09/12/2013 04:04 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

Good Cop, Bad Cop and the Syria Crisis

Since the Syria crisis began, there has been lots of talk from both sides of the political spectrum about how America should not be the "world's policeman." That naturally raises the issue who will be the world's policeman in the future, or whether the world even needs a cop on the beat.

Beginning with Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations and later the United Nations, the idea was that an international organization would take on the role of global policeman. The vision was that somehow an international body might supersede more narrow nationalistic interests and act for the common good of humanity. That hasn't worked out very well, and the UN has been dismissed and derided by most of the global community, including many in the United States.

Perhaps one of the other major powers wants to volunteer for the part. Vladimir Putin's recent op-ed piece in The New York Times suggests that Russia may be vying for that role, or at least to be a more active part of the police force. While China hasn't yet stepped forward to take on the assignment, they may soon have to become a cop, if only to protect their global economic interests. And there may be other nations waiting in the wings.

So who will be the world's policeman? And does the world really need a cop on the beat? Many would argue that we don't need a global cop, that regional conflicts are inevitable and the best policy is to stand back and let the regional players settle disputes on their own. Of course, that does set the stage for all kinds of horrible human rights abuses, including genocide, use of terrible weapons and other horrors.

There is at least a valid argument that these things will happen anyway, and there is very little a world policeman can do about it. The problem with that argument, however, is that regional conflicts very rarely are self-contained, especially in the globalized world we now inhabit. In the case of Syria, for example, the civil war clearly impacts the entire region, and threatens to have even broader consequences for the world as a whole.

Another alternative is to have the major powers - ostensibly the United States, China, Russia and the European Union - share the role of world cop. But how well would that work out? We see from the Syrian crisis that the major powers regard the crisis more as an opportunity to jockey for power and influence than a chance to solve a humanitarian tragedy. And the national interests and public sentiment of each of the major powers -including the United States - holds more sway than broader humanitarian concerns.

Up until the end of the Cold War, America didn't have to fret that much about playing the role of world's policeman. It simply did whatever it could to block the influence of the Soviet Union, and to a lesser degree, China. But after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the boom in Chinese economy, America's strategy got muddled. The terrorist attacks of September 11th and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the culmination of that muddled strategy.

So where does that leave the United States today? Do we give up our role as the beat cop? After all, it has been a tough, expensive job with very few good outcomes. What's more, the world pretty much resents us for playing that role. So why not quit trying to save the world on focus on our own problems at home, of which there are many?

There are a couple of good reasons not to beat a hasty retreat. First, as bad as America has been in its role as world cop, there are some much worse alternatives. There is no way that having Russia or China play a leading role as global policeman would be any better. Take a look at the human rights records of both these major powers, and you can well imagine what a world policed by them would look like.

Second, and equally important, is the fact that the well-being of our own country depends on America taking a leading role in the world. In a highly competitive global economy, the United States can no longer depend on its position as an economic powerhouse to maintain our way of life. Russia, with its vast energy resources, and China, with its booming economy and huge labor pool, are serious rivals to America's economic power, not to mention the emerging nations like Brazil and India.

General Carter Ham, retired head of the US Africa Command, recently remarked on the "strong connection" between military security and strong economic policy. Ham's comments were aimed at getting our economic house in order, but the inverse is also true. A strong American economy - and by extension a vital global economy - depends on a stable and safe world where markets can operate freely and peacefully. America, with its history of openness and respect for individual freedom and opportunity, must continue to play a major role in protecting those values of freedom and openness. Whether or not we decide to be the world's cop, we still want to be part of the police force.