American Reason: Foreign Policy: To Serve And Protect?

In light of the upcoming changes in President Obama’s cabinet  as well as the United Nation’s recent estimate of 60,000 deaths in the ongoing conflict in Syria, this is the time to discuss the future of U.S. foreign policy.  In this months edition of American Reason, we ask whether or not the U.S. should act as a police officer to the rest of the world. 

Vikram Patel:The US should act as the world’s police officer. I know many of the readers just jumped back at that, so let’s examine what a police officer would and would not do on the global stage. A police officer doesn’t run another’s household; correspondingly the US shouldn’t run another country’s government. A police officer does not build and maintain another’s living space; correspondingly the US shouldn’t be in the business of nation building. A police officer does, however, use restrained and judicious force to maintain peace and respond to criminal activity; correspondingly the US should take short-term and focused military actions in order to prevent human tragedies in situations where military action would be effective.

The conflicts in Libya and Syria are ideal examples of situations where we can use a small amount of force to prevent the suffering of many. We were able to use targeted airstrikes to prevent Gaddafi from killing many of his fellow Libyans, and if we had intervened early on in Syria then we could have prevented tens of thousands of deaths. The intensity of this conflict could have been tempered by the US military’s amazing ability to neutralize the effectiveness of a traditional fighting force. If it only requires a small amount of resources for us to save lives, then we are morally obligated to do so.

Matt Sowada: I want to make sure I understand what you’re suggesting. When police officers enforce the law they are not exercising their own moral judgments on society, they are executing the laws of the government. In the United States role as “world police officer,” who would define what is criminal? If the answer is “The United States” then this sounds less like policing and more like just doing whatever we want and insisting that we mean well when anyone objects.

V.P.: Well, I’d say that there are many moral positions that are generally accepted by the global community with a few holdouts. If the US is acting within that moral framework and with the acceptance of most of the rest of the world, then it is acting in the role of “world police officer.” If the US is acting unilaterally like it did in Iraq, then that action does not fit within this definition. However, intervening in Libya and Syria does fall under the criteria I’m using to define as the actions of a “world police officer.”

M.S.: I think I understand where you’re coming from, but I don’t think the situation is quite as simple as you frame it. I’d first like to take issue with the notion that the U.S. is in a position to act on behalf of the “global community.” I suppose it’s true that there are many societies that generally accept our moral positions, but I think it’s neither fair nor wise to characterize nations like China, Russia and Iran as “a few holdouts.” It’s not that we should necessarily kowtow to Beijing, Moscow or Tehran but I think it behooves us not to antagonize them unless we know that it’s in our self-interest, and we simply don’t have that information. Indeed, if the rebels install a government that is more aggressive or unstable than the current one in Syria, interference by the United States may well be against our national self-interest (a risk you always run if the U.S. is true to your desire to refrain from nation building).

Speaking of nations we don’t always see eye to eye with, what if a fascist state or a theocracy announces that they are also going to act as world police officers on behalf of their “global community?” Are we going to accept a nation that “intervenes” on behalf of rebels dedicated to religious zealotry or autocratic rule if it will effectively end a prolonged civil conflict?

Lastly, I’ll go ahead and ask you the question that I’m sure you are expecting. In a speech the U.S. House of Representatives John Quincy Adams once bragged that the United States “…goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” This prudent foreign policy is not based on apathy, laziness or cowardice. It is based on a simple fact: If you go out into the world looking for trouble you are likely to find it. Where exactly would you set the bar for American intervention, or more appropriately where would you trust whoever happens to be president to set it?

V.P.: Imagine Manny Pacquiáo is walking down the street and comes upon an individual who is beating Stephen Hawking to death. If the attacker would pose him no serious threat, would it not be wrong for Manny Pacquiáo to walk away? The US is a far more powerful country than it was during the time of John Quincy Adams. There are no serious external threats to our freedom and independence, which allows us the capability to act on behalf of others with almost no danger to ourselves. I’m skeptical that we should use force as a tool to spread freedom, but absolute in its use to prevent mass killing. Though I don’t have any hard and fast rules, we do have examples where we used or should have used our military for the protection of others that would inform the decision making process for future US intervention (Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur, etc).

With regard to the global community, you did identify some of the holdouts and even they have made great progress toward the respect of life and freedom. What do we have to gain from not antagonizing them? Slightly better relations with them and maybe some political clout, neither of which is worth the sacrifice of life that nonintervention would necessitate. We have made mistakes when it comes to foreign intervention, but the worst ones have come when we sat on the sidelines as large innocent populations were being killed.

Vikram Patel and Matt Sowada are the friendly adversaries behind the twice-weekly ethical debates series, American Reason. Listen on KRUI every Sunday from 4-5 p.m., and find an archive of the shows (as well as exclusive web-only content) online at