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Where’s the world policeman when you need one?

by Hugh Cortazzi

The international scene looks more unstable than it has since the fall of the Berlin Wall. No single country is strong enough to act as the world’s policeman. The United Nations lacks the resources to deal effectively even with small conflicts and is, in any case, constrained by its charter, which allows Russia and China to exercise a veto on police actions.

In the Far East, North Korea, which recently carried out an underground nuclear test, continues to behave irrationally and irresponsibly. Its Chinese ally deplores this development but seems unable or unwilling to restrain Pyongyang.

China is in the midst of a major change in its leadership. The new leaders face huge challenges at home. Corruption seems endemic at all levels in society. Improved living standards appear to have increased jealousies and greed. The gap between rich and poor, and city and country has widened and continues to exacerbate grievances. China faces a demographic time bomb as the effects of the inhumane one-child policy become more and more apparent.

A major priority of Chinese foreign policy is to secure the resources and energy needed for economic growth. China has many ethnic groups that seek autonomy, which China is unwilling to grant.

When states face difficult internal problems the temptation is to focus public anger on foreign targets and to demonstrate national power. There is always a danger that demonstrations against foreign countries may get out of hand and conflict may be caused almost accidentally.

In Southeast Asia there are latent threats to stability in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines. Islamic extremism does not pose the same threat that it does in other regions, but it cannot be ignored.

The biggest threat in South Asia derives from the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. It is made more dangerous by the fact that both are nuclear powers. India is a secular democratic state with a fast-growing economy and a huge population, of whom around one quarter are Muslims. Pakistan, where democratic institutions have not yet become fixed, is threatened by Islamic extremism and by the continuing conflict in Afghanistan.

The Middle East is the most unstable part of the world today. American and NATO forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan without having secured victory or the establishment of a stable government.

Iran, which remains a theocracy, continues to reject limitations on its nuclear activities despite Western sanctions that have exacerbated living standards. The forthcoming presidential elections are likely to be divisive and destabilizing.

Ten years after the start of the Iraq war, that country is still subject to daily acts of terrorism and life for most Iraqis continues to be unsafe and difficult.

The Arab Spring led to the downfall of the despotic regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, but life in all three countries is at best uncomfortable for most of the population. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, with his Muslim Brotherhood supporters and dictatorial tendencies, has angered and disappointed all who hoped that the revolution would bring a secular democratic regime to Egypt.

No progress has been made in solving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute and there seems little prospect of meaningful negotiations.

The civil war in Syria has caused countless casualties (dead and wounded) and made many destitute and refugees within their own country. The Russians and the Iranians stick to their ally and ignore the suffering while Islamic extremists take advantage of the chaos.

Some African countries have managed to grow their economies, but much of the continent is unstable. The civil war in Mali may have been contained by French intervention, but Islamic extremism remains a threat in northern Nigeria and in Algeria.

In comparison Europe looks superficially like a haven of peace. But European economies are stagnant, unemployment especially in southern Europe is very high and living standards are failing, while opposition to the unavoidable austerity policies continues to grow. The recent Italian election result, which showed popular support for two “clowns,” Silvio Berlusconi and Beppo Grilli, suggests that Italy may be ungovernable.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin, with his secret police background, ruthlessly pursues anyone whom he sees as a threat while his party rakes in the spoils of corruption. He resents the fact that Russia, despite its arsenal of nuclear weapons, is no longer the power that it was, so he blusters and threatens America and his European neighbors.

In a world as unsafe as it is today, when a world policeman is needed, America seems neither to have the will nor the resources to play the role. The American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has not been a happy one and there is an understandable reluctance to get sucked into other conflicts that might be equally unwinnable. The banking crisis and economic downturn made some defense cuts inevitable, but the cuts have been exacerbated by the shenanigans in Congress with the Republican refusal to compromise on tax measures, thus forcing “sequestration” (i.e., mandatory budget cuts including further cuts in defense expenditure) from March 1.

If the Chinese and Russian regimes were to underestimate, in the way Japan did in 1941, the American ability and will to respond to extreme provocation, they would make a serious error, but the threat today is not of massive armed attacks on other counties but of spreading instability and civil war.

In present circumstances, when Japan has to rely so much on the commitment of the U.S. to defend Japan, the Japanese need to be able to respond more readily to threats to world peace. This means enabling the Self-Defense Forces to play an active and if necessary combat role with other powers in support of U.N. resolutions.

If, despite the terms of Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan was able to establish the Self-Defense Forces, it should surely be possible to enact legislation permitting deployment in support of the U.N. without having to go through all the complicated procedures needed to amend the Constitution. But Japan will also need to avoid provocative acts and statements.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

  • James Muthee

    ….Some African countries have managed to grow their economies, but much of the continent is unstable.

    Again another foreigner generalizing on the African situation.
    Africa is a continent made of countries. You better be specific coz it is people like u who r driving investors from Africa. we don’t need financial aids, need to be left alone and we will grow ourselves.

  • Bob 001

    According to the 2001 census, muslims make up 13% of the population of India. This article puts the figure at one quarter. You need to check the data. The Muslim population may be growing faster than Hindus, but the proportion hasn’t doubled in 12 years.

    • toumanbeg

      Part of the Islamic talking points. Islam claims 1.6 billion Muslims. If you go to the UN population site and add up UN census figures, it comes to about 800 million or about the same as Europe and the USA combined. Muslims are too stooopid to realize that numbers don’t matter in the 21st century. We don’t fight in long lines with pointy sticks anymore.

    • Christopher-trier

      I looked art more recent figures and the per centage of Muslims in India has grown by under 1 per cent since 2001. That alone makes the writer’s credibility questionable. If he can’t verify something that is easily checked his credibility becomes slightly dubious.

  • JacintoKid

    “the republican refusal to compromise on tax measures” this statement is either disingenuous or naive. In fact, it is straight from the DNC talking points. The US has a spending problem not a taxation problem. Obama got his tax increases 2 months ago. Now he wants more. The US is on track to rack up 20 TRILLION in debt by 2016. Maybe it’s time to stop borrowing and spending.

    • Christopher-trier

      That is precisely the issue that is being ignored by many. Even if the USA had Swedish levels of taxation and the government managed to get every single cent that it theoretically should (which never happens) the USA would still have to borrow vast sums of money, sums that could only be paid back by debauching the currency and sparking high inflation a la Argentina-post 2001.

  • Don Heichel

    curious how this writer ignores Woodward’s comments & indicts Republicans re sequestration.

    perchance the phrase “moved the goal posts” does not permeate this writer’s grey matter.

  • Dypak

    The world has often castigated the US for stepping up and involving itself as “the world’s policeman”. The US is now pulling back from that role and we hear the cry “where’s the policeman”? Reminds me of the Rodney King riots: at the beginning of the riots, people were screaming “**** the police!” and then when it devolved into chaos they screamed “where’s the police?”

    Now we are shifting to more reliance from the UN. That same wonderful organization that is involved in human (sex) trafficking–a lucrative business that rots all the way to the top–in nations it is supposed to have oversight and to top it off these people have diplomatic immunities that prevent them from being prosecuted in both the countries they serve in and their home countries. Absolute immunity for absolute corruption.

    When no good men stand up, evil reigns supreme.

  • toumanbeg

    America is finished as the world cop. We have turned in our badge and are hanging up our guns. We can take N. Kores any time we want. But why? Japan and S.Korea can too. Get rid of the Kims and join north and sounth into One Korea. That will also put a stick in China’s spokes. China is a paper dragon. War in the 21st century is about technology. China is a low tech 5hithole.
    The UN is finished. It died the day President Bush asked for help in getting rid of Saddam and didn’t get it. It is nothing more then a stinking corpse, rotting in the corner. Everybody is to polite to mention it but that will not bring the UN back to life.

  • jansob

    This is the situation a lot of people wanted to see…the US with a little influence in world affairs. It’s the sort of policy even the President used to call for in his early days. And now, due to the blunders of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economic disruption of the last few years, it’s happened. So now, free of the evil influence of the US, we will get to see what kind of a world Russia, China, Iran and places like Venezeula will make for us. Should be an interesting, and quite nasty ride.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Boon-Tee-Tan/1068880297 Boon Tee Tan

    Does the world really need a global policeman? If the UN is not functioning as it should be, then be it. Let each nation take care of itself. (ttm1943)

  • Guest

    It is a delicate dance when dealing with a bully. You have to stay true to your ideals and go on living a normal happy life, and all the while not being seen as a push over…But, indeed, that is exactly what the bully attempts to do, put you on the defensive and make foolish mistakes.
    Perhaps Bruce Lee says it best when he said, the way to avoid a punch is to not be there when it is thrown.

  • IAF101

    Japan, South Korea, Australia, Europe and much of the Middle East have enjoyed good growth, stability and prosperity at the expense of the US taxpayer. Their security has been guaranteed by another and they could spend their money and resource elsewhere. The world is changing and these nations will have to defend themselves and live with the prospect of having to defend themselves – alone from aggressors without American help.

    It is high time this happened and this is a welcome change. A “world policeman” is as absurd an idea in the 21st century as it was in the 20th. If humanity is to live and prosper together, all nations and all people will need to work actively towards peaceful resolution of problems. That can never happen as long as there is a global bully “forcing” good behavior.

    Plus, if America is a “policeman” then who polices “America” from thinks like Guantanamo Bay, Abu Graib or the illegal invasion of Iraq ??