Putin my think that the West lost in Afghanistan in 2021, similar to the Soviet Union in 1989. But he is mistaken, and this mistake probably provoked his current behavior.
The truth is, strictly militarily speaking, the West could have easily won in Afghanistan, it could have militarily dominated it, subdued it, ended the Taliban and obliterated the country. It would have been possible. Thankfully, that did not happen, but what happened instead was not glorious either: The Western troops withdrew because the West did not care enough anymore to stay. The West, instead of the military option or withdrawal, could just have stayed for as long as needed as Afghan civil society would have been ready. That may have taken several decades – but the Western allies did stay in Germany for 40 years and led it successfully along the path not just of democracy but of unification.
Yet somehow, the idiotic cultural relativist belief that somehow the Afghan people would not be fit for democracy – the very lie the Taliban are spreading – gained traction in the West as a convenient excuse, forgetting that Germany was not quite ready for democracy in 1945 either. Democracy is not cultural, it is practical, but it has to be built correctly, and for that it has to be understood correctly. (But that will have to be the topic of another post.)
The West left Afghanistan out of disappointment, exhaustion, indifference and maybe a bit of decadence. It certainly did not leave out of weakness. These are not the last days of the Roman Empire – the only real threat to the West is maybe coming from within, from some suicidal nuke thrower, or outer space. With the exception of a very few countries, most countries are either on a path towards democracy, or are trade partners resigned to some form of partnership with the West, whether they like it or not – even China.
Russia could be in that partnership position as well, even as a dictatorship or flawed democracy, were it not for a President that appears stuck in the 19th or mid-20th century. Yes, Russia can conquer Ukraine. It can even conquer parts of NATO – because NATO has, despite its expansion, agreed to only keep minimum forces in Eastern Europe. In practice, NATO expansion has only been nominal – nobody has been threatening Russia within the last decades.
When Russian President Putin claims NATO is threatening Russia, he may refer to his and his country’s sense of pride, as he sees it. There are plenty reasons for Russians to be proud of their country. It has a great culture, has made its impact on the world, and will be a force to be reckoned with for the future.
President Putin could just declare victory now and end his war in Ukraine. He has achieved what he may have intended to achieved: We have all seen that there is still power left in the proverbial Russian bear. Russia is a great power, no matter what Obama claimed.
Should Putin want to attack, and want to continue to spread fear and panic, he should listen to Benjamin Franklin. In 1773, he penned a satire called “Rules by which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One.” It is instructive. It explains why Great Britain list its colonies in North America, and it thus contains lessons also that apply Russia. Franklin’s reasoning can be used to explain why the Soviet Union fell, why its satellites and colonies broke a way and why many sought refuge in NATO, and why contemporary Russia lacks the attractiveness it would have were it a thriving and stable democracy.
Much has been made of the current weakness of the West. Forget it. The West has been a lazy in the last decades, and it has not been the best example for how a democracy should be a shining beacon for the world. The West entered conflicts or intervened in them without true commitment, without real follow-through and without making sure it reached its goals: the list of its recent failures are long, but they result not from inability but from unwillingness. This will become a problem if unwillingness leads to real inability – if the West’s will to power remains theoretical, but leaves allies and friends behind, just as it happened in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Rwanda, and other places. This will need correction. You cannot claim to lead without actually leading – and the disaffection with the West is real.
But this disaffection results not from people unhappy with democracy; they are unhappy with the deficits within democracy, and they want a democracy that is better at living up to its promises. Nobody on the planet wants a dictatorship if given a realistic choice. The West has not lost, it has just stopped fighting because it, wrongly, believed in its own inevitability. If provoked, it will react, and it has proven that its political and economic answers are superior to any counter-model.
Maybe Putin has done us all a necessary service, albeit potentially a gruesome one: It has reminded us that for democracy to win, it actually has to be willing to defend it. The solution for the crisis is clear: The same prescriptions that built a peaceful Europe after World War II will need to be applied again: Peaceful cooperation, economic and military interdependence, democracy, rule of law, cultural diplomacy, respect and recognition of each other’s needs. Putin is not completely wrong: collectively, we dropped the ball after 1990. It is still in play, and we need to do the work.