The Paradox of Messiah States

Anurag Tripathi ( is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at CHRIST, Bengaluru and Adarsh Badri is a Research Scholar from JNU, New Delhi.
1 April 2022

A messiah state is a state that seeks to save other societies from a perceived threat. The paradox is that they are unable to do so, and they create structures that they once opposed. In recent times, the United States has assumed the role of a Messiah State. The United States experimentation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria have faced the wrath of unheeding, non-fruitful, futile endeavours which has cracked the entire order and fabric of their societies. There is no system in place to hold the Messiah States accountable for their conduct. The US’s never-ending war in Afghanistan prompted finger-pointing about who, if anyone, was to blame.


When a state (or group of states) seeks to defend other societies/cultures/states in the international system from a perceived threat, they often end up messing them up.


When the United States (US) withdrew the last of its troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, the entire world witnessed the horrors of a democratic experiment crumbling to the ground, with political leaders abandoning their citizens, the army surrendering without a fight, black-clad Taliban forces taking control of Kabul's streets, and desperate Afghans clinging to aircraft wheels to avoid the horrors of another Taliban regime. What happened in the days after the Taliban took control raises the question of how Afghanistan got to this point. Although it is difficult to place blame for the Afghan debacle on a single party, it is critical to analyse the role played by the US.

At the height of Cold War power politics, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 began the modern-day Afghan tale of agony. Their mission: to crush the burgeoning Afghan insurgency, consolidate the government, train the army, and leave. During this time, the US began training the  Mujahideen to fight the Soviets. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan approximately 1.8 million people were killed, 1.5 million were disabled and there were 7.5 million refugees (Siddieq Noorzoy 2012). After a million Afghans had been killed, the Soviet Union withdrew its military nine years later, in February 1989, declaring their mission a triumph—albeit with a period of humiliation.

The Soviet exit from Afghanistan followed a period of political instability, warlordism, and a resurgence of Islamic militants, which culminated in the establishment of the Talib regime in 1996. With Pakistan’s military help and Saudi Arabia’s financial backing, the Taliban founded a medieval-minded regime that enforced draconian punishments and gender rules based on Sharia Law. Following the 9/11 attacks, the US embarked on an endless “war on terror” that would shape the country for the next two decades, including George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Barack Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya and Syria, Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, and Joe Biden’s exercise to pull the last of the US troops out of Afghanistan. To sum up: the US intervention in Afghanistan was a futile endeavour with no outcome. We call this, the paradox of messiah states.

The Messiah States in the International System

A messiah state is a state (or group of states) that seeks to save other societies from a perceived threat. The paradox is that they are unable to do so, and they create structures that they once opposed. As Edward Said puts it, “Every empire tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate” (Siddieq Noorzoy 2012). However, they all fail to comprehend the intricacies of other societies, resulting in those states’ continual decline from their preeminent positions. In the end, these nations collapse into chaos, inequality, violence, and political instability.

The idea of the messiah states could be derived from several historical instances, from Christian crusades to the conquest of the USA, to European colonialism, to the neo-imperialist tendencies of the US. In 17th-century Europe, three things happened at the same time: the birth of modernity, a renewed sense of state identities and nationalism, and the widespread practice of colonialism. The birth of modernity and the subsequent awakening of state identities in the West gave rise to colonialism. At its core were harsh mercantilist economic policies designed to benefit the home country’s economy to the detriment of the colony.

At the outset, European colonialism was a cultural project. As pro-imperialist poet Rudyard Kipling put it, civilising the barbarians (that was, everyone else) was “the white man’s burden.” Its purpose was to establish and reinforce ruling Europe’s racial superiority while sustaining the narrative of backwardness, barbarism, and savagery of the colonised. In the process of colonialisation, colonisers imposed their religious practices, languages, economics, and cultural practices on the colonised.

The British Empire, which ruled over a quarter of the world’s population during  World War I in 1914, was at the heart of European colonialism. With a weakening economy and independence movements across its colonies after World War II, England granted independence to numerous states. Among other things, the repercussions of colonial rule can still be felt in these former colonies, in the form of state conflicts, political instability, neo-imperial ruling elite, inequality, and identity crises.

The United States as a Messiah State

In recent times, the US has assumed the role of a messiah state. Following the 11 September terrorist attacks in 2001, the US foreign policy focus had shifted to countering terrorism in various parts of the world. Days after the attack, in an official speech to Congress on 7 October , US President  Bush declared the “War on Terror” to dismantle the terrorist networks and the governments that support them. In the months that followed, US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces chased out Al-Qaeda and toppled the Taliban regime, with Osama bin Laden escaping to Pakistan, Taliban commander Mullah Omar retreating to the mountains, and Hamid Karzai forming a new Afghan government.

After the death of Al-Qaeda leader bin Laden in 2011 (Edward W Said (2003), the US was unable to hand over the country to Afghan authorities because they could not survive without US funding. The Washington Post published a series named “The Afghanistan Papers” (Carter Malkasian 2020) in 2019, in which various US officials admitted that the war was unwinnable and directionless. Today, more than ever before, the public+++c views the US war on terror as a strategic failure of subsequent governments. The failure of the US in Afghanistan can be attributed to three factors: pervasive systemic corruption, the Pakistan factor, and deep-seated resistance to foreign invasion.

To begin with, Afghanistan had been plagued by system-wide corruption under a civilian government. In September 2016 (Afghan Paper), John F Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), had warned that corruption “has become far more serious and widespread” since 2001. With “a huge influx of foreign assistance” and poor oversight of that assistance has given rise to corrupt powerbrokers. As a result, the Afghan democratic regimes and their warlord allies had become reliant on USA’s financial aid and military force, and they would crumble without it.

Second, Pakistan has played a vital counterproductive role in Afghanistan as a US partner in South Asia, as its Afghanistan strategy was influenced by the Indo-Pak rivalry. In most parts, Pakistan (SIGAR 2021) actively harboured, conducted training camps for, and sponsored Taliban and al Qaeda soldiers who fled Afghanistan after the US invasion. However, the successive US leaderships have underplayed the role of Pakistan in Afghanistan. Third, Afghanistan society has a long history of resilience in the face of foreign invasions. Many great empires have failed in their pursuit of Afghanistan, known as the “Graveyard of Empires,” where resistance to occupation is what determines one’s worth. With the US leaving Afghanistan, it will be the next in a long line of countries to do so.

The two-decade war in Afghanistan cost the USmore than $1 trillion Carter (Malkasian 2020) (Watson Institute of Brown University has suggested that the US war on terror cost over $8 trillion [ Nazanin Azizian 2021] to US taxpayers) and resulted in the deaths of half a million Afghans. The 2003 invasion of Iraq (which the United States incorrectly claimed had Weapons of Mass Destruction) and the subsequent capture of Saddam Hussain, would create an unstable Iraq that would go on to harbour terrorist groups such as ISIS.

The neo-imperialist enterprise is heavily rooted in American exceptionalism, a notion that the United States holds a unique position in the international system due to its national character, historical evolution, and political institutions. Aside from the imperial ambitions of the British Empire, there is a belief that US has a unique role to play in safeguarding societies against imagined barbarism.

In January 2003, the New York Times Sunday magazine cover boldly declared American Empire: Get Used to It. The author of the piece, Michael Ignatieff, wrote (Express Tribune 2021)

“The case for empire is that it [USA] has become, in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability alike. Even so, empires survive only by understanding their limits. Sept. 11 pitched the Islamic world into the beginning of a long and bloody struggle to determine how it will be ruled and by whom: the authoritarians, the Islamists or perhaps the democrats. America can help repress and contain the struggle, but even though its security depends on the outcome, it cannot ultimately control it.”

The idea that USA is a messiah—a saviour state destined to empower the world’s people—is at its core. This optimism pervades significant American discourse on the US, which refers to it as the “last best hope of the earth,” the “leader of the free world,” or an “empire of liberty,” among other things. Scholars like Stephen M Walt have dismissed the idea of “The Myth of American Exceptionalism”. In his Foreign Policy (Michael Ignatieff 2003) essay with the same title, Walt debunks five illusions that surround American Exceptionalism.

The Problem of Messiah States

The messiah states pose four distinct and interconnected problems in the international system. To begin with, these states follow their own set of laws since they wield so much power in the system. The fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s gave rise to a unipolar world in which the United States is the undisputed hegemon. In 2015, the United States maintained over 800 military bases  (Stephen M Walt 2011), in more than 70 countries, far exceeding any power in history. These bases are often used to secure free trade and wage proxy wars against other states. By establishing its own rules in the international system, America has exploited its military and economic might to its advantage.

The second issue is that unilateralism has weakened the United Nations (UN) and other international organisations' ability to deal with crises. The unilateral decision by US-NATO forces to attack Iraq in 2003 is a typical example of this. An American journalist, Peter Freundlich (DAVID VINE 2015), lays out the web of inconsistencies that has pervaded America's invasion of Iraq. He notes:

“We are going to ignore the United States in order to make clear to Saddam Hussein that the United Nations cannot be ignored. We’re going to wage war to preserve the UN’s ability to avert war. The paramount principle is that the UN’s word must be taken seriously, and if we have to subvert its word to guarantee that it is, then by gum, we will.”

Despite being the driving force behind the formation of the UN and other multilateral organisations, the US has done the most to weaken its efficacy in recent years. The multilateral organisations died a silent death under Trump's presidency, with his administration withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and defunding several UN agencies. However, under President Biden's leadership, these institutions are slowly reviving.

Third, messiah states often mess up the societies in which they intervene. The US war on terror came to an unusual climax, with the Taliban seizing control of the majority of Afghanistan only days before the last US troops left. Twenty years ago, when US-led NATO forces routed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, they were seeking to rebuild a failed state. Despite trillions of dollars spent, little has changed in Afghan society in the last two decades. Poverty and starvation are still widespread in Afghan society. The influx of US funding had resulted in the establishment of a corrupt bureaucratic structure dominated by political and military elites. Finally, there is no system in place to hold the Messiah States accountable for their conduct. The shambolic denouement to US’s never-ending war in Afghanistan prompted finger-pointing about who, if anyone, was to blame. When the messiah states make mistakes, however, it is on to those societies to deal with the consequences. So, how do we deal with the messiah states in the international system?

Anurag Tripathi ( is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at CHRIST, Bengaluru and Adarsh Badri is a Research Scholar from JNU, New Delhi.
1 April 2022