On Being “The World’s Policeman”

 

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.

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  1. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: 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.

     As a point of fact, they are not.  (Sorry that this undercuts your argument…):

    “When these women later sued the city and its police for negligently failing to protect them or even to answer their second call, the court held that government had no duty to respond to their call or to protect them. Case dismissed.

    “The law is similar in most states….”

    Just Dial 911? The Myth of Police Protection

    So we could be the “world’s policeman”, and just not pick up the phone. :)

    • #1
  2. Copperfield Inactive
    Copperfield
    @Copperfield

    Well said (written). 

    Two maxims of human relations:
    1. Order must be imposed, it does not arise spontaneously
    2. There’s always an a**… um, bad guy

    With as many active nations as we have on the world stage, some country or group of countries is going to impose their order on the world, to the extent they can.  In history, there have been only three periods of relative order (notice, it wasn’t phrased as peace), and it always required a strong hegemon… The Romans, The Brits, and the US.  I’d like to think US leadership has been (not without fault) the most benevolent, given the populations that moved from tyranny to relative freedom under our leadership (must give the Brits credit for leading the way with governmental structure and political philosophy, though). 
    Ask many of the isolationists whose order they would rather have imposed and you’ll usually get a question something like “Why do we have to have anyone’s?”.  Answer: refer to the maxims above. 

    BTW, love this: “treat your own people decently, don’t stir up trouble, support us whenever possible, and allow our citizens to trade peaceably in your country”.  Pithy, pointed… nice.

    • #2
  3. user_82762 Inactive
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    Tom,

    Of course, we are not the World’s policeman.  There is no World government (certainly not the UN) so there is no World police force.  Kirkpatrick’s formula is a very pragmatic one.  Jonah Goldberg just said the same thing but with a little different twist.  “No one in the West wants a long struggle with jihadism. The problem is the enemy always gets a vote.”

    The Enemy always gets a vote.  Chamberlain simply willed that he could make a deal with Hitler.  Unfortunately, Hitler had a vote too.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #3
  4. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    As a point of fact, they are not. (Sorry that this undercuts your argument…):

    Well, from a legal standpoint, I appear to have put my foot in it.  Thank you for the correction.

    Regardless, I would assume that  — practically speaking — a citizen can expect police response to an emergency, even if this doesn’t rise to the level of a legal right.

    • #4
  5. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: Regardless, I would assume that…

     Yes, as a matter of practice they do try to do their best. 

    But you know, if we’re assigning titles to ourselves, how about, “World’s Vigilante”?

    “a member of a self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate.”

    It accurately describes the situation, and would enrage leftists to no end… :)

    • #5
  6. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Trying to compare it to the police just confuses matters. But what you’re saying is fundamentally true: there will always be some “strongman” in the world, or multiples of them.

    However it is naive to assume that we should only respond when we are threatened. The much more effective way, is to prevent being threatened in the first place.

    The reality of the world is…if we don’t do it, the Russians and the Chinese will. 

    We can see now just how quickly things can deteriorate into utter barbarism when…Russia…is allowed to play its game. Iran will get nuclear weapons, China will threaten its neighbours, or worst, Russia will reinstate its Empire into its former colonies and increase support for tin-pot dictators all around the world. And the while, they will try to weaken America…not just our “influence” around the world, but they will weaken America itself. 

    We’ve seen in this President probably the greatest foreign policy catastrophe in well over a century. 

    People still think we can “afford” to not be the “world’s policeman”? Wait and see how it will be when Russia and China are.

    • #6
  7. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: 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.

     America is not just its military, and an ordered society is not maintained solely by police.. America bears the burden not only through the savage wars of peace, but also by filling full the mouth of famine and bidding the sickness cease. The WTO and other trade agreements combine with a variety of forms of US and to a lesser extent European and Pacific Rim diplomacy to democratize and civilize the world.

    Most of the planet is democratic and peaceful today, to an unheard of extent, because American military action combines with other influences to encourage decency and discourage the North Korean approach. You’re right that the militaristic approach isn’t enough by itself (we need the feminine stuff)  but even the minarchists accept that we need state violence to be capable of disincentivizing enslaving cartels. 

    • #7
  8. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    Tuck: But you know, if we’re assigning titles to ourselves, how about, “World’s Vigilante”?

     

    • #8
  9. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Tuck:  Yes, as a matter of practice they do try to do their best. 

    Looking into this a bit further, the court findings are that police have no obligation to protect any specific person, though they do to protect their jurisdictions at large.  As I understand this, that means that I can’t sue the cops for failing to protect me, though they are obliged to respond to in general.  The US should has no such obligation to the world.

    So — assuming I have this right and putting extraordinary circumstances aside — if you call 9-11, an officer will arrive at your door in short order.  In the case of Warren v. District of Columbia, the police responded multiple times to 9-11 requests (though without success).

    Still, I really wish I had known about this before.

    • #9
  10. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:  The US should has no such obligation to the world.

     The argument of “obligation to the world” usually come from the Left, not from the “conservative hawks” etc.

    In fact, the Left says things like “why did we intervene in Kosovo, but not in Rwanda!” Implicit in that statement is that the US has an obligation to intervene wherever there is some injustice in the world. But that’s the Left. 

    I remember I confronted a super-Lefty girl once about precisely this statement. I said “so you want to the US to have…more wars?” She thought about it for a second, and said “yes”. 

    The “hawkish” position is all about the self-interest of the US. However, that self interest isn’t defined narrowly as responding to an immediate and direct threat. Helping out allies, promoting democracy and stability, securing freedom of trade etc. All these are in our long-term interests as well.

    • #10
  11. liberal jim Inactive
    liberal jim
    @liberaljim

    The US has been paying for a significant portion of the other worlds democracies’ national defense since the end of WW2.  There may have been an argument for doing so until the 90’s, but certainly not since.  None of the current NATO countries spend the required 2% of their GDP, and at that level they still would not be paying their own way.  If we are going to continue our current posture asking these countries for trade concessions, if they fail to step up might be an alternative to cutting back on ours.   O’s incompetence is certainly the main encouragement for Putin’s  conduct, but the EU’s lack of military force does not help.

    • #11
  12. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    liberal jim: None of the current NATO countries spend the required 2% of their GDP, and at that level they still would not be paying their own way.

     The b-list, the UK and France, do, and Eastern Europe generally spends something comparable. I spent the weekend with a bunch of UK military brass, and most of them thought that the UK was likely to increase spending over the medium term, which was not a familiar position for them. 

    • #12
  13. liberal jim Inactive
    liberal jim
    @liberaljim

    James Of England:

    liberal jim: None of the current NATO countries spend the required 2% of their GDP, and at that level they still would not be paying their own way.

    The b-list, the UK and France, do, and Eastern Europe generally spends something comparable. I spent the weekend with a bunch of UK military brass, and most of them thought that the UK was likely to increase spending over the medium term, which was not a familiar position for them.

     That is good to know, the point is we a still paying for a good portion of their defense.  Why shouldn’t they pay their own way?

    • #13
  14. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    liberal jim:  That is good to know, the point is we a still paying for a good portion of their defense.  Why shouldn’t they pay their own way?

     They are. The question is, what do you consider the appropriate amount they should spend? 

    There’s 6 NATO countries that spend more than 2%. Sure, there’s some disappointments like Germany. But it’s not as if there’s much of a threat to most of Europe at the moment, or that we’re spending much to “defend them”.

    Putin is an insane dictator, but the Russian army is a joke, in conventional terms, other than compared to its former Soviet countries. So it’s not as if there’s a threat these days of Russian tanks rolling into Belgium anytime soon.

    • #14
  15. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    liberal jim:

    James Of England:

    liberal jim: None of the current NATO countries spend the required 2% of their GDP, and at that level they still would not be paying their own way.

    The b-list, the UK and France, do, and Eastern Europe generally spends something comparable. I spent the weekend with a bunch of UK military brass, and most of them thought that the UK was likely to increase spending over the medium term, which was not a familiar position for them.

    That is good to know, the point is we a still paying for a good portion of their defense. Why shouldn’t they pay their own way?

     I’m not sure I follow. Do you think that the UK and France need to pay more than they currently do to defend their homeland against foreign invaders? Do you have any particular threats in mind? 
    I think it’s pretty clear that most of the military money spent by the UK and France is spent on stabilizing the world, much as the US spends its defense money. As with all true public goods, it is very difficult to allocate costs and benefits, and I do support increases in defense spending, but it seems very difficult indeed to show that they aren’t spending on their own defense. 

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