Officer Sam Should the U.S. be the World's Police Force?

Whether you like it or not, the world is becoming smaller every day. When the global village becomes a global city, who will keep its citizens safe? One nation in particular has taken it upon itself to ostensibly fulfill this task. Could the United States possibly be justified in seeking the role of an international ‘police force’?

By Berend Pot

In 2004, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, better known as the creators of the renowned animation series South Park, released a movie named Team America: World Police. The movie involves a team of string puppet super soldiers who are tasked with neutralizing the then leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il. Now, I am not going to tell you whether or not they succeeded, nor am I going to review the film. Instead I will use the film to introduce a criticism that is often leveled at the general aim of United States foreign policy during the last century. For the most part, Stone and Parker’s film is a satire about the position the United States has taken within the international community, which has often been described as one comparable to that of a police force. Interestingly, such comparisons have been made in the spirit of heavy criticism as well as praise and advocacy.

The metaphor of a police force is intuitively apt in situations in which there seems to be a clear victim and a clear perpetrator. Thus, at first glance an international police force seems valuable, if not necessary, in a world with so much injustice, oppression, and persecution. Just as a local community needs a police force to prevent people from doing each other harm, the world needs a police force for this very purpose, and who else to fill this role than the most powerful military power in the world?

At second glance however, what might ostensibly be intervention for the sake of peace and safety, can have some consequential side effects. The idea of one nation imposing themselves and their values on others, even in the name of all that is good and holy, is fundamentally problematic. Especially so if that nation explicitly prides itself on their valuation of freedom and self-determination. Adopting an international agenda of exceptionalism might leave an ironic aftertaste. It is here that the metaphor loses its strength as well. However, for the sake of discussion, let’s run with it for now.

The candidate

If there is to be a nation policing the world the United States seems perfect for the job. Not only because of their military power, but also because the job description is ingrained almost verbatim in their constitutive philosophy. Seeing themselves as a shining ‘city upon a hill;’ the perfect example for the rest of the world to gawk at, the states that had united saw it as their (divine) duty to share their insights and values. This idea fueled—and supposedly justified—at first their expansion into the west. When there was no more land to expand into, their ‘manifest destiny’ was calmed initially. It seems, however, that the United States never really broke their habit of being exemplary. They have not only seen it as their duty to break up not one, but two major European conflicts, but have also assertively injected themselves all over the world in the name of freedom and democracy. The US president’s cute nickname ‘leader of the free world,’ is a beautiful illustration of this attitude.

The US had resolved from birth to get along with everybody but never really got the chance to follow up on this resolution. Where their initial conflicts generally revolved around their own territory or other direct interests, the US eventually joining World War I was the first time they explicitly broke their isolationist promise and intervened for the express purpose of promoting one of their essential values, namely democracy for all. During the rest of the 20th century ideological intervention would become their bread and butter. They fought World War II to a large degree for the purpose of promoting fundamental freedoms, and the following Cold War would see many attempts to give democracy predominance over communism all over the world. After the communist threat was mostly over, they continued to police the world, fighting tyrannical governments and preventing them from becoming too powerful globally.

Whether these efforts ultimately brought more good than bad is hard to analyze, as the counterfactual situation remains inevitably unknown. It might be that these countries had been better off left alone, but it is hard to deny that the US’s police work had no positive effects at all. Despotism remains a looming danger in this world, and there is certainly something to say for anyone trying to mitigate it every chance they get. Nevertheless, such police work needs to be justified.


If we are to morally justify military intervention, we must turn our attention to the ethics of war. Obviously, this subject is an incredibly complex one and the discussion is bound to be riddled with confusion between rational and emotional reaction to such a charged topic. It is therefore important, when making up your mind about issues of the sort, to pick your normative ethical principles wisely.

If you usually steer towards deontological sentiments, any form of international aggression may seem essentially problematic; violence and killing is absolutely wrong, so any form of war is principally inexcusable. The resulting stance of pacifism would commit you to leave it there, or to find other ways of helping those oppressed. Of course you could also claim that war is different than day-to-day life, create a situational loop-hole, and under the banner of non-reductive just war theory start your justification of intervention from scratch. You can now find your solace in certain conditions that, if followed, render a war justified. Classic examples of such conditions include being for a just cause, being started by legitimate authority, or being done with the right intention in mind. Note, however, the usage of the terms ‘just,’ ‘legitimate,’ and ‘right.’ Good luck with those.

Granted, just war theory has come up with a number of more well-defined conditions as well. For instance, if a war is a last resort to avoid an obviously much worse outcome, it instantly becomes more palatable. Additionally, constraints on how a war should be fought when started, such as the crucial principle that civilian casualties must at all times be avoided, are some of the more laudable ethical principles I can think of.

If you are not a fan of absolute principles, you could also try some consequentialism. Of course, you still need to have some metric to measure your consequences, but seeing as the whole reason you got into this mess was to avoid suffering, that might be a good place to start. Now you can carefully weigh all options, deliberate at length about which form of suffering cuts more ice, and ultimately tout your decision as having taken the whole situation into account.

Evaluating the metaphor

Now that we feel we have justified the interventions, I cannot help but take another look at how we should call them. I don’t believe the metaphor of a police force is the most accurate description. I admit it sounds good: the police are your best friend, as we say in less grammatically awkward Dutch. However, if we are to follow up on the analogy then we should hold the international police to the same standards as a national police force, which commits us to a few principles of policing.

First of all, a police force is set up to be an objective arbiter, having no interests in the conflict it presides over. Of course we often see that this ideal of objectivity is not perfectly realized, but nevertheless it forms the theoretical basis of any police force. In practically all cases of US military intervention, the goal was not only to instigate peace and safety, but to leave their host with the express suggestion to adopt the iconic principles of freedom and democracy (and some form of laissez-faire economics). Of course, few people would claim that freedom and democracy are in themselves bad things, and many countries that the US has ‘liberated’ were in dire straits with regards to both. However, one could argue that since there is no obvious universal normative measure to determine the best way to achieve human flourishing, it seems hard to defend a nation imposing its variant on another, especially if this happens by force. Can one country say their values are objectively better and should therefore be promoted in other countries?

Secondly, the police must not discriminate in deciding who to help and who not to help. Normally, the police is obligated to help anyone who is victimized. Would this be a feasible job description for any international applicant?

Furthermore, what precisely would it mean to be victimized? The rules enforced by a police force are generally created on the basis of some form of general consensus of the community—if not through democratically elected lawmakers, then through tolerated despotism. For our global community we unfortunately do not have a set of generally agreed upon laws which a potential global police force could enforce. There are some fundamental human rights that are mostly agreed upon, but the legitimacy and desirability of any ideological principle beyond those are inherently relativistic. Objective mediation is impossible to establish if there is no overarching law, leaving international intervention to seemingly take place in some Hobbesian state of nature.

It is immediately obvious that a global police force in the form of one particular country does not even begin to conform to the fundamentals of policing. The overwhelming value and importance of freedom and democracy might be recognized by the US and their friends, but the sovereign nations that are usually affected by their police work might find their solace in other values, such as stability and conformity. As long as there are no globally established moral and legal principles, forcing your values on others might in some cases be laudable. But it is a far cry from objective policing. However, if we are to continue to become increasingly interconnected in terms of economic, political, moral, and cultural norms, a more engaged attitude might well be superior to the tribalist tendencies that are becoming more and more rampant these days. Ultimately, “A Shining City upon a Hill” might be preferable to “America First.”


Berend Pot is derdejaars student filosofie

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