A traffic cop stopped a middle-aged man on a highway for speeding one afternoon. As the officer approached his vehicle, the man recognized him. The two men happened to live in the same neighborhood in a nearby small town. A few weeks earlier, the driver had seen the officer being ticketed by another traffic cop for driving above the speed limit in their residential area. At the time of that incident, the officer was off duty and was wearing civilian clothes.
Feeling aggrieved after being issued a ticket, the man protested that the officer lacked the moral authority to penalize him, given his own disregard for speed limits. The officer responded by simply pointing to his badge. His message to the man was essentially that he was acting not on the basis of moral authority, but rather on the power conferred by the badge.
The moral of this story is that the policemen, judges, and others who are empowered to interpret and enforce rules in society are not necessarily any more ethical than the rest of us. We recognize their authority chiefly because they have been entrusted somehow with the important duty of maintaining public order.
Ever since the signing of The Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, the numerous attempts to find a durable mechanism to maintain world order have largely failed. The most recent effort was the establishment of the United Nations in 1945. Judging by the current global chaos, the UN has mostly been a failure also. It needs serious reform to make it more effective at dealing with global crises.
Some historians have argued that America’s refusal to join the League of Nations was one of the factors that ultimately led to the organization’s demise. The League had failed spectacularly in its main mission—preventing another world war. As Nazi forces were rampaging across Europe during World War II, it took America’s eventual involvement to help rescue Europe and the rest of the world from the evil forces of fascism. After the war, America committed significant resources, through the Marshall Plan, to help rebuild Europe. It then led the global effort to put in place the institutional architectures that have underpinned the existing world order.
America was uniquely positioned to play this critical role because it had the requisite might—both economic and military. In the decades since the end of World War II, America has maintained its status as the one country with the capacity to help stabilize the global ship whenever it sails through turbulent waters.
Today, some people argue that China is economically and militarily strong enough to rival America on the world stage. These people want China to lead an effort to remake the global order. There are three weaknesses in this argument. First, while China’s economic growth over the last several decades is quite impressive, its capabilities are still nowhere near America’s. According to data by Trading Economics, current U.S. GDP is estimated at $23.3 trillion, while that of China is $17.7 trillion. Although the aggregate GDP numbers appear close, the per capita figures are far more important indicators of national wealth. The same data show that adjusted for purchasing power parity, U.S. GDP per capita is currently $63,670, while China’s is $17,603. With a lot more mouths to feed, China does not have anywhere close to the discretionary spending power that the U.S. has.
Second, America earned its place at the head of the global table through those crucial contributions it made during World War II and in the decades since. If any nation wants a similar seat, it must demonstrate that it has both the capacity and the willingness to play the type of constructive role that America has played on the global stage for several decades. Mere possession of wealth and military power is not enough.
Third, and perhaps most important, life is not all about money. America’s status as the beacon of hope for persecuted people around the world is unrivaled. People flee from—not run to—China to escape political, religious, and various forms of persecution. The other superpower wannabe, Russia, recently lost tens of thousands of its best and brightest young people who packed up hurriedly and fled to other countries in desperate attempts to escape from tyranny at home. Societies must provide sanctuaries to which people trying to escape abusive relationships and other forms of violence can run to. America provides that refuge within the global village.
The people around the globe who like to complain about America’s tendency to act as the world’s policeman should not just grumble. They must suggest viable alternatives, because we have to deal with the world as it is today. Driving on a highway alongside a maniac who zigzags through heavy traffic at 100 miles per hour can be a frightening experience. The sight of a police vehicle is often the only thing that can suddenly turn even the most erratic driver into a careful, law-abiding citizen. On the world stage, America has performed such patrol duties admirably for decades. It should continue to do so.
As was the case with the officer who ticketed his neighbor for speeding, America has character flaws. It must certainly show some humility in its dealings with the rest of the world. But it should also constantly remind itself that it has earned the right to wear a badge, which it should confidently display on its unform. And, it should not be shy about pointing to it when the occasion demands.