The World’s Policeman?


Prager University has a new video up by Rico-friend Bret Stephens, appropriately titled “Should America be the World’s Policeman?” As one might expect, Stephens offers a lot of intelligent and sharp analysis about the benefits of an interventionist American foreign policy — much of which I agree with — but I can’t help shake the feeling that it’s all in service of a deeply flawed analogy.

Should America be the world’s policeman? Whenever this question is asked, and it has been asked for nearly 100 years, the answer is usually no. Progressives will say that it suggests American arrogance. Who made America the boss of the world? Many conservatives, especially those with Libertarian leanings, will answer that what other countries do to their neighbors or even to their own people is no concern of ours.

With respect, those are hardly the only available alternatives, nor is the list fleshed-out — as Stephens suggests — by offering the United Nations as a replacement cop or “dividing the world into spheres of influence” with such countries as Iran and Russia.

Moreover, the responsibilities Stephens identifies as producing the Pax Americana don’t map well onto police powers:

Perhaps that explains why, in recent years, the United States has adopted a foreign policy that neglects to do the things that have made that orderly world possible: Commitments to global security, military forces adequate to meet those commitments, a willingness to intervene in regional crises to protect allies [keep international trade-routes open,] and to confront or deter aggressive regimes.

The first and most obvious objection is that police officers and warriors have very different tool kits: most soldiers don’t carry handcuffs and no police department uses belt-fed machine guns (at least I hope not). The similarities don’t quite end at wearing uniforms, carrying firearms, and sharing some terminology of rank, but it’s close. Soldiers are, rightly, unencumbered by standards of proof and identifying breaches of law; police — as we understand them — can keep and perhaps restore the peace, but they can’t create it.

Second, and more importantly, police officers have a duty to serve their entire community and aren’t expected to show great discretion in whom they go after and for what. They aren’t supposed to play favorites or have alliances with only some of their constituents. When we call 9-11, they are expected to respond, not ask what we’ve done for them lately that justifies the risk to their officers. After all, they’re not really “their” officers; they’re ours.

If America is going to continue to be the world’s superpower, we should have very clear ideas about the responsibilities that entails. Topping that list should be protecting our citizens and their property by killing those who mean us harm, followed by coming to the aid of those countries with whom we enter into mutual alliance, and keeping global trade open.

Those are serious and difficult responsibilities and we should be immensely proud if we can meet them with some competence. They are not, however the same as being that of being global police; the world isn’t civilized enough to warrant it.

Published in Foreign Policy
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  1. user_75648 Thatcher

    The World Policeman analog is a misfit because a policeman minds a civil society.  The world’s nations do not exist in a civil society; they exist in a state of nature.

    This means that ultimately there are no laws for such a policeman to enforce. There are conventions such as “international law” and “norms” and so on, but there is no world government with global sovereignty.  There can be no “world police” until some entity has global sovereignty.

    In my imagination, the world resembles a village.  (Crude generality warning in effect.)   In this world there is only one village and all humans live in one of its neighborhoods.  Each neighborhoods  populated by few clans.

    Clan type 1: Some neighborhoods are wealthy and enjoy the rule of law (e.g., North America, Europe, Australia, and First World in general.)

    Clan type 2: Other neighborhoods are slums (e.g., South America, Africa, etc.) Not evil, mind you.  But more chaotic, less rule of law, poorer. They generally don’t export trouble, raid next door neighborhoods, etc.

    Clan type 3: And then there are the outlaw clans.  They are the ones brewing meth, stealing their neighbors cattle in broad daylight, casually killing others, extorting, kidnapping and so on.

    So what is stopping the either set of the first two clan types from acting just like clan type 3? Nothing.  For their own reasons they choose to act otherwise.

    What can stop players from clan type 3? Only players from clan type 1.  Clan 2 is too poor and too disorganized to do more than defend themselves, if they can.

    In clan 1 there is one clan that dwarfs all of the others: the America clan. When American clan gets sufficiently ticked-off they can beat most of the other clans.  But getting into fights are not cost-free.  And nobodies paying the America clan to defend them. But sometimes it is America self-interest to settle disputes and to keep order. Put another way, America can decide to shoot a mad dog when they see one. (Scenario Saddam.) Then again, she might not.

    Analysis: Whatever flaws the above analogy might have, it is a better fit than the “World Policeman” analogy.  In theory, policemen don’t get to choose which muggers they will arrest and which they will allow to keep mugging.  A policeman who accidentally shoots an innocent citizen is going to be investigated and maybe thrown in prison.   Nobody is going to throw an American president into prison if a drone-strike accidentally kills innocent civilians.

    The American role appears to be something of a peacekeeper. A peacekeeper who is erratic due to advanced demosclerosis.  A peacekeeper with limited resources.

    • #31
  2. Matty Van Inactive
    Matty Van

    No metaphor is perfect, but America as Policeman of the World is pretty good.

    Just one example of its appropriateness. I keep reading about how banks around the world are more and more reluctant to let Americans open new accounts. The global reach of America’s “police” powers force so much trouble and red tape on banks in other countries that it’s becoming not worth the effort.

    Herbert, using Japan and Germany as examples of how our global policing can teach nations to be modern simply does not work for me for two reasons. 1) It skips over countless failures between then and now. 2) Teaching someone what they already know is an easy trick. Hardly something to brag about.

    • #32
  3. Matty Van Inactive
    Matty Van

    Ok, I thought of another one. Instead of Policeman of the World, how about Parent of the World.

    With such a parent, the rest of the world need not grow up. They can happily spend all their money on welfare programs, and if something threatens their nice situation, they can let Daddy take care of it, and even take some teen rebellion pot shots at Daddy while he’s busy protecting them.

    Come on neocons and FDR libs! Let’s go back to constitutional government and let the world grow up.

    • #33
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