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November 2005

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UNCLE SAM: A SHERIFF, NOT AN EMPEROR!

The Sheriff: America's Defense of the New World Order. By Colin S. Gray. (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Pp. 195. $29.95 cloth.)

Review by Francis P. Sempa

“While the United States' far-flung interests and responsibilities imply an imperial role, Colin Gray, the prolific strategic analyst, is more accurate when he compares America's role in the world to that of a 'sheriff.'”

The daily news stories and commentaries about the war in Iraq and the larger global war against Islamic terrorists usually suffer from a lack of historical and geopolitical perspective. Consequently, this means that probably most Americans who rely on daily newspapers, television news, talk radio, or Internet news sources for information about current U.S. foreign policy will be prone to frequent shifts in opinion regarding the wisdom of that policy. In the past, the missing historical and geopolitical perspectives on foreign policy were sometimes supplied in lengthy articles such as George Kennan's The Sources of Soviet Conduct (1947) and Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations (1993), as well as seminal works like Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Problem of Asia (1901) and Hans Morganthau's Politics Among Nations (1948). America's assumption of leadership in the global war against international terrorists and the states that support them has led some commentators to refer to the United States as the “American Empire.” The British historian Niall Ferguson, among others, advises Americans to accept the imperial burden, while the American political commentator Patrick Buchanan speaks for many when he invokes the sentiments of America's first president to urge a retreat from empire. While the United States' far-flung interests and responsibilities imply an imperial role, Colin Gray, the prolific strategic analyst, is more accurate when he compares America's role in the world to that of a “sheriff” in his latest book, The Sheriff: America's Defense of the New World Order.

Gray has been writing about foreign and defense policy since the mid-1970s when he almost single-handedly revived serious scholarly interest in classical geopolitics with his highly-influential, The Geopolitics of the Nuclear Era: Heartland, Rimland and the Technological Revolution, which introduced a new generation of students and scholars (including this writer) to the timeless works of Mackinder, Mahan, Spykman and other long-neglected geopolitical theorists. Perhaps Gray's most important work, The Sheriff was written during the controversial American occupation of Iraq, which the Bush administration views as a central front in the larger war against Islamic terrorism. While Gray's book discusses the war on terror and Iraq, its focus is on the much broader concept of America's role in the world of the twenty-first century.

Gray frames his argument that the United States should act as the world's sheriff in these terms:

  1. a world order is not self-enforcing, but requires an agent of discipline;
  2. the United States is the only potential enforcer of order in today's world;
  3. America advances its own strategic interests by selectively enforcing the world order;
  4. Washington was gradually assuming the role of world sheriff even before the attacks of September 11, 2001;
  5. U.S. global preponderance will not last indefinitely, but selecting and implementing the right policies can prolong that preponderance;
  6. the role of world sheriff will demand strategies and doctrines that are flexible and adaptable to a variety of international challenges;
  7. the world's sheriff needs to develop a grand strategy that will translate military effectiveness into political success;
  8. U.S. technological superiority is vital to its role as sheriff, but does not by itself guarantee military and political success; and
  9. history is the best guide to understanding what needs to be done—strategically—to succeed as global sheriff.

From the mid-1940s until the early 1990s, U.S. national security policy focused on the geopolitical imperative of preventing the Soviet Union from dominating the Eurasian landmass. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, writes Gray, “the country's national security policy was adrift without reliable navigation aids.” The Clinton administration, Gray persuasively argues, lacked an “organizing vision” or a “guiding light for high policy” during the 1990s. Instead, for nearly a decade Washington acted in accordance with the “feel-good, heavily multilateralist concepts of global engagement, enlargement…[and] humanitarian interventions.” This “strategic pause” of the 1990s, explains Gray, was “brutally terminated by Osama bin Laden and the terrorists of al Qaeda.” The 9/11 attacks, he asserts, required “serious people [to] develop and act on a serious organizing vision for the U.S. role in the world, and for the national security policy and strategy to implement it.”

The “serious people” of the Bush administration did precisely that when they released a document in September 2002 entitled The National Security Strategy. Most of the news reports and commentaries about that document focused on the brief portions that dealt with the need for preemptive action by the U.S. to forestall potential WMD attacks by terrorists or rogue states. But, as Gray correctly points out, the essence of the new strategy document had its genesis in a 1992 Defense Planning Guidance draft written by then Pentagon undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz, who later served as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's top deputy. The “organizing vision” of both documents is to maintain U.S. global preponderance by preventing the reemergence of a new great power rival and simultaneously preventing a hostile power from dominating regions of the world from which they could threaten U.S. interests.]

To be sure, Gray acknowledges the strategic wisdom of preemptive action in some circumstances. He writes:

To respond after the dread event would be too late. To eschew timely offensive action to disrupt, and hopefully destroy, the WMD threat before it could be launched would be to place a wholly unreasonable burden of perfect performance on active and passive defenses alone. Historical experience, along with the rules of good military practice…argue strongly against conceding the initiative entirely to enemies whose strategic culture has not been molded in graduate seminars at Harvard or Columbia.

But he also recognizes that terrorism and rogue state WMD threats are just some of the problems that the global sheriff will have to deal with during the twenty-first century. “[T]he role of guardian of world order,” Gray explains, “carries the duty to oppose and thwart potent threats of disorder from any source, be they state-centric or transnational.”

Few Americans want the United States to be the world's policeman. Gray's global sheriff, however, would not be required to police the world, but rather bring its preponderant force to bear only in the event of a global crisis. The author observes that the United States performed that role throughout much of the twentieth century by twice intervening in world wars to help thwart bids for global hegemony by Germany, and by anchoring and leading a great coalition to defeat the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Today—for the time being—the nature of the threat to the world order has changed. There is no great power that currently threatens to upset the global balance of power. Terrorists and rogue states that have or are attempting to acquire WMD, however, pose a clear and present danger to the world order. Recent events in Iraq and the war against al Qaeda show all too clearly that—in Gray's words—if world order is to be enforced, “there is simply no alternative to America as sheriff.


Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Publishers 2002). He wrote introductions to Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Problem of Asia: Its Effect Upon International Politics (Transaction Publishers 2003) and The Interest of America in International Conditions (Transaction Publishers 2003), and contributed to the 1990 volume, The Conduct of American Foreign Policy Debated. He has written on foreign policy and historical topics for Strategic Review, American Diplomacy, The National Interest, Human Rights Review, National Review, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and The Washington Times. He is an Assistant United States Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.

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