must be overcome to reach full economic potential.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan needs to deal with a 7th-century provincial culture that will have to co-exist with a 21st-century cosmopolitan one if it hopes to be vital to the future of Eurasia. Like Saudi Arabia which is presently experimenting with permissive and traditional zones within the county, the leadership of Afghanistan may have to ponder deliberate urban/province dichotomies as part of future governance and statesmanship.
Questions like should Kabul be treated more like a Hong Kong within Afghanistan as a sort of multicultural free market zone is sure to arise. That will probably happen fairly soon as an economic crisis due to the loss of US foreign aid into the country makes becoming attractive to foreign investment a national agenda priority for the Taliban-led government. Their government can still fail for the same reason many others have faltered, by going broke.
If Afghanistan goes the Hong Kong path, so too must the Iranians, lest they risk being bypassed by what is sure to be eventual competition by the “stans” to be the preferred route from China to Turkey. Iran’s government has its own set of stability and bad past choices issues that it will have to solve if it wishes to become a proper intermodal transportation partner with China and Europe.
The Turks need to make the least accommodation. But, there is the reality that a landline through Turkey must route through the home grounds of the Kurds, among others, who live in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Their cooperation is essential, but not presently forthcoming. We will see if overcoming enmity to reap continent-scale wealth will eventually work itself out.
On the plus side, the people of Europe further north up the Caucuses have a lot to gain if an economic free trade buffer zone gets established and defended by a group of thoroughfare countries cutting the problems of the south from their lives in the north; so there’s that.
That’s a lot for these countries to have to think about. And in American terms, it’s a slow-motion process. Realistically, between now and the year 2100-ish. Misjudgments and missteps will abound. But if they succeed, the Old World won’t need the New World as much as it does now.
As for the New World, we just became an island. We’ll have to figure out how to cope with the consequences for the Organization of American States for the next 75 years as well.
The bottom line is that the very principles of global stability were turned upside down during August of 2021.