Democracy and Geopolitics Beyond the Terrorist Trap

Former Swedish Ambassador to China Börje Ljunggren details how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to the erosion of American democracy and how now, the health of democracy is impacted by the US-China relationship

Harvard Ash Center
9 min readOct 22, 2021

by Börje Ljunggren

The damage that al-Qaida has done to the United States pales in comparison to the damage that America did to itself.” This verdict was handed down by eminent Harvard professor Joseph Nye in a September 6th article in Project Syndicate. In it, he goes so far as to guess that “future historians will regard 9/11 as a date as important as the Japanese attack on December 9, 1941, against Pearl Harbor.” The attack on the U.S. Navy base in the Pacific stunned the nation and triggered the United States’ entry into World War II. The shock then, like 9/11 today, changed the national public psychology. The reaction to the former gave the U.S. a unique post-war role; the consequences of the latter have diminished the U.S. in times of challenging global power shifts.

The United States’ entry into World War II created completely new conditions for an Allied victory. After WWII, and in the shadow of the Cold War, the U.S. emerged as the main architect of the post-war order. Then, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, the United States became the world’s sole superpower. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama explained that it meant “the end of history.” There was no longer any alternative to a market economy and liberal democracy.

The United States fell into the trap of terrorism, a fatal consequence of arrogantly believing that a deeper understanding of the region was of secondary importance.

In the Clinton era, the U.S. took for granted that history was on its side, driven by the hyper-globalization of the time. The internet — the World Wide Web — was seen as a weapon of freedom, and when President Bill Clinton announced China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2000, he was convinced that demands for greater freedom would be an inevitable consequence. To prevent that, he explained, would be like trying to nail a Jell-O pudding to a wall. “Good luck,” he told the Chinese triumphantly.

In this age of American hubris, George W. Bush advocated a surprisingly humble foreign policy in his 2000 presidential election campaign. He warned of the allure of “nation-building” in the form of external intervention in order to reshape other countries into “democracies.” But all that changed with 9/11. Bush suddenly felt he had a mission and declared “war on terror.” Democracy would now be exported by military means.

Marines with Headquarters Battalion, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), take down an American flag after flying it above the camp Sept. 11, 2001 (Source: US Department of Defense)

The invasion of Afghanistan took place with broad international support, and in late 2001, the United Nations Security Council established the International Security Assistance Force, a multinational military mission in Afghanistan. The invasion of Iraq, two years later, eroded that cohesion. The latter decision was made on false grounds in two crucial respects. First, as UN Chief Inspector Hans Blix pointed out, there was no evidence of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. Second, there were no ties between Iraq and al-Qaida but between al-Qaida and Saudi Arabia. On top of this, Paul Bremer, the top U.S. representative on the ground in Baghdad, decided on his own to disband the entire Iraqi Ba’athist army, not just its upper echelons. This decision greatly contributed to the growth of the Islamic State (IS). The United States fell into the trap of terrorism, a fatal consequence of arrogantly believing that a deeper understanding of the region was of secondary importance.

Imagine, writes Nye, “what the world would be like if Bush had avoided the tempting rallying cry of a global war on terror and responded to 9/11 by carefully selected military strikes combined with good intelligence and diplomacy. Or, if he had gone into Afghanistan, imagine that he had withdrawn after six months, even if that had involved negotiating with the despised Taliban.” Today, Bush has been keen to distance himself from Donald Trump, but the truth is that his war on terror became a key factor in the erosion of American democracy.

The United States failed to transform Afghanistan and Iraq, but 9/11 and the next 20 years of American engagement have had a profound impact on America’s perceptions of itself and on how it is perceived internationally. When the last U.S. and Allied forces left Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban had control of almost the entire war-torn and fragmented country, which plunged it into an acute humanitarian crisis. It is difficult to imagine a more unequivocal failure. Britons and Russians had perished in this “graveyard of empires.” The United States and its allies had learned nothing. A couple of trillion dollars was spent, but time was on the Taliban’s side.

U.S. involvement in the Middle East has had far-reaching consequences. China has watched the U.S. dig itself into the region with malicious joy, while its economic strength has grown, laying the foundation for it to play an increasingly assertive global role. Following these events, there was no longer any doubt that the world was witnessing a global power shift. Perceptions of global convergence increasingly turned into tendencies toward global divergence.

One of President Barack Obama’s main ambitions was to get out of Afghanistan and the Middle East and make a historic “pivot towards Asia.” East Asia was the most dynamic part of the world, and China was a mounting challenge that had to be addressed. To that end, he invested in a sharp, time-limited increase — a surge — of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. At most, they amounted to just over 90,000 troops. At the same time, the ambition was to increasingly shift responsibility to the Afghan army. However, it grew steadily weaker and more corrupt under President Ghani. The death blow to the Afghan regime came in spring 2020, when President Trump chose to negotiate directly with the Taliban in Doha, with the Kabul government as an onlooker. In addition, as soon as he took office, Trump scrapped Obama’s most important initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Project, which focused on the United States’ role in the Pacific region and included a dozen countries but not China. Obama’s pivot remained largely unfulfilled, while China’s global footprint grew.

As recently as July 2021, President Biden declared that the Afghan army was a force to be reckoned with. He attested that it was well-equipped and consisted of 300,000 soldiers. Much of that army, however, only existed on the payroll of the corrupt military. As the time for the U.S. withdrawal approached, it disintegrated without a trace, just as the Iraqi army did when IS troops captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in 2014.

For President Biden, an important reason not to extend U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is his emerging China doctrine. In it, the relationship with China is described as a zero-sum contest between governance systems — between two ideological systems. The basic thesis is that Xi’s China is less interested in coexistence than in dominance, and that it is the task of the United States to curb these ambitions. Competition would be the primary path, cooperation and conflict the other two dimensions.

Today’s world is multipolar, and we are hardly about to witness a purely bipolar era. Still, there is abundant evidence that our future will increasingly be marked by rivalry between the United States and China.

Biden clearly believes that he is fighting a larger struggle between democracy and autocracy that will define the 21st century. A crucial part of his strategy is to form an alliance of democracies, at a time when U.S. democracy is in great need of healing and the world is witnessing an alarming democratic retreat. According to the highly regarded non-profit Freedom House, 2020 was the fifteenth straight year of decline in global freedom, greater than in any of the previous years. On October 1, 2021, they asserted that American democracy was clearly threatened “when a rebellious mob provoked by President Trump and his refusal to accept the election result, on January 6, stormed the Capitol and forced Congress to suspend the certification of the election results. Globally, the Trump administration had seriously weakened the United States’ role as the ultimate guarantor of democracy. The West is, as Financial Times’ Philip Stephens has noted, the author of its own failure.”

At the same time, China has not only remained a party-state, but the party-state has deepened. As Krastev and Holmes state in “The Light that Failed: A Reckoning,” 2019, the Chinese borrowed the means, but not the goals: “They borrowed excessively but refused to convert.” Instead, the authoritarian order, with “Chinese characteristics,” was developed with manifest determination. China’s international role became increasingly self-righteous, marked by its “wolf-warrior diplomacy” based on power rather than international law.

A central theme of Harvard Professor Tony Saich’s major work, “From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party,” 2021, is that the party has been “adaptable and flexible, qualities not normally associated with a Leninist regime.” This was not least the case when the Mao era was followed by Deng Xiaoping’s period of reform and opening. Still, Leninism rather than institution building is, as Joseph Fewsmith concludes in his recent book “Rethinking Chinese Politics,” 2021, the prevailing hallmark of the party ruled by Xi Jinping. China’s significant economic and social success — nearly 900 million have risen above the poverty line — has not been accompanied by any improvements in civil and political rights. China has, on the contrary, become increasingly “techno-authoritarian.” Xi, determined to continue for a third term, is in the process of making a clear left turn ahead of the 2022 party congress, further strengthening the party-state at the expense of the market, particularly China’s globally successful high-tech companies. The over-leveraged economy is showing signs of weakness, while demands for loyalty to the party and nationalism are growing. Global fragmentation is deepening.

Glasgow where the UN Conference on Climate Change, COP-26, will be held in November 2021 (Source: Flickr)

Today’s world is multipolar, and we are hardly about to witness a purely bipolar era. Still, there is abundant evidence that our future will increasingly be marked by rivalry between the United States and China. A critical test of their mutual capacity for cooperation, despite fundamentally conflicting interests, is the UN Conference on Climate Change, COP-26, in Glasgow in early November. It will be a pivotal moment.

The EU has a key role to play, but much depends on the United States and China. The United States has emitted more carbon dioxide than any other country to date; China, a developing country under the Paris Agreement, is the source of more than a quarter of today’s global emissions. China’s negotiating position is that its willingness to cooperate comes at a price in the form of increased U.S. compliance and less interference in important Chinese matters, such as human rights and Taiwan. This is an unreasonable stance when faced with the existential question of climate change.

Geopolitical development is constantly resulting in new positionings, such as the recent tensions over Taiwan. Biden’s invitation to a bilateral meeting in connection with the two leaders’ appearance at the UN General Assembly last September was rejected. More recently, however, an agreement has been reached on a virtual summit before the end of the year. The vicious circle of strategic distrust has its own dynamics, making it crucial for the U.S. to avoid ideological demonization and misleading Cold War analogies.

In Glasgow, the U.S. and China must cooperate — for the good of democracy.

About the Author

Borje Ljunggren is a former Swedish Ambassador to China, Harvard Asia Center associate, and author of “Den kinesiska drömmen — Xi, Makten och Utmaningarna” (The Chinese Dream: Xi, Power and Challenges).



Harvard Ash Center

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