A new sheriff

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 2009, 12:00am

The US has considered itself the world's policeman for more than a century. Given its wealth and military strength, we have been generally happy to let it do the job. But a series of missteps that culminated in the 2003 war in Iraq and an inability to handle threats emanating from Asia show it is time for it to hand back its badge and gun. Existing security frameworks have been ineffective and need to be torn up and rethought so we can counter the challenges.

No country highlights the need for change better than North Korea. Dictator Kim Jong-il's secretive regime continually spits war-laden rhetoric at rivals Japan, South Korea and the US. Its 1 million-strong military and 4,000 tanks near the Korean border are a constant reminder that the diatribe has to be taken seriously. A decade and a half of nuclear non-proliferation negotiations have gone nowhere - deepening the dilemma of what to do.

The need for a solution was heightened on Monday by North Korea's underground testing of a nuclear device estimated to be as powerful as the bombs the US dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. Pyongyang last month fired a long-range ballistic missile in the guise of a satellite launch. Both incidents rightly sparked international condemnation and hand-wringing. There was good reason: it is only a matter of time before the technologies are combined to create a threat with reach far beyond northeast Asia.

US President Barack Obama's administration holds the key to lessening the threat; it can provide the diplomatic, economic and material incentives Mr Kim demands. But any dealings with North Korea require a carrots-and-sticks approach and that is not possible with so unreliable a partner. Nor would Americans take kindly to their government rewarding bad behaviour. This is, after all, a regime that is willing to let 10 per cent of its population starve to death to make a diplomatic point.

Pakistan causes similar head-scratching. The rise of Muslim extremism in a nation with a weak government and nuclear weapons provides a dangerous mix. Efforts to bring stability to neighbouring Afghanistan are being confounded by Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters being given safe haven in border communities.

Friendly governments or not, the US has a poor image in the Islamic world because of Iraq and support for Israel, so it can do little but arm Pakistan's military and hope it will succeed.

The UN Security Council was established to deal with such matters and others like them - Iran's nuclear proliferation, Somalia's pirates, and refugees fleeing Myanmar's brutal junta and Sudan's regime. Its resolutions are either weak or ignored, and its six-decade-old founding rules are outdated. Regional groupings like Nato and the African Union have limited remits and resources.

Washington's rise to global military prominence began with its victory in the 1898 Spanish-American war. The defeat of the Spanish fleet in just three months gave it control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Hawaii and Samoa. From these Caribbean and Pacific bases, it protected its growing interests - and kept watch on rivals. But, although it still has the world's dominant military, it no longer has the respect or authority to call itself a global protector.

China is much better placed. Mr Obama's administration admitted as much this week, suggesting Beijing could lean more heavily on North Korea to return to six-party talks and help train Pakistan's military to fight insurgents. Beijing, similarly, has considerable leverage over the governments of Iran, Myanmar and Sudan. For all this, though, we must not think of the nation's capabilities in terms of replacing the US; rather, they have to be used as part of a new global mechanism.

Whatever form that takes is for the UN to decide. It, after all, is the best placed of all organisations to come up with a better security structure. What is clear, though, is that what we have must be dismantled. What replaces it has to reflect power in the 21st century and have the teeth to back decisions with action.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post