Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


While Boris Johnson’s father is saying Iranian and UK oil tankers detained in Gibraltar and Hormuz should be swapped, on July 18 USS Boxer took defensive action against an Iranian drone that had closed with the ship in the Persian Gulf to approximately 1,000 yards and jammed the drone.

Iran and the United States have had no formal diplomatic relations since 1980. Pakistan serves as Iran's protecting power in the US, while Switzerland serves as the United States' protecting power in Iran.

Germany, France and the UK have set up a payment channel with Iran called INSTEX, to help continue trade and circumvent US sanctions. Washington has cautioned EU nations against such actions.

In one of his characteristic messages via Twitter, US President Donald Trump declared his army’s capacity to use “obliteration” fire power against Iran if necessary and in case of war between the two countries.

Historical background

Several European countries have set up a new transaction channel that will allow companies to continue trading with Iran despite US sanctions. The channel, set up by Germany, France and the UK, is called INSTEX — short for "Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges."

Concerned about keeping the nuclear deal with Iran alive, the EU3 have created a possibility to conduct business transactions as a precondition for them to meet the obligations they entered into in order to demand from Iran that it doesn't begin military uranium enrichment: but this can put them on a collision course with Washington. The European countries intend to use the channel initially only to sell food, medicine and medical devices in Iran. However, it will be possible to expand it in the future.

The lifting of sanctions is an essential dimension of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the Iran nuclear deal: the instrument launched in the last few weeks will provide economic operators with the necessary framework to pursue legitimate trade with Iran.

Meanwhile, on the American side, Trump believes Iran will surrender in a short time after the beginning of a possible war, thus showing that history is meaningless to US officials who made the same assumptions in previous wars, particularly in Afghanistan and its attempted regime-change in Syria. But how will Iran respond and what options are left to Iran today?

There is little doubt that Trump’s administration is fixated on US military power, rather than exploring all possible scenarios and the prospects for Iranian retaliation. If Trump goes to war, the Middle East will face dire consequences that Trump seems not to be taking into account.

When President George W. Bush launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” in 2001 he believed his war in Afghanistan would be a walk in the park; still today, President Trump is negotiating with Taliban a way to end this ongoing war. Moreover, President Barack Obama believed the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fall would be a “matter of time”.

Current situation

One of Donald Trump’s campaign applause lines held that it was time for the US to quit serving as the world's policeman and take care of business at home.

In his pre-election days, Trump considered himself a vocal critic of American military adventurism. In 2013, he took to Twitter to say that “All former Bush administration officials should have zero standing on Syria. Iraq was a waste of blood and treasure.” Although he ran on an anti-interventionist platform, the president has now surrounded himself with foreign war apologists: National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and General J.F. Dunford, among others.

As a matter of fact, after the 2018 attack on Syria, the current attitude of Trump reiterates that the US still considers itself a Global Policeman resorting, furthermore, to reckless and lawless means. Whatever the stated rationale for last year air strikes on Homs and Damascus (ostensibly to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons), the bottom line is that they were a violation of international law and could move the United States a step closer to direct confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia.

Moreover, the crazy thing is that, to protect the Syrian people from the horrors of alleged chemical-weapons use, the US unleashed missiles and bombs on the Syrian people. By bombing Damascus the US did not contribute to peace, but added to the violence perpetrated against the Syrian civilian population. Such a raid, celebrated by US neocons and liberal interventionist alike, echoes with Madeleine Albright maintaining, years before, that “The United States is the indispensable nation and we can act because we stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” From that came the arrogant assumption that the United States could scorn the same international laws that it had championed at Nuremberg after World War II. 

No formal recognition of the position of Global Policeman does exist. Theoretically, in international law, all nations are equal: “par in parem non habet imperium”, no authority between equals, is the principle applied. In reality, international law is decentralised, unpoliced, unenforceable, unclear and frequently broken.

Is a Global Policeman key to International Security?

Global policeman is an informal term for a state which seeks or claims global hegemony. It has been used, firstly, by the British Empire and, since 1945, by the most influential of the Four Policemen victorious in WW II.

After WWII the Truman Doctrine was the official beginning of an aggressive “peacetime” intervention during which America became the world’s policeman. “Friendly” nations were often bought off by supporting cooperative but repressive leaders. “Unfriendly” ones often experienced economic sanctions and the arming of their domestic opponents.

The best description of the foreign policy of Presidents Roosevelt and then Truman was “perpetual war for perpetual peace” and, yet, the Cold War was not perpetual. Arguably, it ended when the Soviet Union did. What next? Well, a successful decade-long push by the neocons replaced the Cold War with a global, imperialist, and permanent War on Islamic fundamentalism and for the “American Democracy”.

Consequently, the elimination of the neutrality rights of nations is now so complete that neutrality can be challenged even when no declaration or act of war has occurred. Merely viewing a nation as a potential ally or enemy now warrants intervention, up to and including a military presence.

According to some “US experts”, the possible withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan does not signal an end to the need for security and the rule of law in conflict environments. The United States will continue to face significant challenges from conflicts, such as those under way in Libya and Syria and only a multidisciplinary force can respond to future contingencies, whether they are from intrastate, interstate or extrastate conflicts.

Lupus in fabula

Once hinted that a world policeman is needed some are arguing that it would be up to the UN to act as the global policeman. Actually, the United Nations was the name of the warring powers who opposed the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) during World War II, also known as the Allies. The United Nations was formed right after World War II was ended by the victors.

But has the UN been an effective policeman? So far it has taken military action very rarely, far more rarely than needed. Furthermore, even when it did vote to take military action, members often refused to provide the needed military personnel and assets, or provide them but restrict their use to the point where the UN Force was impotent.

The UN has only done the job in the most clear-cut cases involving relatively weak aggressors, most notably Iraq invading Kuwait in 1990. So, if not the UN, who?

Belgium, for example, is not a candidate. It is too small and has too few people and resources. So which countries do have the size, capabilities, will and resources to possibly serve currently as policeman of the world?

Maybe the United States, Russia, China, India, the United Kingdom, Germany, France. Let's assume that the US are tired of such a role, having been at it for 70 years: it's time for someone else to step up, but no one does, or can't! Thus are the US the last "Super Power" remaining on this planet able to do such a job? 

“Thucydides's Trap” refers to the situation when a rising power causes fear in an established power which escalates toward war. Thucydides wrote: "What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta." The term appeared in a full-page ad in The New York Times on April 6, 2017, the day of U.S. President Donald Trump's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping , with the caption “Both major players in the region share a moral obligation to steer away from Thucydides's Trap.”

In recent years there has been speculation that China may take over the role as it reaches out to control shipping lanes, protect its overseas workers and interests, and creeps into the superpower league. But the West, according to the Financial Times, should view this as an opportunity, not a threat.

Failures of US international interventions

The 2003 US-led Invasion of Iraq, officially a policing mission to find Weapons of Mass Destruction, has been accused of being an illegal cover for ulterior, unethical motives: the need to secure US regional bases, oil supplies, and the loyalty of key allies.

Since then, serious doubts have been raised about the validity of US overseas intervention and destabilization in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Americans accept no law other than their own on US soil, yet expect other nations to submit to the rule of US troops: a double standard.

The use of drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan goes against the presumption of innocence. The CIA, exempt from the Geneva Convention, is secretly sentencing people to death for an unproven crime, without trial or inquest. Al Qaeda and ISIS are not a state, so the” law of war” which permits killing of combatants, does not apply.

The US are a nation that is extraordinarily well-armed, but which is lost for words, lost for ideas, lacking any sense of mission. So 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.

America’s ability to act as the global policeman and 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.

Since the end of the Cold War, 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.

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.

Is America the world’s policeman? 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, erratic, dangerous and destructive today even than it was in earlier eras.

Features of the US as the world policeman

How accurate is the shorthand of “world policeman” to describe America’s role in today’s international security architecture? The essential fact is that the United States sits at the pinnacle of a world order that it played a central role in designing, and which benefits no other country so much as it does America itself by enriching America and American business, by keeping Americans safe while creating jobs and profits for America’s military-industrial complex, and by making sure that America retains, as long as possible, its position as the richest, dominant global superpower.

In some cases, America has underwritten most of the funding for international institutions, whether their purpose is to monitor ancient monuments (UNESCO) or inspect nuclear sites (IAEA). It hasn’t done so out of altruism. The investment has paid itself back many times over. These institutions have worked imperfectly, but they build goodwill and reduce risk. That’s good for the world in general, but it’s great for America. 

America’s “global cop” role means that shipping lanes, free trade agreements, oil exploration deals, “ad hoc” military coalitions, and so on are maintained to the benefit of the U.S. government or U.S. corporations. The truth is that America puts its thumb on the scale to tilt the world’s not-entirely free markets to America’s benefit. Nobody would be more thrilled for America to pull back than its economic rivals, like China.

Trump might like the sound of handing in America’s resignation as global cop. His voters might like it even more. But if pulling back makes America poorer and more vulnerable, the costs will land squarely on Trump.


The US are a sort of UN. The population of, say, Denmark is almost entirely Danes. The same is true of many of the Old World countries. Only the US and Canada have a sort of UN-like “melting pot” population. The US is not the UN, but a platoon of US soldiers may look like the UN by noting that there are Asians, Latinos, African-Americans, Caucasians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and all sorts of other races and mixed-race personnel.

There was once a TV comedy skit where they made fun of the diversity that American movie makers celebrated in movies made during World War II when the US were fighting against two countries, Germany and Japan, whose governments and people looked down on other races. A World War II Hollywood platoon leader would give a command like: “Murphy, take Weinstein and Swenson and lay down a base of fire on the left side of the hill. Guglielmo, you take Kowalski, McTavish, and Lacroix and move up the right side of the hill. Apostopolos, you and Gomez stay here and direct artillery fire.”

And while that “great” diversity was all Western European, America’s Japanese were locked up in internment camps or, like blacks, in separate military units back then. Other Asian-Americans looked like Japanese to most Americans. An equivalent movie scene today would have the U.S. platoon leader barking out names like Nguyen and Hussein and Singh and Wong and so forth.

Anyway, notwithstanding all that, it is not up to the US to play the role of global cop.


Today more than 300,000 Americans are deployed or forward stationed in 177 countries. These missions include those in Iraq and Syria, activities on the Korean Peninsula, and “enhancing interoperability with allies” in Poland, with a substantial US military presence in Japan, Germany, Italy, and Afghanistan. 

That is why some US critics advocate a reformation of the armed forces that will result in a powerful military that won’t bankrupt the nation. The power of this military would be maintained at a high state of readiness and not perpetually dissipated by overuse abroad. 

Increasing economic and diplomatic engagement with the world, reducing the knee-jerk application of lethal military power abroad, and preserving the power of the Armed Forces to guarantee national security are the best means of ensuring a strong America.

According to these critics it is unfair for the US to arrogate to themselves the right to attack other sovereign countries when they offend the American judgements of proper behaviour (about human rights, against civil war on the European continent, against chemical weapons) while the US do not attack their allies such as Saudi Arabia in Yemen, or Israel in Gaza for engaging in such activities.

Such a situation should alarm every American. The United States now claims the right to wage pre-emptive war on the order of the president, a claim acted on by one of the most liberal of presidents, Barack Obama, as well as by Donald Trump.

Even though Syria posed no threat to the United States, Obama dispatched the CIA and Special Forces to train and arm the insurgency against Assad. But many of those arms, ostensibly intended for “democratic” rebel forces, ended up in the hands of ISIS and other Islamic terror groups.

International law prohibits pre-emptive wars and military attacks (covert or overt, limited or massive) against a nation that poses no imminent threat. It must be remembered that authority to exercise the right to protect can only come from the United Nations. If it can be claimed by any nation, then it simply too easily becomes a fig leaf for illegal intervention.

And coming back to the UN, it is up to the UN to act, if that were the case, as the only global cop. The US, Europe, Russia and China must therefore cooperate, by design or by default, by choice or by necessity, and agree on how to proceed in identifying, together with the UN, a future world order where they all have the moral duty to play a key role so as to favour peace, global governance and security. Only an overall agreement (able to overcome past and current rivalries, misunderstandings, jealousies and petty power games) amongst all of them can give the UN the means and capabilities to become the effective and legitimate arbitrator of challenges and disputes all over the world.