Prior to his election as the 46th president of the United States of America, Joseph Biden made much of his desire to "once more have America lead the world".
In Biden's mind, America's international action not only defeated "fascism and autocracy" but it also "created the free world".
The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, more recently echoed this point in the Alaska Talks in March – held with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi – stating: "I'm hearing deep satisfaction that the United States is back".
The US might be back in the minds of two of its key foreign policy decision-makers, but the ongoing collapse of the incumbent Afghanistan government at the hands of the Taliban is a sobering reminder that even at the peak of its powers, the US was not always a force for good and its decisions, no matter how 'well-intentioned', have lasting negative repercussions.
There is a popular adage that Afghanistan is the "graveyard of empires". While the historical record easily repudiates such a notion, it would be naïve to ignore the importance of Afghanistan as a mirror which exposes the pathologies of the larger powers that have attempted to exert control over it.
The Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 is an example of this.
The Soviet Union was at the twilight of the "era of stagnation" of the Brezhnev years and it was clear that its internal problems – both social and economic – were significant.
Afghanistan, which became a fledgling communist country in the Saur Revolution of 1978 but soon fell into domestic turmoil, became a grand project for the Soviet elites in which they not only tried to save communism in Afghanistan, but also communism in the Soviet Union.
But the Soviet idyllic visions of what Afghanistan could become soon fell away and it was mired in a vicious quagmire until eventually deciding to exit at the end of the decade.
The most important failure of the Soviets in Afghanistan was not a material one – although this was significant – but an ideational one. The Soviets failed to use Afghanistan as a conduit to reinvigorate their ideas and this, in part, hastened the collapse of communism at home.
The Soviet Union became haunted by "Mujahideen ghosts".
The US is not in the same boat that the Soviet Union was. Despite some turmoil at home, it is hard to envisage a Soviet-style collapse of the US in the near future. But, the ghosts of Afghanistan for the US should not be ignored.
Like the Soviet Union, the US went into Afghanistan confident it could change it for the better. And, like the Soviet Union, the US has exited Afghanistan with a damaged international reputation and its 'tail between its legs'.
However, for some, the failure of the US in Afghanistan is not that it achieved nothing of note in 20 years and that Afghanistan is back to square one, but rather that the US has left too early.
Indeed, the return of the Taliban is unequivocally a bad thing for Afghanistan, especially as the degenerative ideas which made the Taliban so abhorrent in the first place still remain. The scenes at Kabul airport are heart-wrenching and helping those that will be immediate targets of the Taliban is needed.
But, the lesson from Afghanistan is not that the US did not stay long enough or that its intervention was not executed properly, but rather that its idea of being an 'exceptional' power with an inherent international civilising role to play is hubristic and a one-way street to recurring blunders and disasters.
Biden appears to, at least, acknowledge that the US has to leave Afghanistan, regardless of the Taliban's resurgence, stating that "I do not regret my decision". But, Biden has yet to call the US intervention itself a failure. Rather, Biden has clung to the opinion that the "United States did what we went to do in Afghanistan".
This entrenched belief, coupled with his clear vision of restoring the US into the role of leader of the 'free world', means the president seems doomed – like his predecessors, especially in the aftermath of the similarly disastrous Vietnam War – to repeat mistakes of the past.
The lessons of the US failure in Afghanistan might end up being learned more by other countries, especially the apparent 'superpower-in-waiting', China.
China has shown in the past that it closely observes the experiences of other countries and uses this to guide decisions. For instance, Deng Xiaoping learned that undertaking rapid political liberalisation, a la Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost policy in the Soviet Union, could precipitate (via the Tocqueville paradox) social upheaval and potential collapse.
Regarding Afghanistan, while China has long been critical of the liberal aims of US intervention there, it has still appreciated the stabilisation that 20 years of American presence there has provided. As such, the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan is a bit of a headache for China as an unstable Afghanistan has big implications for its regional aims as well as its efforts to stamp out extremism and separatism in its Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
But, strategists in Beijing will also have noted the wider costs – both material and ideational – that the US has incurred in pursuing its Afghanistan dream.
While few are buying China's claims that it is a peaceful riser and will not fall into the same 'imperialist' ways of the previous 'Western' superpowers (nor should they), one should not underestimate Beijing's ability to observe and learn.
China is likely to remain a pragmatic international power; ruthlessly maximising its interests where possible while trying to avoid any kind of imperial overstretch brought about by ideological hubris.
The US, meanwhile, seems oblivious to the lesson of Afghanistan.
There is space for the US to have a positive international role – and it is certainly viewed more positively than China in most corners – but to do so it needs to shed notions of itself as an exceptional leader.
• New Zealander Nicholas Ross Smith is an Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham (Ningbo Campus), recently returned to Christchurch. He is on Twitter at @1NRSmith