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Does “power makes all the difference”?

International Relations student, Meg Hopkins, sits down with her tutor, Sudhir Hazareesingh, to discuss the UK and US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and consider its implications on future geopolitics.

Sudhir Hazareesingh is a tutor in international relations (IR) and won the 2021 Wolfson History Prize for his book ‘The Black Spartacus’ about the life of Toussaint Louverture. Sudhir is what I imagined politics tutors to be like before arriving at Oxford: every sentence seems deeply considered and concisely delivers knowledge and opinion. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I sat down with him to discuss some of the most significant events in international relations in the last year. 

We started with a discussion on Afghanistan and the importance of the US and UK’s withdrawal from the region for international relations. “It’s just stunning, and I’m still trying to take the measure of it. One often hears about these transformational moments which define an era, and this is just one of those moments – the significance is just so massive,” Sudhir tells me. The rushed withdrawal of US troops after their 20-year occupation of the country saw the Taliban take control of the state, bringing fear and repression. For the US, the whole episode is a disaster and Sudhir’s shock at the events and the ‘raw facts’ is obvious; ‘here is what’s been described as the world’s only superpower since the end of the cold war going into this country in 2001 with the express intention of shaping it in its own image, spending $2.3 trillion – which is a conservative estimate – and in the end gets defeated by a coalition of resistance groups, which don’t even have the tiniest fraction of the resources of the superpower. That is just staggering’. 

He is quick to point out how damaging this is to the ‘realist view of international relations.’ “Afghanistan, to me, seems to be a definite answer to that idea about power; it is also so much more. I’m struck by how much this is a post-colonial story”. The US entered Afghanistan with neo-colonial/neo-imperial aims with strong elements of cultural superiority, which have now “come crashing down”. Furthermore, “the behaviour of Americans in Afghanistan mirrored that of previous colonial authorities. There are absolutely fascinating parallels with the French war in Algeria”. Both the French in Algeria and the US in Afghanistan were dismissive of resistance efforts, ultimately leading to them being removed from the countries they occupied to colossal embarrassment. 

Whilst the situation is continuing, and some of the ramifications are still yet to be seen, Sudhir believes that “for our lifetimes it puts paid to the idea of any external intervention on the part of the Americans”. He points out how this is a mess that Biden inherited. However, “we should not exculpate him completely as he was Obama’s Vice-President and the Cost of War project has found that all the administrations involved, including Obama’s, lied about the extent of American involvement and setbacks”. For America, their reputation and power has been undoubtedly brought into question by their involvement in Afghanistan. “The idea that America can laud it over the rest of the world is now something the Americans themselves are having to reassess”. The Afghanistan-US episode has changed international dynamics. “As far as Asia is concerned, this is going to make the Americans humbler especially as the Chinese are increasingly powerful. Taiwan is the touchstone issue, and Biden has already been on the back foot there”. Biden often misspeaks, and on Taiwan, he stated that the US would defend Taiwan if China invaded, which contradicts the  longstanding US policy of strategic ambiguity. Overall, Sudhir hypothesizes that this incident will make US policymakers far more cautious and reluctant to commit troops. 

Looking forward, it is challenging to see what the future for Afghanistan might hold. As Sudhir notes, there is the issue that the Taliban is an organisation that we know “relatively little about”. “It is a kind of umbrella organisation, and under that umbrella, there are different currents and more pragmatic people who want to run their country efficiently, and in line with Islamic teachings but without going back to the extremes we saw before 2001, whereas other elements have been, for want of a better word, radicalised by the fight against the Americans who want something more fundamentalist”. We do not know how that “internal dialogue” within the Taliban will play out, significantly as it is affected by how the West and other countries like Gulf countries and Turkey react to the new regime. It’s clear that Sudhir sincerely hopes that it will take the more optimistic route, which is a possibility but depends on how the West chooses to respond to the new Taliban regime. “I think that it would be a mistake if the West and the UN pursued isolation, I hope that there is some kind of constructive engagement, but it will be very hard for that to come from America”. 

We moved on to the relationship between IR theorists and government. When asked how much governments tend to listen to IR academics, Sudhir’s answer is short but sweet “probably not enough,” he tells me with a smile. However, it does differ between countries; “paradoxically, the country that has the strongest relationship between academics and government in the United States. All the people who were the architects of the Vietnam war and the crime that occurred in the Vietnam Era were IR academics”. It’s obvious from his tone that Sudhir is dismayed by this involvement of theorists in Vietnam. There still exists a close reconnection between theorists and political elite, which “comes with a particular mindset. These are either soft realists or liberals. Either they believe in American unilateralism or that America should promote a liberal order that promotes and protects American interests. You won’t get anyone strongly critical of America”.

The connection between theorists and the political elite is far weaker when it comes to the UK. Reflecting on foreign policy under the Johnson government, Sudhir sums things up quickly – “like most things with the Johnson administration, it’s been a kind of hodge-podge; it’s very hard to get a clear sense of direction or purpose”. Linking back to Afghanistan, he points out the fact that Dominic Raab, the then Foreign Secretary, was on holiday and couldn’t be reached during the fall of Kabul. “He was not doing his job; there were people facing potentially deadly circumstances who needed to be  evacuated and protected, and the government was napping”. Despite his unwaveringly calm demeanour, his frustration at the lack of action from the government at the fall of Kabul is evident. That exasperation carries through into other areas of UK foreign policy. “Elevated politics is really lacking in all spheres of the Johnson administration. They are just stumbling from one thing to another. It is empty gesture politics which has gotten Johnson through his political career”. 

Lastly, I could not resist getting Sudhir’s thoughts on the independence movements within the UK. “It is a very important question. Because of Brexit and this implicit and explicit English nationalisation, independence movements are gaining support. Whether it is for maladministration or competence or cultural differences, the break-up of Britain is becoming a real possibility”. I asked him if he thinks it could be possible that we could see an alliance or unification of the Celtic countries in the UK. “It is possible. It could just be England on the one side, and all these other entities forming an alliance, and the politics of that would be a really good politics as these are progressive nations in general”.

Overall, international relations are at a crucial point of flux, especially given the developments of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Looking forward predications are hard to make but what is clearer is that realism looks increasingly limited in its ability to explain current events. 

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