America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan last fall has often been compared to the collapse of Saigon in 1975, and not without good reason. Images of desperate Afghans clinging to transport planes bear an uncanny resemblance to scenes of helicopters airlifting U.S. personnel and terrified South Vietnamese officials from the Saigon. In both cases, the failure to coordinate an effective exit strategy, the swift defeat of U.S.-trained military units, extensive civilian casualties, and ensuing humanitarian crises significantly dented Washington’s standing in the world and were widely seen as a sign of American decline. And just as the debacle in Indochina instilled in Americans a strong aversion to military action known as the “Vietnam syndrome,” some analysts have made a compelling case that the ignominious end to America’s longest war marked the onset of an “Afghanistan syndrome” that will hinder U.S. policy for the foreseeable future.
Of course, there are limits to such analogies. U.S. casualties in Vietnam amounted to over 50,000 dead and 150,000 wounded, in contrast to around 2,500 fatalities in Afghanistan, and the conflict in Indochina was also far more controversial due to the military draft. Nevertheless, Washington’s failure in both cases to achieve grandiose ambitions of “nation-building,” despite enormous costs and commitments, exposed the limits of military power and fueled isolationist sentiment. Indeed, the widespread support among the American public for the withdrawal, President Joe Biden’s own rhetoric, and skepticism among allies of U.S. commitments to their security all suggest that the Afghanistan syndrome has already taken its toll.
But the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan may be similar in yet another way. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s worldwide offensives under Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s, most notably the invasion of Afghanistan, played a major role in shocking an inward-looking United States back into action. Many American policymakers became convinced that the Soviets were pursuing an increasingly expansionist foreign policy and grew disenchanted with both détente and Carter’s passivity in international affairs. This growing coalition of “Cold Warriors” threw its weight behind Ronald Reagan, who initiated a “rollback” against Soviet-aligned regimes throughout the world and gradually drew the nation back into a more interventionist stance. By the early 1990s, the perceived success of Reagan’s counterrevolutionary offensives and George H. W. Bush’s swift overthrow of Manuel Noriega in Panama had empowered voices in Washington calling for large-scale military action. These developments culminated in the decisive victory against Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, which is widely regarded as the final “cure” for the Vietnam syndrome that paved the way for post-Cold War interventionism.
Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine seems to be having a similar effect on the United States and its allies today. Prior to the war, Washington’s grand strategy amounted mostly to lofty rhetoric about safeguarding the “free world,” with few concrete measures to navigate great power rivalry. Now, the picture looks quite different. The revitalization (and possible enlargement) of NATO, increase in Western defense budgets, delivery of significant military and economic aid to Ukraine, and widespread support among the American public for supporting Ukrainians and isolating Russia all signal that a restoration of Pax Americana may be underway. Is Putin’s aggression today marking the beginning of the end of the Afghanistan syndrome?
While Moscow’s belligerence has certainly bolstered the democratic alliance, lessons from the Cold War indicate that far more ingredients are necessary to kick the Afghanistan syndrome “once and for all.” Firstly, though claims of Russian decline today are often exaggerated, the Kremlin does not pose the same threat to American security as it did during the Cold War. The Soviet Union dominated half of Europe, professed an ideology with global recognition, and held considerable influence in strategically significant regions in the developing world. Thus, the sense of urgency that gripped Washington in the late 1970s and 1980s has yet to be replicated today. Even with the larger defense budget recently proposed by the Biden administration, military spending would still be far from its Reagan-era level of nearly 7 percent of the country’s GDP.
More importantly, there were several crucial global transformations in the late twentieth century that enabled the remilitarization of American foreign policy. The “third wave” of democratization, which political scientist Samuel Huntington partly attributes to U.S. democracy promotion efforts, and the collapse of international communism bolstered the ideological legitimacy of American hegemony. Similarly, the spread of neoliberal capitalism throughout the world led to the expansion of American financial power and the rise of an interconnected, globalized economy. As the world seemed to drift toward the “end of history,” advocates of realism and restraint were gradually sidelined by neoconservatives and liberal internationalists, who championed the active promotion of democracy and open markets globally. The embrace of democracy throughout the world also invigorated calls to protect human rights and enforce international norms, which gave rise to the “responsibility to protect” doctrine that informed the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s.
Another key factor behind the revival of American interventionism was the “unipolar moment.” The fall of the Berlin Wall and the crippling of Soviet power in 1989 provided Washington and its allies considerable freedom of action, as could be seen by the massive mobilization of coalition forces in the Arabian Peninsula during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. After the Soviet Union collapsed in December of 1991, the United States officially became the undisputed global hegemon. The opportunity to intervene unopposed throughout the world enabled Washington’s subsequent campaigns in Haiti, the Balkans, and Somalia.
As the military historian Andrew Bacevich details in America’s War for the Greater Middle East, the combination of optimism over the “end of history” and eagerness to capitalize on the unipolar moment played a vital role in leaving the embarrassment of Vietnam in the past. The culmination of military victories and ideological successes in the following years crystallized this emerging idealism into a post-Cold War grand strategy of liberal hegemony, which helped set the stage for the invasion of Iraq and Bush’s “Freedom Agenda.” The neoconservative and liberal internationalist worldview also influenced Obama’s decision to topple Gaddhafi in Libya, arm Syrian rebel groups, expand AFRICOM, and increase the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan during his first term.
Given how the United States escaped the Vietnam syndrome not just due to Soviet actions, but also because of a historically unprecedented alignment of several other international developments, it is difficult to see how the mobilization against Putin’s imperial conduct would help overcome fatigue from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A pivotal shift in Washington’s calculus would require a broader change in global circumstances, most of which are unfavorable to the United States compared to the state of the world in the 1990s. For over a decade, America has been on a path of relative decline, and the unipolar world order has gradually been fading. Freedom House reports a continual regression of democracy in every region of the world since 2006, in part due to the ascension of Chinese power. And far from having the wind at their backs as they did after the fall of the Berlin Wall, proponents of classical liberalism now find themselves on the defensive. Will a Ukrainian triumph be enough—as predicted by Francis Fukuyama—to revive the “spirit of 1989?”
One potential outcome that could redeem liberal hegemony would be a Ukrainian victory followed by the country’s integration into the European Union and NATO. But although some officials have made the case for fast-tracking Ukraine, such a prospect seems unlikely. Not only is Kyiv still struggling with corruption and consolidating its transition to democracy, but the country could also very well remain under Russian occupation after the war’s end, which would block its entry into NATO. Moreover, sobering studies on the “democratic domino theory” suggest that even if Ukraine is successfully able to democratize and enter the European fold, this would have little impact on democratic backsliding elsewhere on the continent, let alone in other regions of the world.
As economic historian Adam Tooze points out, for the “end of history” to truly be vindicated today, a full Russian retreat is not enough. The war would need to culminate not only in the (unlikely) collapse of Putin’s regime but the emergence of a pro-Western, democratic government in Moscow. Given that the West itself is reluctant to embrace the regime-change route, President Biden’s gaffe notwithstanding, and the conflict has strengthened Putin’s popularity among Russians, hopes for a new liberal polity in Moscow are fanciful at best. Rather than validating the “end of history” or yielding another unipolar moment, the Russo-Ukrainian War may empower America’s chief geopolitical adversary, China.
This is not to trivialize the enormous importance of Ukraine’s resistance against Russia’s onslaught and the West’s role in aiding Kyiv. The reinvigoration of the democratic alliance will deter aggression, ensure partners of America’s commitment to their security, and preserve stability in Europe for the coming decades. Though European leaders are unlikely to admit Ukraine into the EU or NATO in the near future, the war has widened discussions about how best to gradually integrate non-member states into key institutions and aid aspiring countries on their path to democracy and prosperity. And, if managed prudently, the West’s gradual detachment from Russian energy and raw materials can shift the global economy in a way that doesn’t privilege Beijing.