THE global crisis continues to spread with lightning speed. It only appeared in the light of day a week ago. Western allies were already expressing unease at the speed of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and at the deafness to counter-arguments of President Joe Biden. But nobody suspected the American position in Kabul would collapse between a sunrise and a sunset.

Nor had anybody had the chance to contemplate the calamitous effect on the western alliance. For the UK, which for better or worse regards itself as the chief American ally, the sight of its Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, was a striking image of impotence. He could do no more than choke back his tears as he contemplated the abandonment of lowly Afghan soldiers and civilians who had placed their trust in him and his colleagues.

In the past, we had known interventions that ended with a bang. We knew little of interventions that ended with a whimper.

While this is indeed a disaster for Afghanistan and western strategy altogether, it has also brought home the fragility of British foreign policy and the hollow centre of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s desire for global leadership. The crisis has come at the end of a run of failures that lifts the bar against joint military action in the future, especially any that is supposed to be led from Washington.

The National: Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a London-based summit to raise funds for the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). Picture date: Thursday July 29, 2021. PA Photo. The UK last month pledged GBP430 million to the project, which aims to secure at

We know now that the UK in particular had argued against any rapid initiatives in an Afghan situation changing too fast for comfort. We had even started to think about an alternative western intervention put together by countries other than the US. But against the narrow-minded unilateralism of yet another president in the White House it proved impossible to act in time.

The Atlantic alliance is deeply damaged, but we and other Europeans have no other basis for our strategic aims and, in any case, no place where we can easily start building one. Events are too unpredictable to rule out future action elsewhere with the same old friends.

But, as Johnson found out when trying to placate an outraged Parliament last week, he cannot just stand in the middle and hope for conciliators to gather round him. He could never have hoped for much support from the SNP or the Labour Party. Now the Tories are feeling betrayed, too, and may not so readily offer support to the US when it comes round again with appeals for a united show of strength.

READ MORE: David Mundell, trade envoy? He couldn't negotiate his way onto a number 61 bus

One Tory remarked: “The parliamentary mood is where we were when America wanted our help in Vietnam.” As in those days, the UK may feel impelled to reshape its whole thinking about foreign policy. If the great landmass of Asia is lost to us, there are other regions of the globe where, in the decades of post-imperial decline, we have sunk even further from view.

As the Taliban advanced on Kabul we had our pride and joy of an aircraft carrier arriving in Guam in the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, the Americans would prefer us to return to a bigger role in Europe.

The UK may be limited in the extra help it can offer an overstretched superpower, but this also fits in with Johnson’s own view of what he can do to gather friends and set them thinking and talking. He has already tried it on a beach in Dorset, and not without success even though some comic episodes made their way into the scripted text.

But again it requires the UK to do things for which its recent thoughts and words and actions have not prepared it well. Good relations with European allies need to be restored and military capacity requires to be maintained. The first need is a just solution for Afghan refugees, as a moral obligation rather than just a policy. An offer to take 20,000 Afghans over five years begs the question of how long people in fear of their lives are meant to wait at Kabul’s airport.

The National:

ONE challenge is to ensure those who have been let down once are not abandoned twice over. The best sort of leadership the UK can give is leadership by example.

For all the politically correct rhetoric, Whitehall is cutting back its spending on the main instruments of soft power in overseas aid and regional security. Brexit has happened but it has not altered our strategic situation. While the US alliance remains central, it cannot be the sole principle of foreign policy that we have.

After all, it has never since the Second World War been so clear that the UK is no longer a great power. At the time of Suez we were unable to accept we were not, while in the Falklands War we might even have thought we still were. Today, we are unmistakable minor actors on the global stage, and will never be anything else.

For many in Scotland it will not be an unwelcome development. North of the Border, we did well during the imperial era in ways it is no longer possible to be wholly proud of. For us, in the 21st century, there appears to be no good reason for getting involved in other people’s wars.

One day, perhaps not too far away, we may need to think about this more deeply than we are used to doing. To accept effective isolationism without question is to shrug in the face of threats and evil.

For every Afghanistan or Iraq, there is a South Korea, a Berlin airlift, a first Gulf War, a Kosovo intervention. To paraphrase Barack Obama, the challenge is not to step away from all conflicts, just from the dumb ones.

An alternative approach is to leaven the necessary interventionist humility with a warning against overcorrection. Anti-interventionists now weeping for the oppressed women of Afghanistan need reminding that their rights sprang from that military mission.

There is a human price, too, for inaction, with its beneficiaries in Bashir al-Assad and the Taliban, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

As Tom Tugendhat put it in his powerful Commons speech last week, conflicts and security are won through patience – a patience the west is losing the will to show. This is the harder argument but the west needs leaders ready to make it.

It is naive to think any of this can be done without the US and its military might. Just now there is a need for nations and leaders prepared to make the case for defending democratic values till such a time as self-interest reminds the US of its global role.

And in a small country like Scotland, still awaiting independence, we can be already thinking on these lines show our future friends and neighbours that we are worthy to join them.