Any discussion with lay people over American foreign policy invariably brings up the “World Policeman.” It’s often pejorative; it brings to mind a truncheon-swinging, skull-cracking, know-it-all cop swaggering across the globe. Often, people will argue America should not be the world police (despite the persuasive arguments offered by the movie); that it ought to butt out of others’ affairs and concentrate at the most on its core interests.
Problem is, that’s pretty much what it’s doing.
The cliff notes!
- All nation-states seek to be safe, and the safest place to be is at the top, whether that’s regionally, continentally, or globally.
- American grand strategy is thus: to remain #1, no other nation-state may dominate a region or continent.
- When that condition is most satisfied, as it was in the 1990s, the U.S. may seek to reorder the planet based on its moral and political values.
- When that condition is not satisfied, as it increasingly isn’t now, the U.S. must focus on hard geopolitical interests, trying to return the global state of affairs to the 1990s as much as possible.
So we all want to be safe; so too do our nation-states, and nothing is safer than being the strongest.
You know this phenomenon very well in your own terms; nobody in the bar messes with the guy with the bulging biceps. That’s because the mere fear of defeat and pain is enough to ward off challengers. The big guy may be nice or nasty; he may ask politely for a drink, or he may grab the bartender and demand one. That’s his personality and his choice. But regardless of how nice, or how nasty, he is, the simple fact that he’s the biggest, toughest guy there means he’s safer than anyone else.
Nation-states gather power from populations, resources, territory, geography and the efficient organization of those four. While a guy who wishes to challenge the big dude in the bar may decide to start taking protein and working out more, a nation-state that wishes to challenge a top dog must infuse itself with more people, resources, territory, or better geography.
Herein is a key geopolitical line: being rich is not the same as being powerful. There are several states far richer than the U.S.: Singapore per capita, the United Arab Emirates by sovereign wealth fund, etc. But their wealth means little when they don’t have the people to man large militaries, geography to give them access to strategic regions, or territory to support both people and large economies.
“Being rich is not the same as being powerful.”
Thus nation-states seek to be safe by doing one of two things: being powerful themselves, or allying themselves with someone powerful enough to stand up for them. Shrewd leaders know when they don’t have a geopolitical leg to stand on and do the latter: the Persian Gulf states have all been wise enough to ally with the United States. Other leaders misread their nation-states, often disastrously, and try to challenge hegemons without realizing how weak they actually are: Iraq under Saddam Hussein is a fine example.
Then there’s the third kind of leader: one who leads a nation-state capable of moving up in the power rung. These are the leaders who threaten the United States the most.
Which leads us to the short history of American grand strategy, and what precisely that means.
A country’s grand strategy unfolds over decades and centuries, not years. It’s not contained in a single war, but is carried out through a series of them. All nation-states have grand strategy; it’s the broad plan by which they seek to keep their independence and power. Not all nation-states have wise enough leaders to carry out those grand strategies effectively; on occasion, leaders come along who completely misread their grand strategy and lead their nation-states into destruction and even dissolution.
American grand strategy has focused on growth. From 1783 until 1991, the U.S. went from worrying about its backyard to keeping far-flung bases in every corner of the globe. But why?
From 1783 until 1848, the main danger to the U.S. was either conquest by a European power or defeat by a rising Mexico. To neutralize both, the U.S. took action. The first major step was buying up Louisiana from France; this essentially chucked the French out of North America permanently. It tried, and failed, to eject the British from Canada in the War of 1812, and got lucky that the British only wanted to burn the White House in retaliation.
Unable to remove the British, America focused on its other nearby rival: Mexico. The Mexican-American War aimed to secure the North American continent, and succeeded. The next great threat was Southern secession, put down at great cost in the Civil War. From there, the U.S. spent the rest of the 19th century mopping up pockets of resistance and establishing itself as a great power. By 1890, the U.S. was outmanufacturing its old rival, Great Britain.
The Spanish-American War was the final step to control of the Western Hemisphere, removing the last imperial power that might challenge the U.S. At the same time, American priorities had grown; with the continent secured after the crushing of the Confederate rebellion in 1865, the U.S. sought to dominate its two nearby oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Atlantic, however, was still controlled by the formidable British Navy, which the U.S. did not want to challenge directly. The Pacific was considerably more of a free-for-all; Britain’s shipyards were too far away for the Royal Navy to control it with the same ease they did the Atlantic.
Hence the U.S. grabbing up Hawaii and the Philippines. Having now staked a claim in the Pacific and ejected all European powers from the Western Hemisphere, a new threat emerged: European unity. American elites understood that a single power controlling all of Europe would invariably move into North America. So when Germany threatened to do just that in 1914, the U.S. rode in to ensure it never happened. This was the primary goal in World War II as well: the U.S. put a higher priority on Europe than the Pacific because Nazi unification of the continent was a greater threat than Japanese unification of still-undeveloped East Asia.
“A new threat emerged: European unity.”
During the war, the U.S. managed to secure the Atlantic from the British at a stroke; the British, bogged down by empire and hammered by Germany, were happy to hand over security duties to a predictable and linguistically understandable ally in the Atlantic. The end of the war brought American power to places it had never been before: the hearts of Europe and Asia.
While America had pushed its power further afield, it also encountered a new threat: the Soviet Union. This nation-state sought the same security as the United States, aiming for not just regional or continental security but global security. Thus the Cold War.
The collapse of the Soviet Union allowed the U.S. to enter its most recent phase: global domination. This is not the same as total control, which would be the final and ultimate stage of American grand strategy. Rather, it’s the ability of the U.S. to dictate most events, most of the time.
So the U.S. seeks to maintain that domination by ensuring no one power can succeed too much in their own grand strategies.
The United States went from a national to a regional to a continental to a global power by fighting successful wars, exploiting the mistakes of others, and responding to serious challenges with the appropriate amount of power. Each was driven by a need for security; while corollary needs, like economic expansion, political ideology, and even baser human emotions like arrogance and greed were certainly in the mix, none of them were as primary of a driver of American expansion as the need to push foreign power further and further back to secure hard-won gains.
Other nation-states seek the same kind of security, but are confronted with a different problem. Many of them are content to let the U.S. push foreign power away from them; the U.S. is happy to take on this role, since it ensures its own allies don’t have a need to expand their own power base to remain secure. Others, however, seek security on their own terms.
Each of these independent powers must follow the same path: first securing their own territory nationally, then securing their own region, then their continent, and then, finally, the world.
Disrupting a nation-state on its own territory is unpredictable stuff, so the U.S. prefers not to do so. Once you remove an organized state from the mix, there come demons: witness the Islamic State. Rather, the U.S. prefers to keep enemies off balance regionally.
Right now, no one power dominates a single region besides the U.S. That’s changing; Russia is trying to reestablish its old dominion by pushing into Eastern Europe through Ukraine. Meanwhile, China is pushing up against Japanese and South Korean power as it tries to establish dominance in East Asia. In both cases, the United States is responding by deploying military and financial power to combat the rising threats.
This is also the reason that human rights disasters, like Islamic State and Nigeria’s war on Boko Haram, don’t acquire top priority. Both of those represent potential foes at the very beginning stages of their grand strategies whereby both are trying to organize and control national territories. This gives the U.S. time to respond to their rise.
The nature of grand strategy is that it’s slow. Boko Haram and Islamic State are trying to become nation-states; should they succeed, it will still be years, if not decades, before they can be powerful enough to dominate their respective regions, let alone their continents. The U.S. can act long before they reach that point.
So then why the accusation that America is the world’s policeman?
The world’s political system was divided into two; then half that evaporated in 1991. For 10 years, the United States was left in the lurch. Its power was unchallenged, its enemies disorganized or weak, and it was left with the question of how to secure domination and move onto control.
The best way to do that was by making every nation-state a lot more like the United States. If the world’s nation-states had a lot in common with the U.S., they would in turn cooperate with, and even submit to, American interests.
It was never stated as much. Only the most cold-eyed of elites could think in such terms. Mostly, they talked of universal human rights, democratic freedom, free market capitalism, and the free exchange of ideas: all values that benefited the United States. While these ideas are all nice enough, that’s not the primary reason why the United States tried to push them in as many places as possible. The geopolitical need for security drove the U.S. to try to transform the world into its own image: the more the world was alike, the less dangerous it would be.
This drive to homogenize the world pushed American power into strange places, starting with its mission in Somalia in 1993 to its interventions in the Balkans. In some places, America was successful; in others, not so much. But the overall principle was that America would intervene in places that it believed it could change to be more like the U.S. itself. This was the strategic center of the Iraq invasion. American elites believed they could transform Iraq’s government from jackboot dictatorship to liberal democracy and thereby eliminate Iraq as a geopolitical threat.
“The more the world was alike, the less dangerous it would be.”
Because American leaders used the liberal language of humanitarianism, globalization, and universal values, people around the world believed the U.S. was seeking to “police” the planet. It was doing nothing of the sort; it was trying to find the final, most secure place in the geopolitical spectrum, that of a nation-state with absolute global control.
If planet Earth universally adopted the same political, economic, social, and cultural values as the United States, the odds would be good the capital would be in either Washington D.C. or New York.
But now conditions have changed, and the U.S. can’t spend as much power on homogenizing the planet as it once did.
The Iraq and Afghan experiences taught the U.S. it didn’t have the power to jump societies from one stage to another using military means. That was a hard lesson to learn, but learned it has been. The U.S. is far more wary of nation building, especially in the developing world.
On top of that, Russian power has been salvaged and is being directed to expanding itself. This is a formidable challenge for the U.S. On a long enough timeline, Russia could dominate the Eastern European region again. It would then no longer be so crazy to think of Russia as dominating the whole European continent.
Meanwhile, China is now seeking regional domination in just the same way as Russia. Its drive to create buffer zones in the Pacific is the first step towards that. While it’s still years, if not decades, off from actually dominating East Asia, getting control of nearby seas is an extremely logical step towards that goal.
These two challengers, combined with the hard-learned experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, have forced American policy makers to be more level-headed in their decisions. American grand strategy is steadily being pushed back a level, from being at a global stage to a continental and regional one. The U.S. can’t expel much power on Africa; hence the reason the French stepped in to save Mali. It can’t use as much energy to homogenize the world to its values when both Russia and China are playing expensive hardball.
So the U.S. seeks to return things back to the 1990s. By thwarting Russia in Ukraine, it pushes Russian power back. By securing those island-crags, it secures the seas for the American Navy and its allies. Should both Russia and China either back off, or fail to achieve their goals, it will return the world to the state of affairs in the 1990s, letting the U.S. move its grand strategy back to focusing on global control.
World policeman? Not yet, but that is the eventual idea.
The U.S. would become a world policeman if it had enough power. But that can only happen in a world where its values are universally, or near-universally, adopted by the rest of the planet. The impression people get is that the U.S. wants to stick its nose into others’ business just because it’s run by arrogant, know-it-all people voted in by arrogant, know-it-all citizens. In truth, the U.S. is seeking security, just as any other state or culture would in the same position.
It may come to pass that the U.S. does succeed fulfilling its grand strategy and unifying the planet. That’s at least a century off, I’d venture. But the road is open, and America is taking it. Should it fail, another nation-state will take its place. Someone, after all, must lead.