Back in the 1990s, if there was such a thing as the world’s policeman, then it was the US. This was the American moment, not least in the Middle East. The Soviet Union had collapsed, Russia was in crisis and the sleeping dragon of China was only just awakening.
The questions many ask nowadays revolve around whether the US even wants this role part time anymore? Does the world need a policeman? States are meant to be equal, but of course they are not. And what happens if the US totally abandons such a function? Does China try to step in?
America’s reputation is far from pristine. It made telling interventions for the better in both world wars. It was instrumental in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. Without America’s role in the Balkans, things may have been considerably worse. But against that, many people see the US as having acted as a bully. They remember Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition. And what about when the US and others did absolutely nothing, as in Rwanda?
Things went downhill for the US after 9/11. It saddled itself with two costly, lengthy interventions in Afghanistan and then Iraq. The former was initially broadly supported internationally. The latter certainly was not and ate away at America’s credibility and reputation. The cost in blood and treasure was gargantuan, but what really changed was the crushing of US domestic support for adventurism overseas. That said, America’s withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan did not bring order and security. Far from it.
The one and only thing that unites the last three American presidents is that they all understood the public mood no longer tolerated such rash adventures. Barack Obama baulked at intervening in Syria in 2015 after the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. He was also a reluctant backseat driver in the Libya intervention of 2011.
Donald Trump wanted to pull US forces out from most of the world, including Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan. Only pushback from the Pentagon and others prevented this. Famously, he recalled US planes moments before they bombed Iran. Nothing suggests he has abandoned this isolationist instinct.
Joe Biden has also tended to be more domestic-focused. The US exit from Afghanistan was handled disastrously, hardly elevating the country’s prestige globally. However, like his predecessors, he knows where the votes lie and they do not come from interventions in the Middle East. Whatever President Vladimir Putin of Russia may say or think, Biden was not looking for a confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. Nothing indicated this at all. In fact, it was probably Putin’s calculation that the US and Europe were weak and would not oppose his actions that led him to make this gamble last year. Biden and others showed there were limits to their isolationism.
Formally, there is no role for a global policeman. Many ask why the US gets the job. It hardly has a perfect record. Its foreign policy is saturated with inconsistent positions and contradictions. It rails against countries like Iran, North Korea and Iraq for their weapons programs, but says nothing about Israel’s.
The reality is that the US will act like all other states — in its own interests and those interests alone. It does at least understand that allies matter and that, although imperfectly applied, the international rules-based order matters.
China is becoming more assertive. The days of Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy of “hide your strength and bide your time” have ended. It has built up its soft power, aware that its strength emanates from its economic position. Back in 2000, the Chinese economy was just 12 percent the size of America’s. It shows more patience than many democratic countries by playing a long game, largely astutely. But it will ruthlessly pursue its own interests, just as rivals the US and Russia do.
Russia has, for the time being, fallen on its own sword. Whether or not it prevails in Ukraine to some degree, it has reunited NATO and, to an extent, Europe. It had found itself under massive sanctions, largely isolated and weakened. Its influence on European politics has plummeted. Its woeful military performance has raised eyebrows. It will remain a player but will take many years to recover from this.
But the US will still matter. Any weakness is more about political will rather than any absence of military or economic might. In major zones of tensions, its heft can be vital. India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers, have faced off against each other but the US helped de-escalate. This is the sort of occasion that it can, in concert with others, play a positive role as policeman. The European effort over Ukraine is pitiful in comparison to the American contribution. If the US does not engage, other powers do not. If a genocide is ongoing, other powers look to the US to take the lead, as typically they do not have the military or economic muscle to act alone.
None of the three major powers attract huge acclaim. A recent poll of Britons, French and Germans aged between 18 and 29 found they had little positive to say about either the US or China.
It raises the question as to how the UN Security Council functions or otherwise. It remains unrepresentative of the current world order, with India and other states pushing their case for inclusion. Sadly, talk about reform has continued for years, but with zero change. In light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the UNSC will remain a divided and ultimately useless body for years to come. It is not realistic to see the US and Russia agreeing on much at all.
This great power rivalry needs managing, but also calming. Wars have damaged the US this century and Russia is paying a heavy price for its Ukraine gamble. Medium and small states will have to cajole them into cooperation and away from confrontation. Blocs like the EU must play their role and not be timid on the world stage. Middle Eastern states should likewise be wary. Collectively, they must find areas where these powers will cooperate constructively and build trust. They need to steer the big players in a productive direction and persuade them that their best bet is to invest in conflict prevention and resolution, while finding ways to manage their rivalries and not needlessly antagonize each other.
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