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Crisis Cops: Who Runs the World’s Situation Room?

The US, despite its public retreat from playing the “world’s police force” is still left with much of the globe’s nastiest cleanups.

Ranging from analysts like the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the Australian PM Tony Abbot, recent incidents involving uncertain national authority have caused journalists and victim’s families to ask: who’s really in charge of international crises? Hint: it isn’t the UN.

The problem of which international body or state has the experience, budget and military to step in during times of international crisis and assist in UN criminal investigations is one that has not been solved by the brightest minds in foreign policy. The issue is three-fold;

1.   The UN Security Council has limited authority since membership and even rule compliance is voluntary.

The UN Security Council may issue demands or even authorize the use of force by members to enforce a ruling, but nations remain sovereign. That means that a nation may refuse entrance to UN inspectors to a designated site or resist compliance to a particular ruling, albeit knowing that consequences would follow. This gives a great amount of liberty to more powerful nations with veto power like the US and Russia, which may, in some cases simply shrug off UN judgments or veto those unfavorable to their interests.

2.   The US has publicly retreated from its former standing as “the world’s policeman”

America’s history as the lead military force in interventions in Germany, South Korea and across the globe earned it the “world’s policeman” title, but recently President Obama introduced a decidedly different model. Obama’s recently outlined strategy has emphasized the support and training of indigenous military forces to settle their own conflicts and stated that the nation would no longer involve itself in open-ended wars. Still the world’s most well-financed, interventionist military, no other army is of sufficient heft to replace the US as a global de facto policing force- excluding the limited regional capabilities of Russia or China.

3. Foreign Policy: A Level Playing Field Put to the Test

The top down pivot of American military policy towards a mentoring model for partner nation militaries has helped contribute to almost multilateral hand-wringing by European political leaders on crisis intervention. The UN consensus, for example, on the Malaysian Air MH17 tragedy was that a large-scale criminal investigation was imperative. However when those accused of complicity in conflicts sit on the Security Council charged with enforcing international law regarding those conflicts, any attempt to investigate possible crimes or enforce sanctions can resemble a surrealist comedy in complexity.

What it All Means

Currently the UN and its individual member states are working together not only to investigate the recent MH17 crash but to reexamine the way crises are managed on the ground and how criminal inquiries are directed.

1. Powerful Nations Don’t Always Follow Their Own Rules

The question of what coalition would be powerful enough to prevent a return to the age of the Superpowers- when American and Russian actions globally were virtually unchecked and smaller nations were a bloody tangle of violent regional power-plays and outbreaks of terrorism- is still an open one. The matter is complicated by American resistance to certain elements of UN and International Criminal Court authority- ranging from a refusal to sign the Rome “war crimes” treaty  to unilateral action on Iraq. Recent occurrences in the Ukraine underscore the UN’s difficulty in handling Security Council members when it comes to purported violations.

 2. The US, Russia and China Maintain a Difficult Hegemony

As the former singular mitigating force between China, a resurgent Russia and the quagmire of the Middle East, America’s role as an on-call “crisis cop” is, at its heart, one played by its own rules. Even though the US has at least in theory removed itself from its policing role, it is, in the view of some, an unpredictable ally but a frequently necessary enforcer.

3. The US is Still the Crisis Cop

Despite public promises, the US remains the world’s only active world power in terms of military intervention and large scale crisis management. Boasting $84 billion for overseas military intervention, America is the lone dragon in a global game of thrones.  Stated Tony Blair:

“If you look at any of the crises that are happening, whether it’s in Syria on the doorstep of Europe, Libya on the doorstep of Europe, Ukraine on the doorstep of Europe, we are completely dependent on the United States.

Even if America does not intervene militarily, the threat of a long, mercilessly cash-soaked, open-ended war has often been enough to tame bad actors. Excluding, of course, America’s “wild card” fellow members of the UN Security Council- Russia and China- whom are bound together in an ongoing, if tremulous balance of power.

 Although the UN has a stated mission of coordinating international crisis management and investigation, much of its ability to evidence punitive authority beyond sanctions depends on the implied threat of US force. Although no longer proudly pointing to the proverbial “big stick” behind the kinder, gentler tone of its diplomacy, the US has yet to lose its seat at the head of the table.

Carla Rover