Afghanistan shows white privilege in action on the geopolitical stage

Sep 7, 2021
Afghanistan helicopter
(Image: Unpslash)

The rapid collapse of the US-backed government in Afghanistan and the consequent yet predictable torrent of responses from Western media and politicians demonstrated just how entrenched the Western worldview in projecting its “right” to be the leaders of the world.

Western exceptionalism and privilege have long been entrenched in geopolitics – and war.

August 30 saw the end of the longest war in US history. For most Afghans, it will be remembered as the date when foreign armies departed. But in exiting Afghanistan, the United States and its NATO allies have spared no effort to occupy the moral high ground, portraying the Taliban as the evil Muslim tide sweeping away the brief democratic haven created by the West. This is despite widely reported statements by the Taliban that they seek good relations with the U.S. and the West. Giving peace a chance does not seem to be on the agenda of the retreating Western powers and its media.

In Afghanistan, a 20-year occupation has been dressed up with populist myths about furthering democracy, fighting terrorist havens, and protecting the rights of women, as if only the West cares dearly about these issues.

The United States and its NATO allies seek to create this bipolar narrative because it legitimizes their economic and militaristic intentions in three main ways.

First, it hides the colossal loss of life caused by the invasion. The numbers are staggering with over 75,000 Afghan military and police officers killed, as well as over 71,000 dead Afghan civilians. Compare this to 2443 American soldiers who are reported to have lost their lives – a figure far more frequently cited in the media.

Second, the narrative also conceals the truth about the workings of the US military industrial complex. The United States has been at war for much of its history. Conflict has historically been extremely profitable for US military business, and the 20-year invasion of Afghanistan is no different: Of the $946 billion spent, less than 2% of it reached the Afghan people in terms of basic infrastructure and poverty-reducing services. But 86% went to outlays on troops.

Lastly, the narrative diverts attention from the fact that the intervention failed to set up an effective government. Kabul fell in 48 hours – not because of the militaristic genius of the Taliban, but because the US-built institutions of the Afghan state were weak, predicated on corruption, and failed to resonate with the wider population, who are mostly pious Muslims – a fact Washington never fully accepted. In fact, the runaway US-backed president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, co-authored a book in 2009 describing how the US nation-building strategy had promoted corruption – which Ghani emulated once in power.

The West’s bipolar narrative on Afghanistan hints at a much deeper global issue: the hegemony of white Western privilege in global geopolitical systems. If the lessons of Afghanistan teach us one thing, it is that this privilege must be exposed and challenged if it is to be dismantled for the greater good of world peace.

There are three areas to unmask: first, the so-called “rules-based” international system and second, Western dominance of the multilateral institutions that influence geopolitics – both of which are rooted in a belief in white supremacy. And finally, there is the heavy-handed use of sanctions – all of which have come into play in the past weeks as an aggrieved West seeks revenge without acknowledging its failure.

The Western Rules-Based System

The “international rules-based system” is often credited for the peace, prosperity, and interconnectedness we see today. It is predicated on the idea of sovereign equality – that every state is equal and should be allowed to conduct its domestic affairs without interference.

The creation of the United Nations in 1944 was supposed to make this a global norm. Yet in modern-day statecraft, there exists an unwritten rule that only Westerners can enact diplomacy; the rest of the world is apparently unqualified to play any role in such crises. Yet when it comes to understanding the root causes of many geopolitical tensions, diplomats from countries that face similar development challenges or have been colonized are surely better equipped to find solutions than former colonial powers and those who serve the interests of an ideology of White supremacy.

Military interventions have become part of the Western discourse around the “responsibility to protect”: the idea that sovereignty is conditional upon state governments not crossing human rights lines as defined by the West. If a state fails in this regard, its sovereignty becomes forfeit, and war is allowed.

Despite Western powers claiming the role of global police officers, they are prepared to ignore equally terrible actions committed by governments that support their strategic interests. It is common knowledge that the West has turned a blind eye to corruption, authoritarianism, oppression, and other human rights abuses when conducted by an ostensible ally. And these are not policies of the past; they are a feature of today’s geopolitics with examples of the West supporting interventions and unrest ranging from the war in Yemen to events in Venezuela and Hong Kong.

Western Dominance of Multilaterals

Given that key international institutions such as the UN, World Bank, WTO, and IMF are set up according to Western values, one should not be surprised to find their actions, advice, and prescriptions follow Western framings. One should also not be surprised that the people involved who are decreed most qualified and elected to leadership positions are White Westerners, establishing a permanent “ruling class” when it comes to global and elite institutions. The World Bank is run by an American and the IMF is run by a European. Predictably, they fell in line last week and decided at the instruction of the United States to withhold funds from Afghanistan.

In fact, these two international bodies best exemplify this institutional-level discrimination. They have pursued economic development strategies that promote free markets and deregulation, often at the expense of living conditions on the ground.

Developing countries faced with an economic crisis have been forced to enact sweeping and drastic policy reforms at the insistence of the IMF. These must be market-driven, with reduced public sectors and limited assistance (termed “interference”). These reforms were often hugely damaging, destroying standards of living and demolishing trust in political and economic institutions. Indonesia, for example, suffered devastatingly as a result of the domino-effect of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 because of over-liberalization, while Malaysia – which resisted the prescriptions of the IMF – weathered the crisis markedly better.

Beyond the World Bank and the IMF, many examples of White Western alliances exist to perpetuate supremacy. For example, the G7 and the OECD are dominated by Western countries, with only a few non-Western members. Another is the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance, comprised of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

The Five Eyes showcases something unique with regard to White privilege in geopolitics. The coalition is made up solely of the Anglosphere, of which four are White settler communities that created their nations through large-scale violence against non-White Indigenous populations.

Another example of a Western-controlled multilateral is the UN Security Council, which remains the pinnacle of the international security apparatus. It decides if punitive action should be taken any nation. It passed a resolution on August 30 demanding that the new Afghan government ensures safe passage to all Afghans who want to leave the country, with China and Russia abstaining. No sovereign state would agree to this.

The UNSC’s five permanent members are the victors of World War II: the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, and China. Three out of the five are clearly Western nations; four out of the five are White-majority nations. China remains the only non-Western, non-majority-White country on the council. These five member countries have veto rights and thus control the debate at the United Nations.

Attempts have been made to expand the permanent members of the council to include countries like India, Brazil, and South Africa, yet none have succeeded.

The Western Use of Sanctions

When military intervention is deemed inappropriate, Western governments led by the US are able to ignore that decision, as in the Middle East. In addition, they are still capable of applying the extremely detrimental force of unilateral sanctions. Sanctions are seen as a less violent mechanism of enforcing international rules and asserting Western power.

We are now seeing a flexing of this privilege with Afghanistan. The United States has cut off the Taliban’s access to Afghanistan’s assets, including $7 billion in the US Federal Reserve. The UK is bordering on withholding its bilateral aid. And the IMF has redacted the $370 million set to be sent over in late August. This comes just as up to 10 million people in the country face food insecurity.

Sanctions produce devastating consequences and often result in crimes against humanity. The same will now be applied to Afghanistan.

If inflicted against a White, Western population, sanctions would be demonized and unthinkable. White privilege allows the West to remain collectively silent on these crimes against humanity and not to be held accountable to the global community. This privilege allowed the former US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, to infamously say “we think the price is worth it” when publicly answering the question of whether sanctioning Iraq was worth the half a million children who died as a result.

How Do We Change the Rules of the Game?

Given that White, Western nations hold primacy of place in global geopolitical systems and institutions, what can be done to democratize the current power imbalance?

First, Western-led international institutions should be humbler and more empathetic in their prescriptions. The track record of these global organisations is decidedly mixed, whether in terms of peacekeeping, global economic management, or fostering development. Where they have achieved success, it is often through bottom-up approaches that work within regional contexts for local needs, rather than top-down dictates. To achieve this, these international bodies need to elevate non-Western voices and examine whether their suggestions would work in non-Western contexts.

Another approach would be for Western multilaterals and governments to recognize the successes of other regions in preserving peace and prosperity. The West is not the only region to have had decades of peace between its members: East Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and regions of Africa have also seen decades of interstate peace. They have important lessons that must be listened to as the governments charts a new course for geopolitics in the post-Western world.

A first step in this regard could take place in the context of Afghanistan. The West’s diplomatic and militaristic might have failed; it is now time to admit that Afghanistan’s sovereignty is no longer forfeit, and that more tactile forms of diplomacy – such as conversations between China, Turkey, Iran, Russia, and the Taliban – might actually be the best thing for the nation and its war-torn people.

Lastly, demands for geopolitical equality must be backed with proactive multinational efforts on the behalf of non-Western countries.

A prime example is the longevity of peace fostered by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN has an astounding track record of international cooperation in one of the most multicultural and multiethnic regions in the world.

The non-Western world needs to push through the status quo objections of Western institutions and create its own international platforms if it is to balance out geopolitical power differences with the West.

Until changes are made by Western-led geopolitical institutions and until non-Western geopolitical platforms gain more traction, every non-Western country needs to carefully navigate how it will operate in a Western- and White-led world while maintaining its independence and rights to self-determination. This will be the source of great geopolitical tensions as the post-Western world takes shape and the dismantling of White privilege in geopolitics gives rise to a safer world.

This article was first published by The Diplomat and is reproduced here with permission.

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