Libya, “Leading From Behind,” And Global Policemen

by Zack Beauchamp

It's become fashionable recently to dump on the idea of America as a "global policeman." Chris Preble summarizes how the view is commonly understood:

That is because the Libya story will be fit into a familiar narrative, one in which the United States is portrayed as uniquely suited to be the world’s government, with the U.S. military as a global constabulary, responding to threats large and small, distant and proximate. The Libyan intervention, according to the defenders of the status quo, demonstrates that there is no alternative.

But what Libya really shows is this strawman, believed by perhaps only by a neoconservative rump, is never how thoughtful defenders of America's international obligations have understood "global policing." What the success of Obama's "leading from behind" shows is that America's ability to right global wrongs is about much more than the simple deployment of U.S. forces. It's about our friends, too.

Police forces aren't made up of one member. There's a chief, sure, but there are also detectives and uniformed officers who work with the chief. The chief guides their efforts, but each of them works on their own towards the general goal of enforcing the law.

It's better to think of the U.S. as the global police chief rather than sole policeman. We may be the strongest of our allies, but by no means do we take lead role in solving every problem. American allies work like detectives: they conduct crucial operations in support of the general task of keeping the global peace and creating a better world.

Libya demonstrates how the police chief system works. After the initial phase designed to halt Qaddafi's move into Benghazi, American forces played only a supporting role, letting NATO allies take the lead. Though our contributions (especially in terms of high-tech capabilities) were invaluable, no one would say American forces were doing most of the legwork.

That's the essence of "leading from behind:" convincing other states to shoulder some of the burden of creating a just international order. The U.S. provides limited help in areas where it has a significant advantage, but it outsources lead responsibilities to allies whenever possible. U.S. influence is exercised indirectly through bilateral contacts between states, mulitlateral organizations like NATO and the U.N., transnational networks, and "soft power" ideological and cultural means of influence. The idea is to limit U.S. involvement in order to husband the resources that America needs to lead in the first place.

Ultimately, that's why neoconservative critics of Obama's "weakness" and realist critics of American "empire" both get it wrong. "Leading from behind" isn't about abandoning American leadership – it's about exercising in a manner that's not completely self-defeating. Being a global policeman doesn't mean "wars all the time everywhere!" – it means enlisting allies to help us with global governance.  Yes, that occasionally means military intervention by the U.S. and/or allies when the intervention in question passes basic just war theory tests, but doesn't mean the hallmark of the international order is perpetual use of military force. And our allies aren't limited to Old Europe – the U.S. can, with skillful diplomacy, work with rising states like India, which has demonstrated its commitment to global governance through its significant contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations.

International police work is important. Not only is it morally required for rich, powerful states, but it's good for them in the long run by limiting dangerous instability. Luckily, Americans don't have to conduct every patrol on their own.