The USA – A Reluctant Sheriff


The Reluctant Sheriff

by Sejal Patel

April 12, 2000

The United States has emerged as the most influential superpower since the Cold War. To call the United States the Reluctant Sheriff is an understatement, as it has usually only dipped its hands in waters where its own interests are furthered and concerned. As the United States has imposed sanctions against rogue states such as Libya, Iran, Iraq, Cuba, and North Korea, it has not only hindered U.S. interests economically and politically, but those of other countries as well.

What gives the U.S. the right to subjugate its own elusively guarded diplomacy measures upon third-party states? It must not maintain the same stance as it did during the Cold War, that of if you are not with us, you are against us. As the U.S. stresses the need for a more unified and egalitarian world, it must check itself for the hypocrisy of its actions. It values its relations with China, for example, yet lambastes that country for its human rights violations.

Richard Haass points out that the international arena has seen a plethora of activity economically, politically, and socially since the end of the Cold War, as it makes its way towards achieving multipolarity. While other countries, institutions, and groups become more dynamic on the international stage, the United States needs to downplay its supposed hegemony in order to remain a superpower.

While progress and capitalistic changes are being effected in the post-Cold War era, one must ask what the world has achieved –or is turning into. In its quest to define itself within the realm of international relations after the cessation of the Cold War, the U.S. has reflected on many contending theories and paradigms to assess its role. Samuel Huntington sees the world fragmented into large pieces characterized by commonalities of civilization, such as similar religious and cultural backgrounds. On the opposite sphere is a theory offered by Robert Kaplan, which states the world is falling into smaller fragments of nation-states, such as those found within the former Yugoslavia, representing a meltdown of civilizations and society. Francis Fukuyama offers a brighter outlook on the direction of the world in the post-Cold War era. Fukuyama states that the end of the Cold War has victoriously brought liberalization of political and economic ideas in which state relations are consonant.

(Wilsonianism takes Fukuyamas theory a bit further, in which promotion of democracy will make the world a more prosperous, stable, peaceful and better place. While idealistic, one wonders if these two similar theories will ever truly be achieved, since the world will always have some form of dissent.)


John Mearsheimers view that present day Europe, without two nuclear superpowers with similar military force, may lead to hypernationalistic violence is quite pessimistic and perhaps archaic with formal institutions such as the EU and NATO trying to integrate Europe. Charles Krauthammer theorizes that the post-Cold War era is unipolar, with the United States as that unipolar power. Another theory holds that the world in the post-Cold War era is multipolar, and that the balance of power, for the most part, is stable. Benjamin Barber and John Lewis Gaddis offer a theory that the world is integrating and fragmenting (what a contradiction) at the same time. While all of these theories offer merit, they also suffer from many gaping flaws.


Since the world is not an inherently stable place (governments and institutions are known to disintegrate, as seen in the U.S.S.R.s downfall in 1989), the best approaches to follow are the ones that offer the most realistic and pragmatic views to the post-Cold War world.The world has adopted a multipolar stance in recent years, evidenced by the interconnectedness of global economies. Also, along with the integration of multiple economies, there is a growing movement towards democracy (since the strongest economies seem to be placed in democratic countries that favor the ideologies of capitalism). Barber and Gaddis theory of ambiguous contradictions also offers a more pragmatic and realistic outlook within the current time.


The emerging world is a color of contrast, and not as black-and-white as it was in the Cold War era when the dominating forces were the United States and the U.S.S.R.Todays world is less structured, as communications and technologies have run rampant, and information has exploded at such a rate that governments cannot regulate (and wonder if they should) the changes fast enough. In the Cold War era, the psychological war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was regulated by the governments, as Haass points out. The media (television, radio, press) were controlled nationally, telephone communication lines being run by operators; and direct confrontation and intervention were through the government institutions. Today, communications and technologies, such as the Internet, offer far more information than ever before. (In minutes or seconds, people can actually access blueprints of how to make weapons, and privileged government documents.) This could be quite dangerous since the threat posed to the security of governments and formal institutions is broader than before. One wonders if the plethora of accessible knowledge, due to the advancement of communications and technologies, offers any form of stability in a potentially unstable world. As Haas points out, in order for any system to enjoy stability, there are two criteria that need to be achieved: a balance of strength (similar to a balance of power), and a consensus (direction) of change by all.


Since the United States would like to remain an actor on the world stage, it must also give in gracefully to balancing its strength with other actors. The most beneficial changes for the good of humanity come from the diffusion of power, where there is an emergence of new centers of decision. Indeed, the United States must ask itself whether it wants to maintain a stance of unilateralism or multilateralism in international relations. Forcing sanctions upon any one country, such as Cuba or Iraq, also unfairly forces other countries between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Sanctions do not resolve any problems, and persuasive diplomacy takes a further step backwards as external (third) parties view the United States as the aggressor in the situation by hindering trade and humanitarian progress. While it is true that an advantage of unilateral behavior is the essence of time (the ability to act within a certain amount of time), a major disadvantage that occurs is whether the decision to act rationally was achieved. Similarly, the major disadvantage of multilateralism is the essence of time, yet an advantage of that is the ability to present a rational and worthwhile change. The situation with Bosnia –too little done too late– was an act of indecisiveness on the international communitys part. If the United States wants to act as a sheriff of the international community, it should also be consistent within its agenda.


The United States cannot hide in isolationism as it did before WWI. If it retreats back into such a state, it will only hinder its own self interests. As a country that promotes globalization efforts in the world economy, the United States would suffer dramatically if it tended toward isolationist behavior. If the United States wants to remain a superpower, it cannot give in to the obsolete whim of isolationism. The citizens of the United States need to take a more active hand internally, as many of them remain apathetic to international affairs unless such issues concern them directly. Change begins at home. If the American public does not get involved with its own politics (the last presidential voter turnout in 1996 was less than 44%), then the politicians will tout their own agendas abroad (take, for example, the illustrious Senator Jesse Helms) at the American publics expense. I am frightened that the presidential candidate from Texas, George W. Bush, might find himself in the executive seat of power when he hasnt an inkling of who the other heads of state are in some politically unstable countries.


The United States has also had a topsy-turvy view on the environment. While it claims the importance of preserving biodiversity and etching environmental concerns in the international community, the citizens of the United States consume more than a third of the worlds energy and fuel. Actions speak louder than words, and if the United States believes in environmental causes, maybe it should take a page from the famed Greenpeace slogan think globally, act locally. The U.S. governments actions remain inconsistent with the causes in which it claims to believe.


If the United States wants to remain the international communitys sheriff, maybe it should practice the art of empathy. It should not play sheriff unless it knows exactly what the job description calls for. Partiality and favors are always made –have always been made– by the United States. Perhaps the United States should redefine its goals and stick to them. It has already lost face with the international community through its reluctance to help in certain situations when it could have made a difference for the better. If the United States touts itself as sheriff, it should clearly define its goals and assert itself: that its own self-interests economically are far more important than those of humanitarian and environmental change. While this may be a dark view on American foreign policy, it is a pragmatic and realistic view.


Unfortunately, I am an idealist at heart concerning changes in the international arena. This paper is a reflection I had after reading The Reluctant Sheriff by Richard Haas and was written to spark some comment from others.


Sejal Patel has an all-encompassing fascination with international relations (since it was her major in college).  In her spare time she likes reading Henry Kissinger’s memoirs, gardening, and dreaming up idealistic solutions for a utopian future.