From the November/December 2021 issue of Discern Magazine

America’s Decline

With the U.S. still reeling from domestic convulsions, its ignominious departure from Afghanistan has led allies to question if the American era is ending.

The chilling images are unforgettable. Massive military helicopters shuttling American diplomats from the roof of a hulking embassy. Desperate parents attempting to pass their babies over razor wire to departing American servicemen. Despairing Afghans swarming the tarmac and chasing and clinging to a crammed Air Force transport plane, with some then tragically falling from the skies, as the plane lifted off from the Kabul airport.

An inglorious ending

The scenes of chaotic and shameful defeat have captured the globe’s attention and are likely to be a defining moment of the Biden presidency and a showcase of waning U.S. power. This “Kabul moment” of American failure, according to a blog post published by The Times of Israel, announced “a tired, bankrupt giant racing for the exits,” and illustrates “a real present decline of American hard power” to the point that “the Pax Americana is no more.”

A United Press International article went even further, declaring, “When historians look back at the shambolic U.S. exit from Afghanistan, it may increasingly appear a critical marker of America’s decline in the world.” It has echoes of “the Suez Crisis of 1956, which not only humiliated the British government of Sir Anthony Eden, but marked the end of the United Kingdom as a global power.”

“The greater loss is to the credibility of the United States,” continues the article, “which increasingly appears a fading power internationally (as well as a failing state at home).”

Debacle and decline

The unfolding disaster, beamed live to homes around the world, was perceived as defeat for the world’s most powerful nation in the face of a jihadist army. Global media portrayed the debacle as a spectacular gash in America’s image:

  • “From Saigon to Kabul: What America’s Afghan Fiasco Means for the World” (The Economist, Aug. 21, 2021).
  • “Decadence and Hubris Have Finally Brought Down the American Empire” (The Telegraph, Aug. 18, 2021).
  • “What America’s Allies Can Learn From Afghanistan’s Collapse” (Haaretz, Aug. 15, 2021).
  • “‘Greatest Debacle That NATO Has Seen’: Biden Stuns Allies With Afghanistan Mistakes Expected of Trump” (Washington Examiner, Aug. 18, 2021).
  • “How Biden Broke NATO” (The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 19, 2021).
  • “Afghan Fiasco Raises Hard Questions for Europe” (The New York Times, Aug. 23, 2021).
  • “Nosedive in UK-US Relations Is Another Casualty of Afghanistan’s Fall” (The Guardian, Aug. 22, 2021).

Fallout from abandonment

The international community’s belief in America as a steady hand on the global tiller has been deeply shaken by the calamity engulfing Afghanistan. A shiver of frustration and bewilderment struck shell-shocked national leaders across Europe, who reacted with a mix of dismay and a sense of betrayal at the messy and almost callous U.S. troop withdrawal that created a domino effect, culminating in the Taliban sweeping back into power.

Since the war in Afghanistan began at America’s invocation of NATO’s Article 5—which says an attack on one member is considered an attack on all—America’s lack of coordination with partners has spurred doubts about Washington’s steadfastness as an ally.

America’s most valued ally, the United Kingdom, has been quick to mark the hasty exodus as a mistake of historic magnitude. Britain’s House of Commons condemned it as “shameful” and “catastrophic.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson was made to wait days before being able to speak with the U.S. president, and Tobias Ellwood, chair of the U.K. Parliament’s defense committee, stated the opinion of many: “This is an absolute blunder, with long-term strategic consequences.”

Another flood of people?

French leaders are now planning for, but determined to avoid, a repeat of the bedlam springing from the last major migrant wave in 2015. Then more than 1.3 million people from Syria, Afghanistan and other nations streamed into Europe, igniting social and political upheaval across the continent.

The Baltic states may now question how the U.S. would respond to a trigger of Article 5 in the event of a Russian attack. The shrinking American influence in the Middle East casts shadows across the entire region.“Europe alone cannot shoulder the consequences of the current situation,” said an exasperated French President Emmanuel Macron.

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel called developments in Afghanistan “bitter, dramatic and terrifying.” Armin Laschet, the new leader of Merkel’s party, bemoaned that “2015 must not repeat itself,” and called the situation “the greatest debacle that NATO has seen since its foundation” and an “epochal change.”

Provocative weakness

As allies recalibrate their views of U.S. political will, the consequences of the botched Afghan withdrawal could play out for years, if not decades, for countries facing virtual invasions of refugees. For others—threatened with actual invasions—the American umbrella of protection no longer seems secure.

As New York Times columnist Bret Stephens put it, “Every enemy will draw the lesson that the United States is a feckless power,” and “every ally—Taiwan, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Israel, Japan—will draw the lesson that it is on its own.”

Other international observers put it more bluntly. President Biden “is going to be tested by either the Russians or the Chinese to see whether he has the gumption to respond . . . Right now, American credibility is not a given,” said François Heisbourg, a senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Where will the first test be?

The Baltic states may now question how the U.S. would respond to a trigger of Article 5 in the event of a Russian attack. The shrinking American influence in the Middle East casts shadows across the entire region. Israel and Sunni-dominated nations will hedge their bets but have little appetite for robust diplomatic pursuits. Jihadists will boast of dispatching the U.S. from the “graveyard of empires,” and Iran, sensing weakness, will be emboldened.

The Wall Street Journal noted that “the chaos in Afghanistan has jolted American allies . . . in Asia that rely on backing from Washington to face the rising power of China and a belligerent North Korea.”

Beijing was presented with a propaganda boost, and Chinese state media immediately began capitalizing on the crisis. Only hours after Kabul fell they began trumpeting the supposed weakness of America and taunting Taiwan with threats of invasion. The Communist Party’s Global Times asked, “If the U.S. cannot even secure a victory in a rivalry with small countries, how much better could it do in a major power game with China?”

What history tells us

Distinguished political economist Francis Fukuyama observed that the humiliating retreat “evoked a major juncture in world history, as America turned away from the world.” But he also perceived that “the end of the American era had come much earlier,” and the “long-term sources of American weakness and decline are more domestic than international . . . Just how influential it will be depends on its ability to fix its internal problems, rather than its foreign policy.”

Rare are the observers who can recognize a nation’s current state through the lens of history and understand the cause-and-effect nature at the heart of increasing fragility and instability that can bring down even the greatest of nations. In an age when even university history professors are loathe to draw explicit lessons from history, it is not surprising that entire populations cannot ascertain when a nation is headed for imminent danger.

Though history shows that we do not learn from history, there have been a few historians who have examined the great nations and empires of the past and have observed remarkable parallels. They provide valuable lessons for us.

Signs of the times

Arnold Toynbee, who wrote A Study of History in 1961, warned, “Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed when they reached the moral state the United States is in now.”

Imagine what he would say now, six decades later.

Life cycles of empires

In the tradition of historian Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Sir John Glubb also studied the life cycle of empires. This 20th-century British soldier, scholar and author studied and found patterns, or stages, that governed the rise and fall of historically great empires as diverse as the Roman, Ottoman and Persian Empires.

In his 1976 book The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival, he outlined how empires follow a general pattern as they expand, develop, decline and eventually collapse. He broke down, in broad brushstrokes, the sequential development of empires into successive ages of pioneers, conquests, commerce, affluence, intellect, decadence, decline and collapse.

God calls for nations and individuals to humble themselves, repent and turn to Him.One surprise finding was that the average age of a nation or empire’s greatness is 250 years. “This average,” he writes, “has not varied for 3,000 years.” Over the last three millennia, every great nation or empire lost its way in an average of a mere 250 years, not necessarily disappearing, but staggering on in a much less dynamic and influential state, never returning to its former greatness.

This milestone takes on increased significance for the United States with the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 just around the corner.

The life histories of great states are amazingly similar. All empires begin with an extraordinary explosion of energy by poor but hardy and restless individuals who have a sense of shared morality and common virtues. As the corrosive effects of material success set in to undermine the value of character, virtues like self-sacrifice and discipline that led to a given empire’s creation are abandoned for wealth.

After its zenith, an age of decadence begins the final slide to collapse. Decadence, which according to Glubb is “a moral and spiritual disease, resulting from too long a period of wealth and power,” produces an empire’s descent. “Because they are not convinced that anything in life is worth saving,” the empire eventually rots from within before either being conquered from without or collapsing under the weight of self-indulgence, debt, a sense of entitlement, greed, frivolity and envy.

Learning from the past

The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes says, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9, New International Version). And so it has been with the great empires down through history. Each of them has been given a brief season of prominence, but they have all failed to learn from the powers that went before them. So they all go through the same cycle, ending up in decadence and collapse.

The Creator God, the ultimate controller of both history and future events, judges both nations and individuals for their sins (Daniel 4:34-35). God, because of His patience, allows time for sins to reach their “full measure” before bringing His judgment (Genesis 15:16, NIV; Daniel 5; Jeremiah 30:7).

Decadence today

Ancient Israel was given the unique advantage of a covenant relationship with God. Yet God warned that they would give in to their human nature and would depart from worshipping Him if they became materially satisfied after entering the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 6:11-12; 8:11-20; 31:20). As Israel pushed God to the sidelines, a continual cycle of sin and unfaithfulness to His laws drained the nation’s strength and eventually led to division, captivity and exile (Hosea 7:8-12).

America today, though blessed materially, similarly does little that would find favor in God’s sight. The richest nation in world history, the United States long ago forgot God and the blessings that He poured out on the descendants of Abraham.

And today, America has become a virtual fountain of sin, “mainstreaming,” as the author of America’s Expiration Date, Cal Thomas, says, “what used to be considered aberrant and abhorrent relationships . . . ; various other corruptions of maleness and femaleness; . . . cohabitation; marital breakdown; ethical violations in business and government; a coarseness and corrosion of culture that includes but is not limited to the multibillion-dollar pornography industry; and the abandonment of a standard by which we once distinguished right from wrong.”

A call to repent

The Bible describes the end of this age as one characterized by an advanced state of cultural decadence, as evidenced by its lack of self-control, focus on pleasure-seeking, and hatred of what is good (2 Timothy 3:1-4). In fact, the apostle Paul wrote of this wicked and adulterous generation: “They invent new ways of sinning” (Romans 1:30, New Living Translation).

God calls for nations and individuals to humble themselves, repent and turn to Him (Joel 2:12-17; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Jeremiah 18:7-8). Even though it seems nations will not, as individuals we can respond to Him. See our online article “How to Repent.”

The United States—and the entire West—is caught in a tumultuous period of great social, cultural and moral revolution that is part of events prophesied long ago in your Bible. Learn more about America’s rise, decline and future in our booklet The United States, Britain and the Commonwealth in Prophecy.

About the Author

Neal Hogberg

Neal Hogberg is a member of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, and attends the Dallas, Texas, congregation.

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