Maybe we still need the USA to be the world’s policeman

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February 22, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith


In Episode 7 of ‘The West Wing’ there is an episode called “The Cold”. Towards the end of it, the fictional President Jed Bartlett (played by Martin Sheen), explains to two Presidential candidates why he feels he has to order US troops into Kazakhstan 21 days before the upcoming election. The Central Asian country had had an election in which electoral fraud had been reported and the pro-Russian candidate had swept to victory, leading to The Chinese Army amassing on the eastern border and Russian troops swooping in to ‘protect’ the country.

President Bartlett explains why intervention is needed, why the UN Security Council would veto it (as Russia and China are on it), why NATO are holding back, and why he has no choice but to send US troops on to “keep the peace” until Kazakhstan reverts to being a free democracy. Jed Bartlett was the liberal left’s wet dream of a President, yet in 2006, three years after the Iraq invasion, the liberal left’s wet dream of a President was saying that peace could only be kept in the world if The USA was its’ policeman.

Fast forward to three years’ later, in a North-West London classroom, and I am teaching Global Politics to nine A-level politics students. The specification asks the pupils to consider ‘power’ in the global political system, and in particular the pros and cons of US hegemony, the pros and cons of ‘bipolar’ power (US and Russia) and then the implications of a ‘multipolar’ world (where no one has overarching power).

Barack Obama had entered the White House and promised a withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the global narrative had moved so much in the direction of the USA’s power being generally a ‘bad thing’ that these bright, thoughtful students just couldn’t conceive of a good case for US hegemony. This was not helped by the fact that the most recent writing on it was by right-wing ideologues like Charles Krauthammer and promoted by now discredited politicians such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. It also was not helped by the release of “Team America: World Police” by the creators of ‘South Park’. Try as I might, and I tried a lot, I couldn’t persuade them to see the logic of how one powerful country could keep peace in the world.

They could see how the ‘Cold War’ had worked, with the USSR and USA on the one hand sponsoring minor skirmishes all over the world yet mutually assured destruction meaning there was little chance of another World War. But the kids had been conditioned by a combination of very left-wing parents, the ‘Stop the War’ movement and the mess in Iraq to believe that whatever the US did must be wrong and if they were the World’s police they could not be trusted to carry out their responsibilities, well, responsibly.

Fast forward to now, and the geo-political mess that resulted from the ‘War on Terror’, including the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, means that there is little public support in the UK, and, more importantly, in the USA, for further engagement in the world. The result? Those with malevolent motivations know they can do what they want without too much fear of the intervention of the most powerful nation in the world. By that I mean the actions of Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and Vladimir Putin in Ukraine but in future in, I believe some other countries.

The behaviour of IS and Russia are a bit like the behaviour of the London rioters on the Sunday night of the riots as it became clear that the police were not going to respond. In interviews afterwards, many rioters reveal the result of their realisation that they had free reign on the streets for the night. It led to the looting, the damage, the violence of that night, and I believe we, the public, learned the importance of having a police force (which is something I would allege the police needed us to learn after the drubbing they had received about their work at recent protests).

Islamic State would not be where they are in Syria and Iraq if the US were still there, whatever our feelings are about the original invasion. Vladimir Putin’s barely disguised troops of Russian soldiers would not be in the Ukraine if the US were still in their role of world policeman. The vote in the UK Parliament of 2013 to not invade in Syria has meant that the UK Government knows it doesn’t have a mandate for action in conflicts that have nothing to do with them. Whatever the merits of this, which are many, it DOES have an impact on the behaviour of the more rogue elements of the Global political system. If they know that someone might mobilise to stop them, they might not do it in the first place.

Which leads me back to the West Wing episode I talked about at the start of this blog. For the liberal left’s wet dream of a President to be able to talk so openly about the need for intervention in a conflict nothing to do with the US in the interests of long term world peace and democracy shows just how ingrained the idea of the USA as ‘world policeman’ used to be.

I wonder, over the next few years, how many of us might come to miss the positive effects of that?

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