Is America still the world’s policeman?

Forty years on, the US is still searching for a cure for its ‘Vietnam Syndrome’. But it won’t find it overseas.

Over the next two weeks, spiked will be publishing a series of articles based on talks given at the Battle of Ideas festival, which took place on 1 and 2 November at the Royal College of Art in London. Here, Brendan O’Neill argues that America may have the most powerful military set-up, but it has little idea what it is fighting for.

In October 2001, in the early days of the Afghan war, American soldiers on board the USS Enterprise were preparing a missile that would later be fired at Afghanistan. They decided to write a message on the side of the missile; they wrote: ‘Hijack this, you fags.’

Their bosses did not find it funny. Following a complaint from a gay lobby group about the use of the term ‘fag’ on American military property, the US Navy expressed ‘official disapproval’ of the message.

The Navy Rear Admiral himself said the message was ‘offensive’ and told the crew of USS Enterprise to ‘more closely edit their spontaneous acts of penmanship’. He said to them: ‘We want to keep the messages positive.’ There followed some new unofficial guidelines about what could be written on post-9/11 missiles: ‘I New York’ was okay; anything with the word ‘fags’ in it was not.

Of course, this incident shows how far the culture of political correctness has spread its tentacles, so that even when someone is launching a bomb that will kill people, the overriding concern is whether it will offend them as well. Blowing people’s heads and limbs off, that’s fine – causing them offence, no way.

However, there is also something more tellingly profound about this incident, I think. It captures perfectly that while America is still immensely powerful in military terms, it simply doesn’t know what it stands for anymore. America has more missiles than any other nation on Earth, but it literally doesn’t know what to write on those missiles. It is a nation that is extraordinarily well-armed, but which is lost for words, lost for ideas, lacking any sense of mission.

So, on whether America is still the world’s policeman, I think the more pressing question is: what is the policeman supposed to be enforcing? What order is the policeman upholding, and why? America and its defenders have a far harder time answering those questions than they did in the past. Today America frequently comes across as a policeman without a mission, a missile without a message, and that can be a very dangerous thing.

America’s ability to act as the policeman of the world, to manage relations between states, has significantly diminished over the past 15 or 20 years. And that has been a result of both objective and subjective factors.

The objective fact America faces today is that, over the past 15 years, the world has become a far more fragmented place. During the Cold War era, that relatively stable time in global affairs, America’s leadership of the Western fold was pretty much uncontested. There were serious run-ins with Britain over Suez and with France over NATO, but by and large America was accepted as the leader of Western nations against the Soviet Union.

Since the end of the Cold War, that has all changed. In a world with no clear dividing line between West and East, and where the policy and propaganda of anti-communism no longer works, America has far greater difficulty offering a lead to Western nations, much less a lead across the globe.

On this front, it is very instructive to contrast the first Gulf War of 1991 with the second Gulf war of 2003. In the first Gulf War, America was able to lead a formidable coalition of powerful states in its assault on Iraq, including Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany. The UN authorised the attack, and America led virtually the entire Western world to ‘bomb Iraq back to the Stone Age’, as one US official tactfully put it.

At the time, many thought this represented the rebirth of America as the world’s unchallenged superpower, flexing its muscles after the death of the Soviet Union. In fact, the first Gulf War is better seen as the final flourish of America’s Cold War leadership of the West, the last burst of its policeman role. Consider the second Gulf War 12 years later: the UN, a body created by the US in the 1940s largely to cement its postwar leadership, did not authorise the 2003 war in Iraq. The war was opposed by France and Germany. The coalition against Iraq this time still includes Britain, of course, but also an array of weak states easily cajoled by Washington: Albania, the Solomon Islands, Micronesia.

What happened in between these two wars, the first Gulf War and the second Gulf War, is that American leadership of the West withered. Without the raison d’être of standing up to communism, America’s global role stood exposed as shallow and visionless. More importantly, I think, the tensions between Western powers today, most explicitly expressed over Gulf War II, should really remind us of a frequently forgotten fact – which is that the Cold War set-up, the international institutions of NATO, the UN and so on, only ever put a lid on historic Western tensions; it did not resolve them.

We should remember that the 40-year Cold War period of relative unity between Western states under one nation’s leadership was a very unusual and shortlived era in history. Prior to the Cold War, relations between capitalist powers were defined by rivalry, tension, competitiveness – and when the Cold War institutions, these mechanical devices for suppressing Western tensions, when they fell apart, rivalry rose to the surface once more. So the fragmentation of the West after Gulf War I, that final expression of Cold War unity, is actually something like a return to normality - and it’s not really a normality that suits America.

This is the objective problem for America: the collapse of Cold War institutions has led to the re-emergence of petty national interests in the West, which is not conducive to American or any other kind of clear leadership. However, subjective factors have been, if anything, even more decisive in the decline of America’s policeman role.

America’s lack of direction in the international sphere is also triggered by its severe crisis of legitimacy in the domestic sphere. It is the American elite’s own political and moral malaise which means it is unable to take a lead in international affairs.

We sometimes forget that wars are frequently lost at home rather than on the battlefield itself. How a nation like America conducts itself in world affairs is about far more than who happens to be in the White House and who is advising him, whether it is Bush or, soon, Obama; it is also very much influenced by political coherence and legitimacy in the heart of the political capital. For example, people still talk about America’s ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ as if it were merely a foreign-policy issue, simply humiliation at being defeated by a third-world army. In reality, the real import of the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ for the US elite over the past 40 years is that Vietnam unveiled a profound political malaise in Washington.

It was through the Vietnam experience that the US elite lost its young middle classes, lost control of black inner-city areas, lost the argument with a significant section of its own population about duty, honour, sacrifice, and other American values. Gabriel Kolko described it very well in his book on Vietnam, arguing that: ‘The anti-Vietnam War movement accurately reflected the organisational, political and intellectual disorder of America in the mid-twentieth century.’

If America lost the battle in Vietnam, it lost the war – the Culture War – at home. And despite the promises of Reagan and George Bush Senior that they would overcome the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ by intervening in Afghanistan or bombing Iraq, neither of them did – because the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ is not over there, it is in Washington, amongst an elite which since the 1960s has struggled to define what America is for and why people should believe in it.

That crisis of values still informs Washington’s foreign policy today, giving rise to uncertain, unpredictable interventions in world affairs. America launches largely short-term assaults on imaginary ‘rogue states’, while desperately trying to keep its own commitment and its own losses to a minimum. It gives its soldiers ‘cultural awareness’ training to educate them that they are not superior to foreigners which, while being true, surely makes it difficult to fight a war against said foreigners. It is even designing eco-friendly weaponry, weapons which can ‘kill people but which are not an environmental hazard’ – which really speaks to a political fear amongst the Washington elite about making too much of a long-term impact on our fragile and fragmented world.

What we end up with is a vicious cycle: on the one hand America is drawn to the international sphere in search of some purpose, in search of a cure for its ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ – yet on the other hand, its lack of purpose means it is unable to commit to foreign ventures or organise them coherently. Is America the world’s policeman? No, currently it is more like the world’s bounty-hunter, the world’s mercenary, travelling the globe in search of a quick moral fix. Such unpredictability, such arbitrariness, means that America can be more dangerous and destructive today even than it was in earlier eras.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement - Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas - is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked Brendan O’Neill showed how the War on Iraq was a war without purpose and examined the US state’s willingness to abdicate responsibility in the wake of the Blackwater affair. Frank Furedi showed how the British retreat from Basra exemplified a confused and complacent eliteMick Hume highlighted how even British generals are against the war. Or read more at spiked issues War on Iraq.

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