Does Afghanistan mark the end of U.S. hegemony?
Updated 21:38, 24-Aug-2021
Keith Lamb
Murals are seen along the walls at a quiet U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 30, 2021. /Getty

Murals are seen along the walls at a quiet U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 30, 2021. /Getty

Editor's note: Keith Lamb is a University of Oxford graduate with an MSc degree in Contemporary Chinese Studies. His primary research interests are China's international relations and "socialism with Chinese characteristics." The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

The U.S. has been in decline for some decades now. It's proportion of global GDP declines year by year. This should be something to celebrate, as it doesn't reflect an absolute impoverishment of the U.S. but the growth of the Global South, which makes up the majority of the world.

Following this trend, the Global South has long talked about the emergence of a multipolar world order. This is a more democratic system where others outside the rich G7 nations have more say in global affairs. However, the U.S. with its ideology of exceptionalism has been determined to cling onto its hegemonic position.

The use of hard power in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were two powerful statements of hegemonic intent. Both wars highlighted that the U.S., in lieu of negotiation and other soft power tools, was willing to dominate others regardless of the costs of war.

Of course, hegemony isn't just about hard power. It is also disguised by legitimizing norms and ideas spread in the media, as well as technological dominance. For example, both Iraq and Afghanistan weaponized human rights to garnish support, even though the reality behind this veil was that Iraq had its resources plundered and Afghanistan provided for 20 years of war profiteering. Needless to say, technological prowess was heavily weighted toward the U.S.

However, the sudden collapse of Afghanistan, which lies in shambles, is a lesson in the limits of technologically superior military hard power as well as legitimizing ideas. Consequently, noting that even the most powerful military is unable to expand U.S. interests, does Afghanistan represent the end of U.S. hegemony?

Undoubtedly, the U.S. has the most powerful military in the world with 800 overseas bases in 80 countries. It will spend an estimated $740 billion on its military in 2021 compared to China in second place, with a budget of a little more than $200 billion. With these figures, one may be tempted to argue that U.S. hegemony is secure.

However, the U.S.' use of its technologically advanced military in Afghanistan has been like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and a failed one at that. If this well-oiled machine cannot overcome Taliban Kalashnikov fighters in caves, what use is it in the long run for achieving superiority?

A stone pedestal stands outside the main entrance to the National Museum of Afghanistan states "A Nation stays alive when its culture stays alive" in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 20, 2016. /Getty Images)

A stone pedestal stands outside the main entrance to the National Museum of Afghanistan states "A Nation stays alive when its culture stays alive" in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 20, 2016. /Getty Images)

In addition, armed conflict, which leads to death and destruction, in the Global South, has only eroded the goodwill of those who the U.S. seeks to dominate. As such, there is no such thing as a "successful" war for maintaining hegemony in the long run.

Of course, judging the U.S.' intentions in Afghanistan as a failure perhaps gives too much credence to the integrity of the U.S. acting as a democratic whole. Evidently, while Afghanistan has been a disaster for the Afghanis and U.S. taxpayers, liberal capital, which profits from war, has done very well.

Following this, the failure of Afghanistan raises questions for liberal democracy. Along with capitalism, liberal democracy as part of the U.S.' soft power, is advertised as the universal political-economic system to export to others.

However, the worrying fact is that it was liberal democracies that partook in the human rights tragedy of Afghanistan. This system proved not the least bit universal as Afghanistan's unique history and culture eventually won out.

The disaster of U.S. liberal democracy enforced through foreign wars combined with its own homegrown problems will diminish future attempts to persuade others to accept this "universal" system. The truth is, systems will be supported because they work rather than being “right.” Furthermore, while liberal democracy is barely working in the U.S., it can hardly be exported in good faith.

Of course, one might argue that the U.S. is hardly in the doldrums. Though there is growing inequality and infrastructure problems, the U.S. arguably still occupies the technological heights needed to maintain hegemony. Indeed, the U.S.' attempts to block companies like Huawei are, in fact, attempts to maintain technological hegemony, which then feeds into the U.S. military machine. However, due to the rise of other countries and the U.S.' systemic failures, this cannot last.

Concerning the poor infrastructure of the U.S., it is clear that technology is not being developed for solving its citizens' needs. For example, currently, the hyperloop has far too many flaws to be practical. In contrast, China is rapidly connecting its large cities with high speed rail, creating super hubs that will further drive innovation.

In addition, China now leads the way in AI, 5G, quantum computing and green technology. As China and others continue to make technological advances, the U.S. will no longer have the overwhelming technological advantage.

The decline of U.S. hegemony has been taking place for some time now but for those controlling the U.S. they have been unconscious of this decline. As such, the fall of Afghanistan has been shocking to them. The U.S. now needs to learn some lessons from its Afghanistan's failure and respect the trend of multipolarity.

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at

Search Trends