Getting away with it while the world’s cop is off duty

By Ian Bremmer
October 1, 2012

As the world convened at the U.N. General Assembly last week, the willingness of the Obama administration to risk blood and treasure promoting democracy abroad was on full display: Barack Obama gave a stirring speech defending American values and asking other democracies to adopt them. But Obama’s rhetoric doesn’t tell the whole story. He didn’t deliver his speech until after an appearance on a daytime chat show, in obvious support of his re-election campaign.

Many foreign policy experts have criticized Obama for wasting time with Barbara and Whoopi on The View when he could’ve been engaging with foreign leaders on the East Side of Manhattan. But the experts’ takeaway from Obama’s priorities last week is no different than it has been from the administration’s response to months of civil war in Syria, the teeter-tottering of Libya, the reluctance to pose a credible military threat for Iran and the refusal to engage in the Middle East peace process.

The U.S. is willing to do less on the world stage than it has since the onset of World War Two. In the long term, this reset of foreign policy and military initiatives may yield the country a peace dividend. In the short term, there are three international issues where the situation on the ground is deteriorating rapidly and where, in the past, a U.S. president might have intervened. Let’s look at them:

1. Syria. The Assad regime has engaged in deplorable behavior. But the U.S. has been extremely reluctant to support the opposition without a clear identity, leader or mission beyond overthrowing the regime. Furthermore, nothing about the Libya experience has given the U.S. any reason to do anything differently. It’s completely unclear that U.S. intervention in Syria would put U.S. interests in any better shape in that country, or outside of it. The Iraq lesson was simple – that democracy building is very expensive. And Libya taught us more: Regime change itself hurts and can’t be done on the cheap. Furthermore, when it came time for the U.S. to garner international support for its limited Libya mission, Russia could not ignore Gaddafi’s bombast and promise to exterminate the rebels, and therefore could not block the necessary U.N. resolution. When it comes to Syria, Russia won’t provide international cover for a U.S. intervention. Assad gets a pass, despite his brutal war and the fact that it is beginning to reach into bordering states as well. The knock-on effect is more instability in the Middle East – but that seems to be something the Obama administration has decided it can live with.

2. Iran. Here, the U.S. has actually been doing a good job eliciting international pressure on the regime over its quest for nuclear weapons. Rightly so: This is a bigger, global problem. But how much pressure can be brought to bear on Iran, given what’s going on across the region? The Obama administration can say, “Iran, you can’t develop nuclear weapons, or else,” but the question becomes, “or else, what?” Setting out a thick red line is a big problem in this environment. The U.S., according to reports, is running a rather effective sabotage operation on Iran’s labs, but Israel’s current government is apoplectic that Uncle Sam is not sending in the cavalry. Israel, here, is at great risk of appearing to cry wolf, losing the support it has in the international community should the situation in Iran become worse. And Tehran would, it seems, be more willing to declare itself at war with the U.S. to distract the Iranian public from the pain of economic sanctions.

3. Israel and Palestine. While Israel might look like a loser when it comes to Iran, it’s a winner when it comes to its own territorial dispute, no matter who wins the U.S. election in November. Mitt Romney is on the record as saying the Palestinians don’t seem to want peace. When, if ever, has a major party presidential candidate uttered a statement like that? Neither he nor Obama, in other words, intend to use any political capital on another meaningless accord. The message from U.S. politicians to Jerusalem: “We’re done trying to fix this. No more pressure on settlements, or anything else. Good luck.” Israel gets a nearly free hand to deal with Palestine, because there are enough crises in the world that set off anti-American demonstrations, and there’s little need to create another. What that means for Palestinians, though, is the end of American support for their claims, and possibly the end of restraint by Israel.

What all three situations come back to is that the foreign policy implications of the 2012 election are virtually nil. Americans are consumed by domestic issues like the economy and unemployment. Despite the fact that Romney paints Obama as an apologist, a declinist, an unpatriotic leader-from-behind, both are peddling roughly the same foreign policy. Romney is setting a theme and a tone to attack Obama, but it’s mere background music. Whichever candidate is elected will, for different reasons, tell the military “you’re not going to bomb that.” All the rest is posturing.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 25, 2012.   REUTERS/Mike Segar

13 comments

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If the latter 18th century would have had a “world police” country that instilled its version of morality and method on the world by force, imagine what the American and French revolutions would have amounted to. It’s up to the populace of each country to determine its own fate and host its own revolutions. The world isn’t asking for, nor does it need a dictatorial moral police. And the worst of tyrants is the one that tells you “I’m doing this for your own good”.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

Isreal may be apoplectic that the United States isn’t rolling tanks into Tehran to stop them from creating a weapon capable of killing thousands in an instant, yet the fact that almost thirty thousand people have died in Syria is met with a collective “meh.” The reason? There is no profit in it, political or otherwise.

Posted by smanchwhich | Report as abusive

Not to worry!

We may not have affordable healthcare, or even a middle class before too long, but this is American damn it and we will have our fair share of unnecessary trillion dollar wars.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

let’s face it… the US is a 2nd rate fallen super power, going in the same direction as the once great Roman empire

Posted by slick_h | Report as abusive

Let’s cut through all this BS. We have had our rear ends kicked over & over again every time we interfered & tried to police other countries internal affairs. Why ???
Because it is very profitable for our monstrous defense industry & the Elite. You, the working tax-paying citizen are being robbed of your hard earned money. That’s all.

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

The only way it makes sense for Mr. Bremmer’s “World Cop” to continue to walk the beat would be if the citizens of the planet employed “the cop”. I may be naïve, obviously, but I thought that was the role of UN peacekeepers?

The neighborhood actually considers the self-styled cop the bully of the neighborhood with delusions of grandeur because nobody hired him but himself. And he seems to have fingers in everyone else’s business and lives. He seems to have a voracious appetite for information and even spies. He might even be the biggest troublemaker of the lot to ensure his own job security and to cover the misdeeds of his greatest admirers?

Are you sure you are talking about the world’s cop or really only Vito Corleone?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

The world has a cop? Appointed by whom? How is the world paying this cop’s salary? Whose laws is he enforcing? By what authority, voted for by whom?

What the world really has is a global meddler who needs to learn to mind his own business and leave other peoples business alone.

Posted by Philo2 | Report as abusive

Who appointed us (the USA) world cop. Perhaps some of the time we should mind our own business. You can call this naive, or perhaps wanting us to spend more of our hard earned tax dollars on our issues at home.

Posted by dhrder | Report as abusive

ian should start questioning the “uS-as-Cop” metaphor

with two uS presidents found guilty of war crimes (the jesse james bush clan, including the oleaginous tony “ford” blair)

and a third to be indicted on drone terrorism (the incumbent)

hardly fitting that the sociopathic, oil-megalomania of the bush family should provide any modicum of justice befitting a “global cop”

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

“The U.S. is willing to do less on the world stage than it has since the onset of World War Two”

Off the top of my head: Vietnam, Korea, Bosnia, Iraq x2, Afghanistan, Libya, and a near constant military presence in Central & South America and Africa over the last few decades. We simply can not afford to keep this up; we are constrained by the reality that war is expensive and generally a waste of resources. Had we dumped the cost of the two recent wars into our economy instead of into countries that will likely never develop, we would be in great shape. I don’t want to develop other countries, I want to improve this one.

Syria: Not our problem. Sorry.

Iran: Will cross the line and will be pushed back across it with a few bunker busters. Retaliation against our country will be held in check under threat of widespread bombing campaigns and regime change.

Israel and Palestine: Only our problem due to the voting demographics of Florida and extremist Christian fundamentalists. Both countries are to blame equally for the deteriorating situation and will need to arrive at the separate state agreement together.

My hope is that the current pool of aging Neocons dies out soon and we are left with politicians who give a damn about American blood, before “Global Strategic Positioning” or “Utterly Pointless Posturing, Wasted Resources, and Massive Debt”.

Posted by SchWI | Report as abusive

Well the U.S. has run out of money after two botched and very expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the economic disaster of the Bush administration so who can pay for the salary of the “world cop?” Remember the Clinton surplus? And what happened to the “peace dividend” after the end of the Cold War? All gone. Frittered away. But we still have all those aircraft carrier groups and so many bases around the world. What is really needed? TIme for cutbacks and austerity in defense as well as in everything else. Europe (hah hah) should pick up some of the slack in its region. Otherwise it will be China, which seems to be moving in economically in AfPak. Good. Let them bleed for the next couple of decades while we rest and rebuild. The strongest national security comes from a strong economy and a strong society–which means a strong middle class.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

We have no business being the world’s cop. The US needs to look to ourselves for a while as we are not in that great a shape. If the world needs a “cop” then let nations (not the UN as they are about useless) get together and create an international force with the ability to be one and also it needs to be funded (and manned) by all countries. We cannot afford either the money or people to keep cleaning up the world and , quite frankly, most of them do not want us to.

Posted by texan5555 | Report as abusive

texas5555 – What nations would you suggest form the splinter UN? There is already a subculture that never seems to get any notice. The developing nations are already very inpatient with the demands and appetites of the developed world.

The modified global “cop” has already been employed and it was Bush IIs creation. He called it the “Coalition of the Willing”.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive