The term "Four Policemen" refers to a post-war council consisting of the Big Four that U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed as a guarantor of world peace. The members of the Big Four, called the Four Powers during World War II, were the four major Allies of World War II: the United Kingdom, the United States, the Soviet Union and China. The United Nations envisioned by Roosevelt consisted of three branches: an executive branch comprising the Big Four, an enforcement branch composed of the same four great powers acting as the Four Policemen or Four Sheriffs, and an international assembly representing the member nations of the UN.
The Four Policemen would be responsible for keeping order within their spheres of influence: Britain in its empire and in Western Europe; the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and the central Eurasian landmass; China in East Asia and the Western Pacific; and the United States in the Western hemisphere. As a preventive measure against new wars, countries other than the Four Policemen were to be disarmed. Only the Four Policemen would be allowed to possess any weapons more powerful than a rifle.
As a compromise with internationalist critics, the Big Four nations became the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, with significantly less power than envisioned in the Four Policemen proposal. When the United Nations was officially established in later 1945, France was in due course added as the fifth member of the council at that time due to the insistence of Churchill.
During World War II, President Roosevelt initiated post-war plans for the creation of a new and more durable international organization that would replace the former League of Nations. Prior to the war, Roosevelt had initially been a supporter of the League of Nations, but he lost confidence in the League due to its ineffectiveness at preventing the outbreak of the Second World War. Roosevelt wanted to create an international organization that secured global peace through the unified efforts of the world's great powers, rather than through the Wilsonian notions of international consensus and collaboration that guided the League of Nations. By 1935, he told his foreign policy adviser Sumner Welles: "The League of Nations has become nothing more than a debating society, and a poor one at that!"[page range too broad]
Roosevelt criticized the League of Nations for representing the interests of too many nations. The President said to the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov that "he could not visualize another League of Nations with 100 different signatories; there were simply too many nations to satisfy, hence it was a failure and would be a failure". Roosevelt's proposal in 1941 was to create a new international body led by a "trusteeship" of great powers that would oversee smaller countries. In September 1941, he wrote:
In the present complete world confusion, it is not thought advisable at this time to reconstitute a League of Nations which, because of its size, makes for disagreement and inaction... There seem no reason why the principle of trusteeship in private affairs should be not be extended to the international field. Trusteeship is based on the principle of unselfish service. For a time at least there are many minor children among the peoples of the world who need trustees in their relations with other nations and people, just as there are many adult nations or peoples which must be led back into a spirit of good conduct.
The State Department had begun drafting a postwar successor to the League of Nations under the auspices of Roosevelt while the United States was still formally a neutral power. Roosevelt was reluctant to publicly announce his plans for creating a postwar international body. He was aware of the risk that the American people might reject his proposals, and he did not want to repeat Woodrow Wilson's struggle to convince the Senate to approve American membership in the League of Nations. When the Atlantic Charter was issued in August 1941, Roosevelt had ensured that the charter omitted mentioning any American commitment towards the establishment of a new international body after the war. The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 led to a change in Roosevelt's position. He transformed his trusteeship proposal into an organization centered around the Four Policemen: the United States, China, the Soviet Union, and Britain.
The idea that great powers should "police" the world had been discussed by President Roosevelt as early as August 1941, during his first meeting with Winston Churchill. Roosevelt made his first references to the Four Policemen proposal in early 1942. He presented his postwar plans to Molotov, who had arrived in Washington on May 29 to discuss the possibility of launching a second front in Europe. Roosevelt told Molotov that the Big Four must unite after the war to police the world and disarm aggressor states. When Molotov asked about the role of other countries, Roosevelt answered by opining that too many "policemen" could lead to infighting, but he was open to the idea of allowing other allied countries to participate. A memorandum of the conference summarizes their conversation:
The President told Molotov that he visualized the enforced disarmament of our enemies and, indeed, some of our friends after the war; that he thought that the United States, England, Russia and perhaps China should police the world and enforce disarmament by inspection. The President said that he visualized Germany, Italy, Japan, France, Czechoslovakia, Rumania and other nations would not be permitted to have military forces. He stated that other nations might join the first four mentioned after experience proved they could be trusted.
Roosevelt and Molotov continued their discussion of the Four Policemen in a second meeting on June 1. Molotov informed the President that Stalin was willing to support Roosevelt's plans for maintaining postwar peace through the Four Policemen and enforced disarmament. Roosevelt also raised the issue of postwar decolonization. He suggested that former colonies should undergo a period of transition under the governance of an international trusteeship prior to their independence.
China was brought in as a member of the Big Four and a future member of the Four Policemen. Roosevelt was in favor of recognizing China as a great power because he was certain that the Chinese would side with the Americans against the Soviets. He said to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, "In any serious conflict of policy with Russia, [China] would undoubtedly line up on our side." The President believed that a pro-American China would be useful for the United States should the Americans, Soviets, and Chinese agree to jointly occupy Japan and Korea after the war. When Molotov voiced concerns about the stability of China, Roosevelt responded by saying that the combined "population of our nations and friends was well over a billion people."
Churchill objected to Roosevelt's inclusion of China as one of the Big Four because he feared that the Americans were trying to undermine Britain's colonial holdings in Asia. In October 1942, Churchill told Eden that Republican China represented a "faggot vote on the side of the United States in any attempt to liquidate the British overseas empire." Eden shared this view with Churchill and expressed skepticism that China, which was then in the midst of a civil war, could ever return to a stable nation. Roosevelt responded to Churchill's criticism by telling Eden that "China might become a very useful power in the Far East to help police Japan" and that he was fully supportive of offering more aid to China.
Roosevelt's Four Policemen proposal received criticism from the liberal internationalist who wanted power to be more evenly distributed among the member nations of the UN. Internationalists were concerned that the Four Policemen could lead to a new Quadruple Alliance.
On New Year's Day 1942, the representatives of Allied "Big Four", the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China, signed a short document which later came to be known as the Declaration by United Nations and the next day the representatives of twenty-two other nations added their signatures. A new plan for the United Nations was drafted by the State Department in April 1944. It kept the emphasis on great power solidarity that was central to Roosevelt's Four Policemen proposal for the United Nations. The members of the Big Four would serve as permanent members of the United Nation's Security Council. Each of the four permanent members would be given a United Nations Security Council veto power, which would override any UN resolution that went against the interests of one of the Big Four. However, the State Department had compromised with the liberal internationalists. Membership eligibility was widened to include all nation states fighting against the Axis powers instead of a select few. The Dumbarton Oaks Conference convened in August 1944 to discuss plans for the postwar United Nations with delegations from the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China. The Big Four were the only four sponsoring countries of the San Francisco Conference of 1945 and their heads of the delegations took turns as chairman of the plenary meetings. During this conference, the Big Four and their allies signed the Charter of the United Nations.
In the words of a former Undersecretary General of the UN, Sir Brian Urquhart:
It was a pragmatic system based on the primacy of the strong — a "trusteeship of the powerful," as he then called it, or, as he put it later, "the Four Policemen." The concept was, as [Senator Arthur H.] Vandenberg noted in his diary in April 1944, "anything but a wild-eyed internationalist dream of a world state.... It is based virtually on a four-power alliance." Eventually this proved to be both the potential strength and the actual weakness of the future UN, an organization theoretically based on a concert of great powers whose own mutual hostility, as it turned out, was itself the greatest potential threat to world peace.