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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Bruges Group Blog

Spearheading the intellectual battle against the EU. And for new thinking in international affairs.

America Retreats - What Next?


Is America's precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan just a temporary setback, or does it signal a strategic retreat, an abdication from its role as world leader? If so, it will leave a gaping void, a vacuum that others will want to step in and fill.

To be a world leader a country needs not only muscle (economic, military, demographic) but also a mission, or a "mission statement", which can give it cultural hegemony. It needs to be willing to take on the role of top dog, and it needs to be the bearer of an idea which it thinks will give all mankind something worthwhile.

The USA has had all of this. Its muscular intervention in WWII was decisive for victory. The attraction of its "mission" – to defend and if possible spread "Freedom and Democracy" – together with its military and economic prowess, was what won the Cold War against the USSR.

Freedom & Democracy is a "universalist" idea, which, in theory, could prevail over the whole world. Indeed after 1989 and the Soviet collapse, some (Fukuyama) thought it had so prevailed. And indeed, so it seemed, until 9/11.

Almost all those alive today in the "West" grew up and have lived their lives so far under America's umbrella. Not just military, not just economic and political: think also how American culture has seeped through our days and populated many of our dreams – music, films, images and icons, language and literature, humour, clothing, food, the internet… Since WWII US foreign policy has been sometimes clumsy and misguided, occasionally perverse and even brutal. Yet if America retreats, withdrawing into itself with a neo-Monroe doctrine, and is ousted by some other power, even her harshest critics will miss her. The Afghans will already be missing the chance to listen to American music, now banned by the Taleban… together with all music.

Who are the potential candidates to step in and fill the vacuum left by America if she retreats and abandons her current role as world leader? Which of them has what it takes?

Russia had and still has considerable military muscle. It also had a "universal mission" when it was Communist. It doesn't have that now. Actually if you look at history, Russia's big wars (the Mongols, the Swedes, Napoleon, Hitler) were defensive. The Communist idea aimed at world domination. Russia as a country did not, and I think we can say it still does not, although it does like to have a ring of amenable buffer-states round its extensive borders.

Germany had a mission statement when it was Nazi – "We will govern the world because we are the superior race", but this had no attractions for other peoples, so was one reason why they failed. For example when they invaded the USSR they could have set up a Quisling Ukrainian anti-Soviet government which might have attracted support amongst Ukrainians who had suffered under Stalin. They failed to do so because they believed the Ukrainians belonged to the "inferior Slav race" (Untermenschen).

China? They were Communist, and so carriers of the Communist universalist message to all mankind, as was Russia, albeit "Communism with Chinese characteristics". But now? Their Communism has become a very thin facade. They have adopted authoritarian State capitalism, with a totalitarian flavour not unlike Nazi national socialism. They have an insufferable superiority complex (a bit like numbers of Brits used to have!), and their Belt&Road initiative aims at penetration and economic control in many places (watch Africa). But China is closed and opaque, too concerned with itself. Also they have a notion of racial superiority (the Han) which makes their proposition much less attractive to others.

It will be interesting to see what the outcome of their attempts to "re-educate" the Uighurs will be. Apart from the inhumanity of their methods, their problem is, re-educate them, wean them away from their Muslim beliefs, but in order to make them be ... what? They cannot become Han, (nor can the Tibetans), so they will just become a subject "race" – this will not make them want to enthusiastically join in and support any Chinese attempt at world supremacy.

So Communism has lost its main vehicles - Russia and China - and is now a spent force.

The Roman Catholic Church once had a "mission" to convert the whole world. It had inherited the mantle of the Roman Empire – to this day the Pope is styled "Pontifex Maximus", which was a title of the Caesars. Edward Gibbon described it as the "ghost of the Roman Empire, perched on its tombstone". "Catholic" in Greek means "universal". A 16th century Jesuit Matteo Ricci went to China and converted a few thousand Chinese. Today's Chinese government resists any such attempt by setting up their own domesticated "Chinese Catholic Church" whose bishops are appointed with CCP approval; the Roman Catholic Church in China is practically illegal. Their main vehicle in an attempt at world domination was Spain, which created an empire on which "the sun never set". However they failed to bring England back into the fold (Spanish Armada). In Europe the Church of Rome was seriously undermined by Luther's rebellion and the Protestant Reformation, and they faced rivals in the Eastern Orthodox churches. Ultimately Spain's Latin American dominions rebelled and won independence, although remaining Catholic. The Church failed to have "Christian values" included in the EU's draft Constitution in 2003.

The Church of Rome always had a cohesive mission statement with potential universal appeal, since anyone can become a Catholic. The Jesuits have been described as their intellectual shock-troops. Even today the Church has a vast population of followers (over 1 bn). However they lack military muscle. Stalin once said, pithily, "The Vatican? How many divisions does it have?" Today the Pope is calling for "dialogue" in Afghanistan – with the Taleban...(?!). 

The European Union aspires to becoming a world-leading power, as an alternative to US hegemony. There is talk now of the need for a European Army. But is there any agreement as to what an EU foreign policy should be? First the EU would need to set up a single State with its own government. Yet to do this, and then to become the vehicle of a universalist message of value to all mankind, it needs to overcome its own historical divisions, the deep cultural fault-lines that cross the continent – separating the Slavic, Orthodox, post-Communist East, the "Club Med", Catholic, Romance-language speaking South, and the "frugal", largely Protestant, Germanic, North. It needs to weld all these into a single "People", sharing the same basic values, and even a common language, if there is to be a "European public opinion", which is an obvious pre-requisite to forming a single nation. "Vaste programme", to quote the late General De Gaulle. The three great conflicts of the last century were all intra-European. And in the last armed conflict, none of the winners were European, unless you count the UK, which has now broken away from the EU project.

So it seems that the main potential challenger for world domination today is militant Islam. If the USA, and with it the idea of "Freedom and Democracy", retreats, militant Islam will surely want to advance to fill the gap. Its theologians give its stated aim as world domination. America has now retreated in the face of Taleban aggression, and the Taleban are aggressively Islamic.

As regards muscle, there are over 50 Islamic States in the world, organised in a bloc with heavy influence at the UN. Eight of them practice strict Sharia law to the point of making apostasy a capital offence. This is an uncompromisingly flat negation of the Western value of religious toleration, acquired after centuries of suffering and bloodshed. The Muslims in the world number up to 1.5 billion. At present there is not any single Muslim State with sufficient military and industrial clout to aspire to world dominance. However, many if not most Moslems consider themselves to be first and foremost members of the Umma, and only secondarily citizens of this or that State.

They have a universalist mission statement – anyone can (and they think, everyone should) convert and become a Muslim, regardless of race, nationality or cultural origin. It is a complete, totalitarian, world-view, covering everything from religion to politics to eating, drinking, and dressing rules, to family life. They can be ruthless and they are organised, and they have plenty of money - there is immense wealth in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States; much of it is used to spread the message. There have been extreme Islamist infiltrations right across the sub-Saharan African belt of countries from Somalia (Shebab) in the East to Nigeria (Boko Haram) in the West, with a strongpoint in Chad. The Taleban in Afghanistan have been funded by some accounts with $500mn p.a., and all sorts of other manifestations have received money – over to the Islamic preachers radicalising young Muslims in mosques in the West, and down even to the Oxford Islamic Centre with an imposing building in Oxford city centre and an impressive array of academic connections.

We have noted that so far they have lacked a major State with a large population and a strong military as their vehicle. In recent years we saw ISIS which proclaimed itself a "State" and controlled territory. However now they have a real State, albeit small and undeveloped – Afghanistan under the Taliban, which stands once more quite openly as an extreme Islamist stronghold. Next door is Pakistan, enthusiastic in support, and a nuclear power. And on the other side Iran, soon to be nuclear too, supportive, very pleased with the US discomfiture, even though Shiite, not Sunni. Not far away is Sunni Turkey, also supportive, with the largest military in NATO after the USA, turning more and more Islamic under Erdogan, and anti-Western since their rejection by the EU and the USA's refusal to extradite Erdogan's opponent Fetullah Gulen.

Of course the country at the centre of the Islamist worldwide network is surely the Guardian of the Holy Places, Saudi Arabia, which has always played on two chessboards at once. On the one hand its royal family has ostentated a smiling face towards the West, in particular the USA, selling us its oil, getting hugely rich, buying up assets in the West. Indeed was it not the first foreign country officially visited by President Trump? Yet the country is really governed by its Wahhabite clergy, which controls the education system, so indoctrinating all the youngsters, raising fanatic believers, savagely repressing the women, and applying strict Sharia law just as ISIS did in its territories. Only whereas public beheadings and mutilations by ISIS caused alarm and horror in the Western media, the same behaviour passes almost unnoticed in the Saudi Kingdom. We should not forget that 15 out of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens, as was Osama bin Laden himself. At present their current government could be seen as a sort of chrysalis enclosing a radical Wahhabite "butterfly" (perhaps more like a dragonfly), which one day may break out of it shell, and rise up to lead the whole Umma, from Marrakech to Manila, in a global jihad against the infidels.

I'd say that the country to watch right now is Pakistan. There are hundreds of thousands, maybe soon millions, of Afghans fleeing over the border into Pakistan, as refugees, amongst whom there could be any number of terrorists or Taleban agents. By many accounts the Taleban themselves were nurtured, if not invented, by Pakistan's secret service, ISI, which seems to be a State within the State. Pakistan protected and hosted Osama Bin Laden for a number of years. It was once said that while other States have an army, Pakistan is an Army which has a State... It is already run by a pro-Taleban govt; will it transform into an openly militant Taleban-style State itself? And if so, what will it do next? I wouldn't be surprised to see a heating-up of the troubles in Kashmir, and more targeting of India and Indian interests with military provocations and perhaps worse.

Many say, "But the Taleban are not representative of Islam, they are a perversion of Islamic doctrine." One would hope so. But then where are the authoritative voices of ulemas, imams, mullahs, raised to condemn them? They are certainly giving their religion a very bad name. What are the theologians of Al-Azhar university saying about them? What are the custodians of the Holy Places in Saudi Arabia saying? Where are the words of condemnation and rejection? What indeed is the prevalent opinion in the Muslim enclaves and communities in Britain, France and other Western countries?

What the West needs is leadership, with a broad, clear vision and a sense of purpose. The USA in recent times has expressed some blusterers and bunglers. But it may surprise us yet. Its humiliation when the US Embassy in Iran was invaded and occupied by an Islamist mob was followed by a resurgence under Ronald Reagan who led the country and the West to win the cold war against the USSR. Might there be a successor to Reagan waiting in the wings?

The best that the UK has thrown up so far is Boris Johnson, who however at present does not seem quite to embody the resolute mettle of a Churchill, or even a Thatcher. Well, many were unimpressed with Churchill's record up until May 1940. Then he rose quite magnificently to the occasion. Might Johnson find it in himself… ? If not, who else?

They do say, Cometh the hour, cometh the man - or indeed the woman. We can only hope.


An uncle of the writer's great-grandmother was Sir William Hay MacNaghten, the British Envoy who led an ill-fated and misguided military expedition to Kabul in 1839. They were all slaughtered in 1841 (including Sir William) save one who came back to tell the tale,

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