Thirty years ago I was Country Director for North Africa in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs–and I didn’t know how lucky I was that I got that tour over with when I did. I pity my poor successor. Never mind the rest of the Maghrib, Libya all by itself has metastasized from a pain in the rear to a massive concatenation of contradictions between our interests, our values, our instincts, and our self-esteem. No matter which way we turn, we violate at least two of the foregoing, usually three.
As long as we play the role of default global peacekeeper and umpire, the world is going to throw issues at us that are riddled with contradictions and conundrums. We’ll look back at the current situation in Libya as a relatively mild foretaste of things to come. What with unstoppable global trends including the population explosion, resource depletion, species extinction, and global warming, you can expect such issues to grow not only in number but in complexity.
Our effort to position ourselves as the ultimate arbiter on these issues has half-way busted us, and I don’t think we can continue to play this role for more than another decade or two without getting relegated to a bit part in history, or worse. This is hardly an original thought; the prophets of doom are all around us. The most troubling are the many voices from nations abroad, expressing the notion that America is on the skids with various emotions from fear to glee.
Is it time to quit? Should we resign now as global peacekeeper? I am thoroughly in favor of our cutting back on our commitments abroad, and directing our national wealth and energy much more toward rebuilding our own society, but if we were to retreat all the way into Fortress America, that could create an intolerable vacuum. Dodge City would descend into chaos with the fastest guns taking over in their own parts of town. Regional famine and local wars, some involving nuclear exchanges, could become the order of the day. Perhaps eventually the feds might send in a sheriff with the authority and clout to keep the peace, but on whose authority?
Realistically, the only authority capable of taking over the American role as world sheriff is the UN Security Council. It’s not ready to take on that responsibility now, but if we could agree on letting the UN have a standing military force and some independent taxing authority, its Security Council could evolve into a competent world cop fairly rapidly. If we could phase out our withdrawal from the number one cop role gradually, and coordinate it with the evolution of such a UN authority, humanity might wriggle through the coming decades and somehow survive with most of its accomplishments to date relatively intact.
I know, many of our citizens and most of our elected representatives will howl that this would be an unacceptable abrogation of our sovereignty. But look at the alternatives, and reflect on the probability that while we have the clout now to play a key role in fashioning a new and more effective Security Council, we very probably, in the not-too-distant future, will not.
I know, I’m dreaming. Our leaders will continue to fiddle while Rome burns. I guess it’s just as well that I’ve lived most of my life in our country’s golden age.