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Cop(s) on the beat
Of international affairs
Can nations be expected to behave themselves, or does someone or something have to keep them in line?
Even a cursory reading of history suggests that nations do not behave themselves. If left to their own devices they get into all kinds of mischief, including war, to the detriment of their neighbors. The neighbors understandably object and desire that someone restrain the mischief makers.
For much of history, empires did the restraining. They did a lot of other things too, such as exacting tribute. But the positive half of the bargain was that they suppressed bad behavior among their imperial subjects. The Pax Romana was named for the peace—pax—it brought to the Mediterranean world. The British raj—rule—in India prevented the many small states and principalities from waging war against each other.
During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union divided much of the world between them. America policed the Western Hemisphere, Western Europe and offshore East Asia. The Soviet Union was responsible for Russia's Eurasian empire, Eastern Europe and, for a time, China.
The system was hardly perfect. The suppression of revolts within the two spheres could be violent and invariably violated the rights of some of those doing the revolting. An American sponsored coup in Guatemala in 1954 led to a bloody civil war that lasted decades. Soviet tanks brutally crushed an uprising in Hungary in 1956.
Nor was there always agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union on the location of the boundaries between their two spheres. Which side was Korea on? Iran? Vietnam? Cuba? The uncertainty led to wars in Korea and Vietnam, and a close brush with nuclear war over Cuba.
Yet the breakdown of the imperial and Cold War systems led to much broader violence. The disintegration of Roman authority allowed mayhem beyond anything Rome permitted in its prime. Britain's pullout from India produced religious violence that killed perhaps twenty million as Pakistan separated from post-raj India. The end of the Cold War was the signal for vicious conflict in the Balkans and eventually set up the current war in Ukraine.
Assuming that international order requires someone to keep it, the question arises: Who should be the policeman?
For practical reasons, the most powerful country at any given time—the hegemon—is the first choice. If a lesser country tried to act as policeman, the hegemon would beat it down. The hegemon, moreover, has the greatest stake in the status quo and therefore the greatest incentive to maintain it.
But hegemons are rarely dominant over the whole world. The Romans knew the limits of their power; so did the British. The Cold War was a blessing in disguise for the United States, for it spared Americans the temptation to police the regions left to the Soviets.
After the Cold War, Americans attempted to police parts of the world formerly beyond their sphere. The United States had covertly assisted Afghan freedom fighters against the Soviet Union in the 1980s but primarily as a spoiling and distracting operation; ten years after the Soviet collapse, America launched a twenty-year war in Afghanistan. In 2003 it invaded Iraq, a country previously preserved from such intervention by a well-founded fear of the Soviet response. Since the beginning of this year the United States has declared the border between Russia and Ukraine a rampart of democracy worth defending at great cost.
The question for Americans today is whether they can and should attempt to police international order around the world, or whether they should share the responsibility with other countries. The United States did this, to some degree, during the Cold War through its alliance systems, especially NATO, which continues to serve this purpose.
During World War II, American policy makers considered sharing the burden of policing with three other great powers: the Soviet Union, Britain and China. The Soviets and British couldn't be denied their spheres of influence, being essential to victory over Germany. China's sphere was a gift, but China would serve to offset any Japanese resurgence.
The idea didn't make it from drawing board to practice. The war exhausted Britain far more than anyone had expected, and China was convulsed by a civil war eventually won by communists American leaders didn't want to aggrandize.
Instead of four policemen, the world got two: the United States and the Soviet Union. Two became one upon the Soviet demise.
Yet the world is too big for one policeman. The United States is comparatively much less powerful than it was in 1945, and even than it was in 1991. If order is to be maintained, the U.S. will need help.
The European Union is the natural candidate for the European beat. The EU is not a military power now, but in ten years it could be.
China is the unavoidable choice for East Asia. China is developing a military capacity to match its economic prowess, and its ambitions are growing with both.
The objection to China is its refusal to accept the liberal values of America and the EU. Many people would say China is not a fit policeman but a gangster.
The answer to this objection is that any effort to exclude China from the councils of international power is bound to fail, and therefore, to use a phrase favored by Lyndon Johnson, it's better to have China inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.
Wouldn't this simply facilitate China's malign ambitions? Wouldn't it mean surrendering Taiwan to China?
Taiwan would be within China's sphere, to be sure. But there is no realistic way Taiwan is going to be kept out of China's sphere forever. An American security guarantee might buy time for Taiwan, but Taiwan's fate will ultimately be decided by China and Taiwan, if for no other reason than that, outside the national security intelligentsia, Americans care little about Taiwan one way or the other.
The war in Ukraine offers insights. Joe Biden took the lead in aligning the U.S. with Ukraine but made clear that indirect involvement was as far as he would go. Congress acquiesced, with most members seeing little advantage in challenging the president. For voters, American involvement in the war has so far been costless. No Americans have died, and the bill for the arms shipped to Ukraine has been put on the shoulders of a generation not yet born. Even so, Republicans are starting to snipe at Biden's policy, and the fire will get more intense. A sustainable American foreign policy has to be bipartisan, given the regular turnover in Congress and the presidency. And the shelf life of bipartisanship grows shorter and shorter.
The ineluctable fact is that the United States can't police the world without the help of other nations. And these nations will have their own ideas about what an acceptable order looks like. Americans will have to get used to this reality. The alternative to an imperfect international order is no order at all. Cops aren't angels, but they're better than letting the bad guys run amok.