The fall of Kabul is not the most important geopolitical event of the 21st century. But it does not have to be for us to recognize that it is part of a larger trend: the erosion of the free world, the rise of authoritarianism, and the descent of world politics into an unbridled, often violent zero-sum contest for power, wealth, and prestige. Such a contest has no winners and leaves the world more violent and poorer, and its people more at risk and less free. It also has only one logical culmination.
Some may argue that Kabul is strategically peripheral, that its fall is survivable, and that it is too small a domino to catalyze a collapse of world order. As an isolated incident, that is true, just as the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2013 were survivable, or Syria’s and Libya’s descent into anarchy in 2011, the failure of the war in Iraq, North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in 2006, the growth of Iran’s near-nuclear breakout capability, and China’s record of genocide, industrial espionage, totalitarian surveillance, and continuous violation of international law.
No straw takes responsibility for breaking the camel’s back. But in retrospect, after the camel is lying paralyzed in the ground, we know that every straw played its part. There is an old adage about how one goes bankrupt: gradually, and then suddenly. We are on the gradual slope to the bankruptcy of world order, and we do not know how close we may be to a precipitous collapse. Any single event, like the fall of Kabul, might be the last. No one could have believed that the assassination of an obscure archduke by a Serbian terrorist would topple three empires, birth the Soviet Union, redraw the map of the modern Middle East, and launch a score of wars in its wake.
Some may argue that world politics has never been anything more than a raw contest for power. Realists of this ilk say that the “liberal international order” was only a mirage, a pretense, or a fable we told ourselves to cast an appealing moralistic gloss over the perennial pursuit of wealth, power, and prestige. The fall of Kabul endangers nothing more than a fairy tale that was, in fact, dangerous for having bred naivete, utopianism, and magical thinking in the halls of power.