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In the most recent Need To Know, Jay Nordlinger and Mona Charon had an extended conversation about America’s role in the world (Want to join the conversation on this episode? Yet another great reason to join Ricochet!). Beginning at 34’40”, Jay offered the following in response to American war-weariness over Iraq and the Middle East:
I don’t want to be the world’s policeman; I barely want to be my own policeman! But as Jean Kirkpatrick said, what if there’s a world criminal? What are you going to do… to keep him from your doorstep? Wait until he’s at the doorstep? Inside the house? No American wants to be the world’s policeman, but the new world criminal, it seems, is Islamofascism. And are powerful people going to let it run rampant or not?
[Background: according to Google, the phrase “the world’s policeman” originated in the 1870s, spiked at the outset of World War II, spiked again in the early 1970s, and then once more in the early 1990s. According to this archive, Lyndon Johnson was the first American president to use the phrase and — so far as I can tell — the only one to assert that we are the world’s policeman. Nixon and George H. W. Bush each used it a few times, and Carter and Obama have (so far) each used it once. Clinton used it relatively often; neither Reagan nor George W. Bush ever spoke the phrase in public.]
Stipulating that all analogies have their limits and break down if pushed too far, the idea of America being “the world’s policeman” as a shorthand for our having an active, interventionist foreign policy confuses the matter more than it clarifies. For starters, a policeman’s job is to keep the peace by enforcing agreed-upon laws. While he is empowered to use force, it’s not supposed to be his first line of action. In contrast, the military’s job is — as Jay later put it — to kill our enemies and salt their ground. This is an old point that’s gotten a lot of play since the Ferguson riots, so I won’t belabor it further.
Of equal importance — though less discussed — police officers are required to respond to all calls for help and assistance, regardless of their preferences or judgement. If a known career criminal calls 9-11 to report a home invasion, the police have a professional obligation to respond; however deserved it might be, they can’t simply hang up the phone with “have a nice day.” We require this because — while we’re willing to grant police officers great latitude in determining how to respond to trouble — we don’t want to allow police to play favorites with regard to whether they respond.
Unfortunately, the world stage looks less like a community that can be policed than a state of nature that needs a strongman. Countries are afforded great latitude in their internal affairs, there is no consolidation of power such as police enjoy, and bullies can and do get away with terrible things abroad because the costs of stopping them are often too high. There is also (blessedly) no legal authority with the power to pass and enforce laws at the global level as state and local governments do.
Given this sorry state of affairs, reserving a just country’s right to pick its conflicts is more likely to lead to good outcomes. While there may be occasions where moral need overcomes a pure cost-benefit analysis, I’d generally rather we pick our wars based on a “what’s in it for us?” basis. Sometimes, it will be because we’ve been directly attacked, or because we’re attempting to preempt an imminent strike. In others, it might be a matter of coming to the aid of proven friends and allies. In still others, it might be more a matter of fulfilling our obligations to ensure that we’re as good as our word (which is why we should be very discriminating in making promises of aid and security).
In all cases, however, it should be transparently clear that no country has an unconditional claim on our blood and treasure and that it is in other countries’ interest to maintain friendly, mutually-beneficial relations with us; that is, treat your own people decently, don’t stir up trouble, support us whenever possible, and allow our citizens to trade peaceably in your country. Or, as Rob might say, have skin in the game.
Policemen can’t demand those kind of conditions before acting, nor should they be allowed to. Nations, however, can and should.Published in