America’s role as the world’s policeman is under threat – from within

by Paul Thomas / 18 March, 2017

US troops in training near Kuwait’s border with Iraq before the 2003 invasion. Photo/Getty Images

If President Donald Trump keeps his election promise to build up the military, at the expense of foreign aid and environmental programmes, America’s role as the world’s policeman will be under threat.

Eighty-year-old John McCain, the very senior senator from Arizona, used the recent Munich Security Conference to position himself as the anti-Trump, if not de facto leader of the Opposition.

As is generally the case, McCain’s ­subject matter was the threat to ­everything we hold dear, and his ­prognosis was bleak. The Western world was imperilled, he said, to the extent that its very survival is in question.

“While Western nations still have the power to maintain our world order, it is unclear whether we have the will,” he told the Munich gathering. In his view, this ambivalence is fuelled by concern that the US is “laying down the mantle of global leadership”.

US President Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

The speech went down a treat with the audience and commentariat – the Washington Post correspondent described it as a “striking point-by-point takedown of Trump’s world view and brand of nationalism” – but some back home dismissed it as yet another quixotic call to arms.

It was just as well, said fellow ­Republican Senator Rand Paul, that McCain wasn’t in charge, “because I think we’d be in perpetual war”. Paul was echoing Trump, who has hauled Fortress America neoisolationism from the margins, if not the lunatic fringe, all the way to the White House. In January, Trump accused McCain and his partner in interventionism, Senator Lindsey Graham, of “always looking to start World War III”.

If the rest of the world has never quite made up its mind whether it wants the US to be the world’s policeman, the same can’t be said of the American Establishment, particularly the ­conservative wing. But with Trump as President and the conservative movement largely in his thrall, it seems distinctly possible that the world’s policeman will take his truncheon and go home.

Senator John McCain. Photo/Getty Images

Should we be dismayed at the ­prospect or buoyed by it? If history is any guide, we’ll remain equivocal since, to ­paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than America being the world’s policeman is America not being the world’s policeman.

Take Syria: in 2013, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces killed 1500 civilians in a chemical attack. There were demands for American armed intervention, and when it wasn’t forthcoming, President Barack Obama was ridiculed for backing away from his previous insistence that such an attack would constitute the crossing of a “red line”. When the dust settled, Syria had agreed to the destruction of its chemical-weapons stockpile, but Assad was still in power and Syrians were still being slaughtered.

Amid the criticism, there was scant recognition that the US had barely finished extracting itself from a military adventure against another Baathist dictator who’d used chemical weapons against his own people. That exercise was widely deemed to have been a catastrophic mistake, the malign ­consequences of which are still being felt and will continue to be felt for the ­foreseeable future.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo/Getty Images

Those who argued for intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds had clearly forgotten that British Prime ­Minister Tony Blair invoked humanitarian intervention, specifically the absence of it in Rwanda in 1994 and the success of it in Kosovo in 1999, to justify his Government’s active support for the American invasion of Iraq. (The argument wasn’t without substance: Saddam Hussein’s purges, genocides and general tyranny had accounted for about 250,000 Iraqis.)

It’s estimated that at least 400,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war and half the population have been driven from their homes. The resultant refugee crisis has caused a political shockwave, the reverberations from which will be felt for a long time.

When you look at it like that, it’s easy to conclude that the whole idea of a world policeman who maintains order is a delusion and if foreigners whose history and culture the West doesn’t really understand want to kill each other, there’s not much even the most powerful nation on Earth can do about it except make a bad situation worse.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Photo/Getty Images

There are so many inconsistencies and contradictions emanating from the Trump administration – one China or two? A one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse or two? – that it’s difficult to know whether we’re witnessing a sea change in international affairs or a squall that will blow itself out.

It’s clear, however, that Trump and some of his advisers are challenging the hitherto monolithic consensus around America’s post-war role in the world because they believe it doesn’t serve narrow national interests. Being the world’s policeman is difficult, hazardous, expensive and ­unappreciated. (The added firepower created by the proposed whopping increase in defence spending won’t necessarily be deployed on anyone else’s behalf.) Add in the international com­munity’s diffidence, a product of wanting a Dixon of Dock Green-style friendly neighbourhood beat copper rather than a trigger-happy Dirty Harry, and it’s understandable that McCain and his ilk perceive a threat to the old world order.

Perhaps the best outcome would be for the US to become a kind of Clayton’s world policeman – don the uniform, walk the beat, occasionally flourish the truncheon but not throw its weight around. Instead of blundering into faraway places of which it knows next to nothing, it could confine itself to sledgehammer/walnut exercises in its own backyard, such as the 1983 invasion of Grenada, in which swift victory is assured and people can go to the movie of the war secure in the know­ledge that hardly any Americans get killed. (See Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge.)

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo/Getty Images

At least one nation will be unequivocally delighted if Trump’s America really does lay down the mantle of global leadership, which in practice means projecting hard and soft power to every corner of the world.

In a sense, the retreat is under way: the “shining city on a hill”, as Ronald Reagan liked to portray America, is already less of a beacon in a dark world than it was a few months ago. The Soviet Union may no longer exist, but the Kremlin’s great strategic goal hasn’t changed: to detach the US from Europe, thereby acquiring a free hand in Eastern Europe and effective hegemony over Western Europe.

That alluring prospect explains why the Russians love Trump. One of these days, we might find out what he sees in them.

This article was first published in the March 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.  

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