Where is the Cavalry?

A world without the US as global policeman will collapse into chaos

In 1999, the French foreign minister Hubert Védrine complained about American “hyperpower”, echoing the New Left’s genetic disdain for America’s unchallenged role in the world. Now, where has America gone?

A dictator on the loose in Libya? Lead from behind. Another one intent on genocide in Syria? Send the UN. An Islamist insurgency in Mali? Send the French. Mass kidnappings of school girls in Nigeria? Send a hashtag. A brutal fascist repression of human rights and democracy activists in Venezuela? Send nothing. Ukraine? Apply a few sanctions, but forget about those defensive weapons or intelligence sharing. The South China Sea? De-escalate please. Genocide in Africa? A problem from hell — but who are we to fix it? Iran? Negotiate, even if you know they have cheated, are cheating and will cheat. Adversaries? Make nice. Enemies? Make nicer. Friends — don’t embarrass America please. Or else.

Complain if you must about America’s resolve and ability to project power and intervene globally, but a world without an American cop is not that orderly, it turns out. For with no cops in sight, the criminals are having a party.

Americans may shrug — they gave blood and money to a decade of wars that proved inconclusive. Why give more of both to far-away places whose problems are not America’s doing? The world is too messy to even begin to comprehend it. Why try to fix it? Why can’t others step up to the plate? Ukraine is, first and foremost, a European problem, after all. If the Nigerian government cannot find more than 200 missing school girls in its own country, how can America make a difference? And all those confusing conflicts — in South Sudan, in the Central African Republic, even in Syria: no one seems a better alternative than the present ruler. No one is nice. Remember Somalia? Just stay out of it.

There is something of a hardnosed, streetwise, common-sense realism in this notion, a recognition, perhaps, of America’s limits; a surrender to the constraints of human power; a humble acceptance that fate, sometimes, is out of the reach and control of even the most powerful. But then again, it isn’t really.

America kept a world largely in order, shielded allies, and intimidated adversaries almost without having to pull the trigger. That was possible because those who looked to America for friendship, protection and support believed it would come to their rescue if needed. And those who hated America and everything it stood for similarly believed that America would exact retribution if they dared cross red lines.

Occasionally, America had to remind them it meant business. Those actions reinforced its allies and their confidence in America. The cavalry, they thought, would turn up eventually.

Therein lies the greatest geopolitical change since 1941 — the year that America joined the war and by extension accepted the role of superpower and the leadership of the free world. Rightly or wrongly, most of America’s allies, and countries and people who look up to America, now fear that they will not be rescued.

America has abandoned the Iranian people who clamoured for freedom in 2009; instead it is negotiating with their oppressors.

Barack Obama has told the world that Syria’s brutish dictator, Bashar al-Assad, must go. Yet everybody knows that, as far as America is concerned, Assad will still be in office when Obama goes off to build his presidential library in 2017.

America has allowed Russia back into the Middle East, after successfully evicting the Soviet Union and keeping it at bay for four decades. It has handed Russia and Iran a victory in Syria by choosing not to fight. It appears to have done the same in the Black Sea, where multilateral diplomacy is no substitute for projecting superpower muscle. It will now preside over the dismemberment of Ukraine, content with sanctions and the occasional complaint that Russia needs “to de-escalate” and stop behaving in a 19th-century manner.

All this is disheartening and dangerous. When cops leave the street to thugs, two things always happen. Those who are vulnerable prevaricate, while the others take the law into their own hands. In international politics, this means that those who are weak and vulnerable will come to terms with the new neighbourhood bullies — the Gulf principalities may seek accommodation with Iran, for example. But others will conclude that they have to fend for themselves. If America can’t prevent a nuclear Iran, what’s to stop Israel or Saudi Arabia ignoring America’s pleas and acting unilaterally?

Nothing. And as its retreat from the role of global policeman allows the world to descend slowly into chaos, America will reap the whirlwind.

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