Confusion and disbelief arguably epitomise the Western response to the evolving situation in Afghanistan. From initial intervention in 2001 to remove the radical Taliban government and hurt al-Qaeda’s presence in the region, the consequences 20 years on seem disastrous. After 3,500 coalition deaths and a $2.261trn spending blackhole incurred by the United States alone, the Taliban’s return to power in mid-August signaled a monumental failure in liberal interventionist policy.

The West has failed in its promise to produce a stable domestic outcome for the Afghan people. It did not extinguish a resolute Taliban ambition to return to power. Now that the last of the US troops have left, Western governments must change strategy and focus on the merits of measured isolationism. Such a policy is already being adopted in the United States and the United Kingdom to minimise the chances of future blunders. A new era rightly beckons.

The Recognition of Failure

Intervention has, for the most part, emphatically failed in recent times. With UN coalitions, NATO and Western governments all guilty of intervening in distant civil conflicts to achieve strategic objectives favourable to Western ideology, interventionist policy has incurred huge financial and human costs. And the outcomes are no better; there is a distinct failure to provide successful foundations for stable governments post-conflict. Before, states felt the need to remain in Afghanistan to prop up a flawed Constitution and faltering central government, while ignoring the increased violence from Taliban elements that only grew stronger as time passed. Ultimately, Trump recognised the eventual need for Afghanistan to progress beyond American dependence for its national security and successfully signed a peace treaty between the US and the Taliban in 2020, paving the way for American withdrawal. The fact that Biden has stuck to withdrawal — transcending sharp party lines — is a testament to the burden that was Afghanistan.

In similar fashion, Western states authorised intervention in Libya to topple Colonel Gaddafi and secure a more democratic future for the country, but achieved little. NATO bombing campaigns and a coalition of 17 countries — most from the West — aided rebel success in the initial civil war. Yet, the Independent reported that Libya had plunged into a severe economic crisis with oil production halting and militias eroding the new government’s hold on the country just two years after Western intervention. Mismanagement led to another civil war with rival factions fighting for decisive power — a situation that only ended in late 2020. Put into perspective, the country has endured nine years of economic ruin and instability due to overbearing intervention. Obama himself recognised that Libya was the ‘worst mistake’ during his time in office. He was probably right.

A Better Way Forward

Isolationism typically garners a bad reputation due to its compatibility with populist ideology. Ideas surrounding closed immigration borders, ignoring international events, coalitions and prioritising domestic agendas all ignite a deeply partisan society.

Yet, recent geopolitical events have elevated the merits of isolationism and helped swell popularity for refreshing international policy. The Chilcot Report of 2016 decisively found that Saddam Hussein posed no threat to British interests — heightening focus on the illegitimacy of the Iraq invasion of 2003 and sheer inadequacies of post-Hussein state-building. In addition, the UK has failed to achieve definitive success in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan in the last decade. This atmosphere of interventionist strife has been symbiotic with recent isolationist trends; including Brexit, foreign aid cuts, and the resurgence of the Stop the War Coalition. Coincidence?

With governments struggling to rejuvenate economies after the global effects of Covid-19, isolationism is a clever way of saving money while retreating from an ideological battle already decisively lost. Resources can be better allocated into recovery packages and long-term investment than through funding drawn-out conflicts with little to gain.

In fact, a 2020 report by the British Foreign Policy Group found that there had been a decline in public support for intervention abroad from 2003 to 2020. The research found that public opinion was measured towards distanced involvement, such as air strikes, but usually negative on sending the army to fight on land. One YouGov poll in 2015 found that just 20 per cent of people backed the idea of a ‘boots on the ground’ strategy to fighting IS in Syria. Boris Johnson has clearly felt this overwhelmingly critical public sentiment, recently declaring to Parliament that there was ‘no military solution’ in Afghanistan.

A mention should go to Trump, too. His populist mandate of ‘America First’ translated into clear policy pivots that placed America at odds with its interventionist legacy. Harsh criticism towards NATO’s funding and operations and a stark admittance of failure in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan perhaps reflected how Americans have increasingly become tired with their leadership role and the overdependence of other countries on American action.

Measured Isolation

Let’s be real here. Isolationism can only be the antidote to interventionist failure when pursued with enough pragmatism to acknowledge that some geopolitical situations could pose existential dilemmas towards a country’s security, and thus require military action.

With China’s economy predicted to overtake the US economy by 2028 and the wealth of countries such as India and South Africa continuing to rise exponentially, there will be a shift in the global balance of power. This process has already begun with China pursuing opportunities to extend its soft power reach — the Belt and Road Initiative in Africa is one example. As such, it is crucial that isolationist states recognise how the actions of others can affect them. Security priorities could include securing a vital resource important for the national economy or ensuring a belligerent foe doesn’t take power in a neighbouring country. These should be scrutinized in great detail with no option left off the table.

But the key to measured isolation is that the criteria of events that justify intervention are far narrower than the familiar but vague arguments of ‘democracy building’, ‘exporting liberalism’ or ‘protecting human rights’. This way, countries can focus on reallocating spending on domestic needs while retaining flexibility in the rare situations that require action.

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