In his speech last week, President Obama mentioned that “several people wrote to me, we should not be the world’s policeman. I agree.” When it comes to international politics and military engagement, this has been a common refrain. Especially, I think, since the end of the Cold War about 25 years ago.
What I’ve been pondering since the speech, though, is this: if the United States is not supposed to be the world’ s policeman (and I agree), who if anyone is? Or, phrased slightly differently, does the world need a policeman?
If we imagine the world to be a community writ large, then all we tend to have right now is a bunch of individual families (i.e. nations) that tend to do their own thing most of the time. Every now and then a mob or posse will get together for some collective action, but (de facto) there is no steady and neutral arbiter of the law. While this system does tend to protect the rights of individual households (nations), this vaunted idea of freedom would also mean that even the most violent, abusive, and dysfunctional homes often have little interference from society at large…even when their violence spills out in the street or threatens other homes.
America is not this kind of society. Should the world be?
But wait, you say: we have the United Nations. Is this not some kind of international police force? Yes, I suppose. In theory. And yet a highly inefficient one that is required to go through an extensive bureaucracy and whose actions can be stymied by one powerful permanent member of the Security Council. A remnant of the immediate post-World War II era (France and Britain with permanent seats?), the structure of the United Nations was outdated almost since the moment of its inception, and has been in need of revision for some time.
In principle, the United Nations stands for the fact that the international community agrees that we need a standard system of law and justice to which all nations agree. This is good. In action, though, it very often tends to betray these principles with its failure to guarantee such ideas. If our local police force worked like the UN, I think we’d all be very concerned.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I am not an anti-UN type of person nor do I think that the world needs a police force so strong and repressive that it tramples on all of the rights of individual nations. I simply worry that what we have right now, at its worst, represents a de facto rejection of effective international law between nations that is inefficient, embarrassing, and will only guarantee more crises in years to come. The UN needs to be rethought and reformed, then, because its current structure and practice can guarantee that little will happen. As of right now, the presence of certain world powers means that very often all we have is the simple protection of each nation’s right to do whatever it wants. This is not viable. Especially when individual nations can “go rogue” with devastating effect. In the end, I’m not exactly sure how things should be fixed, simply that they probably ought to be.
If our world is indeed a community, it is a broken one. Is what we have now really the best we can do?