Home/Daniel Larison/America Is Neither Sheriff Nor Policeman of the World

America Is Neither Sheriff Nor Policeman of the World

In the last post on the conference on “national conservatism,” I mentioned Cliff May’s idea that the U.S. should be the world’s “sheriff” rather than its policeman. What does that mean? I don’t have a transcript of what he said at the conference, but here is the gist of his argument from a column he wrote earlier this year:

What if the United States were to see itself not as a policeman but as a sheriff instead?

Unlike the cop on the beat, the lawman in the Wild West isn’t expected to make arrests for every transgression. He doesn’t worry about the painted ladies and the gamblers in the saloon. But he will appoint deputies, and raise a posse to stop the worst outlaws from riding roughshod throughout the territory.

In practice, there is very little difference between saying that the U.S. should be the world’s sheriff and saying that it should be the world’s policeman. Both claims assume that the U.S. has the authority and responsibility to impose order, punish lawbreakers, and even use deadly force to carry out its self-appointed mandate. There are at least four major flaws with putting the U.S. in such a role. First, it is illegitimate. No one has appointed or elected the U.S. to be the world’s “sheriff,” so it is something that the U.S. has chosen to take upon itself. No matter how the U.S. exercises its power, this amounts to acting as a global vigilante. Second, putting the U.S. in this enforcement role puts the U.S. above international law. When the U.S. presumes to be able to punish the “outlaws,” our government treats this as a license to trample on the the rules that everyone else is expected to follow. This means that the U.S. holds itself to a completely different standard than it demands from the rest of the world.

Third, our government uses its enforcement role to penalize only those “outlaws” that don’t belong to our “posse,” and our government routinely gives a pass to those states that are considered to be on “our side.” The “deputies” that the U.S. appoints (and arms) are often no better than the “outlaws” and sometimes turn out to be even worse. That makes the U.S. less a “sheriff” enforcing the law and more of a gang leader. Fourth, there is no accountability for how the “sheriff” acts, and so the presumed authority to interfere in others’ affairs and even topple other governments is an open invitation to abuse of power. No government should presume that it has the right and responsibility to act in this way. Any government that claims to have this authority is setting itself up for endless grief, constant conflict, and the resentment of many of the nations of the world. Calling the U.S. the world’s “sheriff” doesn’t “steer a path between interventionism and isolationism.” It just gives the same interventionism a new label in the hope that no one will notice that the substance of the policies is unchanged.

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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