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Home/Daniel Larison/A “Broken Windows” Foreign Policy Is Madness

A “Broken Windows” Foreign Policy Is Madness

Bret Stephens keeps pushing the bankrupt idea that America has to be the world’s policeman:

In other words, if the world’s leading liberal-democratic nation doesn’t assume its role as world policeman, the world’s rogues will try to fill the breach, often in league with one another.

Stephens’ essay is an extended version of the same argument he’s been making on and off for some time. He is enamored of thinking of the U.S. as the “world’s cop,” and he thinks that “broken windows” policing is extremely relevant and applicable to foreign policy. Taking for granted that “broken windows” policing works in the U.S., he assumes that it can and should be used to maintain international order. The former is debatable, and the latter is laughable. Unfortunately, he is not alone in touting this absurd notion.

Trying to police the world is unworkable, unaffordable, dangerous, and contrary to American interests to begin with. Most Americans would and should recoil from this role for their country, and most of the rest of the world wants no part of it. Policing the world in the extremely intrusive manner that Stephens suggests would be even worse. A “broken windows” foreign policy is one that would make the U.S. more likely to resort to force more often than it already does over even more trivial causes. It assumes that by punishing “minor” offenses larger crimes will be deterred, which is probably wrong. It’s also clear that Stephens’ idea of how to punish “minor” infractions is to call for military action early and often, so that the “world’s cop” isn’t simply “walking the beat,” but regularly launching attacks on other countries because of the alleged offenses of their governments.

Some states would be wrongly targeted for “punishment” not because of anything they have done to other states, but because they have the wrong kind of regime or possibly just because the U.S. assumes that they must be up to no good. That doesn’t promise a more orderly world. However, it guarantees that many more nations will come to resent and distrust the U.S., and it commits the U.S. to an endless string of unnecessary wars.

The U.S. wouldn’t have the right to act as the world’s policeman even if it knew how to do it competently, and the last twenty-five years have offered ample evidence that the U.S. doesn’t begin to know how to do this. The U.S. has cast international law aside on too many occasions in the last two decades to be a credible enforcer of it. Even its enforcement is bound to be arbitrary and self-serving. Indeed, advocates for an American world-policing role expect that our allies and clients would be held to a very different, lower standard than the “rogues” are, so that what they’re talking about is more of a racket than an attempt to keep order.

All of that would be bad enough, but what makes this idea even worse is that the U.S. frequently doesn’t succeed in maintaining order in the places where it has tried to play the part of global policeman. Iraq has been ruined by two and a half decades of U.S.-led “enforcement” of international “rules,” Libya is in flames at least partly because the U.S. and its allies stepped in to “help,” and Mali is still recovering from the after-effects of that “good” intervention. Those are just the most recent and obvious examples of countries that have “benefited” from our government’s attempts to police the world. Far from being the promoter and sustainer of international order, the U.S. has gone out of its way in the last two decades to create power vacuums by toppling existing governments by force and adding to instability around the world by encouraging uprisings.

If a police force had a similarly abysmal record, it would be insane to demand that it be given an even larger arsenal so that it could do more of the same, but a huge increase in military spending is exactly what Stephens recommends:

A broken-windows approach to foreign policy would require the U.S. to increase military spending to upward of 5% of GDP.

This is a giveaway that the “broken windows” approach is really nothing more than an excuse to justify exorbitant increases in military spending that can’t be justified by the security threats to the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. doesn’t need to adopt the approach Stephens recommends for any good reasons. He recommends the approach because it creates a “requirement” for the military build-up that Stephens already wanted.

Not only does the U.S. not have jurisdiction over the rest of the world, and therefore has no business trying to police it, but the attempt to “enforce” the “rules” all over the globe would be a constant, exhausting, thankless, and ultimately futile exercise in micromanaging the affairs of many other nations. In practice, pursuing the role of world’s policeman would be an open invitation to abuse of power, costly and desultory coercive policies, and the trampling on the rights of many other nations as well as the violation of the rights of countless individuals within other states. There is no authority to supervise or rein in the “world’s cop” should it choose to ignore or violate the “rules” that it is supposed to uphold, and we already know that the U.S. can and will do this when it is convenient. And not only is the “world’s cop” empowered to enforce the law according to this terrible idea, but it also claims for itself the right to promulgate “norms” and “rules” to be obeyed, to pass judgment, and to carry out sentence against alleged rule-breakers. Stephens’ essay is not so much an argument for applying lessons from law enforcement to foreign policy as it is an argument for superpower vigilantism.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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