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Multilateral Constraints on the Use of Force: A Reassessment

Multilateral Constraints on the Use of Force: A Reassessment - Cover

Authored by Dr. Seyom Brown.

March 2006

51 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The difficulty of achieving a multilateral consensus in the NATO Alliance can create more of a crisis than does the difficulty of generating an effective UN response to threats to international peace and security. NATO was supposed to be America's prime multilateral institution for obtaining legitimation and support of military action when the UN Security Council was paralyzed because of the veto. But as it has turned out Washington's ability to obtain a Brussels imprimatur for U.S.-led multilateral military operations has become almost as hard as (and in some cases even harder than) obtaining UN endorsement. And whereas proposals to change the UN Security Council's voting rules have become a matter for open discourse among statespersons, such discourse with respect to the North Atlantic Council is shied away from as subversive of the ethos of the Alliance.


The Need for Reassessment.

The constraints on the use of force that the United States must accept when it participates in military operations under the aegis of an increasingly heterogeneous NATO call for a reassessment of the role that NATO plays in U.S. national security policy. This reassessment addresses the issue of whether the constraints on the U.S. use of force embodied in NATO’s mode of operation are worth the benefits derived from them.

The Variety of Multilateral Options.

The multilateral modalities that have evolved in NATO are only a subset of the wide range of multilateral arrangements that could be suitable for the transatlantic community. An examination of these indicates that there may be alternatives to the current design of NATO that could retain the benefits of transatlantic multilateralism, while minimizing the constraints on U.S. military flexibility and effectiveness.

The Benefits and Costs of Multilateralism.

This reevaluation of NATO’s evolved structure and functioning is embedded in an appreciation of the standard benefits and costs of multilateral security commitments. The benefits include international and domestic legitimacy for U.S. military actions; influence over the actions of other countries and political movements; wartime and postwar burdensharing; easier access to the battlefield; and access to more intelligence. The costs include giving others, who may not share U.S. priorities or strategic calculations, a share in political authority and/or command over U.S. military operations; delays in undertaking actions that may be time-urgent; loss of secrecy; the politicizing of intrawar strategies and the distortion of war aims; and the complication of postwar reconstruction and stabilization tasks.

How the Changing International System Affects the Feasibility and Desirability of Working Through NATO.

If the international system were truly as “unipolar” as some analysts contend, members of NATO, as during the Cold War, would look to the United States as an essential provider of the world public goods of international peace and security. They therefore would be ready to cooperate in, or at least countenance, any military operation Washington decided was important (the “bandwagoning” effect), and would be unlikely to try to put barriers in its way. But such unipolarity is proving to be an illusion. Nor does the classical concept of “multipolarity”—in which other great powers coalesce to “balance” the power of the system’s hegemon—adequately comprehend what is going on.

Rather, the widespread balking at U.S. claims to automatic leadership of the transatlantic community is symptomatic of the emergence of global polyarchy—a system of increasingly diverse alignment and adversary relationships in which, typically, a country’s partner in one field may be its rival in another field, today’s friend may be tomorrow’s enemy, and vice versa. The opposition of France and Germany to Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and Turkey’s refusal to allow U.S. invading troops to transit its territory were consistent with the emergent polyarchy, as are the persisting efforts of European Union (EU) members of NATO to institute arrangements (e.g., the “Berlin Plus” agreements) facilitating “autonomous” military action by the Europeans in which they use some of NATO’s assets. Given this systemic reality, the United States will find it progressively less feasible and desirable to conduct major security operations under the aegis of NATO as it is currently structured and normally functions.

The Impact of Military Transformation.

Much of what is included under the rubric of “transformation”—or, more ambitiously, the revolution in military affairs (RMA)—points toward a military posture that is increasingly allianceinsensitive. The contemplated transformation of U.S. capabilities and strategy is in the direction of less dependence on forward long term stationing of forces abroad and more on being able to get into zones of combat quickly, whether or not allies are around to support the required military operations. Coupled with the “Global Posture Review” announcements of planned realignment and redeployment of U.S. forces based overseas and the search for “a diverse array of smaller cooperative security locations for contingency access,” transformation looks more and more (from both sides of the Atlantic) like preparation for a world in which the United States will be able to apply its military power with very few allies or even without allies when necessary.

The technologies that allow for greater interoperability among the military forces of allies are also conducive to modular separability arrangements (as contemplated in “Berlin Plus”), such that members of a coalition physically can opt out of a NATO operation or conduct their own operation without compromising the whole NATO apparatus.

Toward a Modular Multilateralism.

The systemic political developments and the innovations in military technology that are challenging the viability of NATO can be regarded either as a threat to transatlantic security or as an opportunity to adapt NATO to the changing benefits and costs of multilateralism in the polyarchic world. To retain the benefits of multilateralism while reducing the costs to U.S. military flexibility and effectiveness, the United States should:

• Recognize—in both declaratory policy and actions—that NATO has evolved into a coalition of coalitions and a much looser association of member states than originally assumed in the Washington Treaty.
• Legitimize and elaborate modular structures, decision processes, and operational routines.
• Promote the use of the North Atlantic Council as a consultative institution and discourage its role as director of NATO military actions.
• Prevent Council decisions that “pass the buck” to the SACEUR or subordinate NATO agencies in the form of vague mandates for conducting military operations.
• Endorse devolutions of authority and considerable operational autonomy on a case-by-case basis to modular subcoalitions that have the capability and the will to respond to particular threats to peace and security.
• Insist (and ensure through advance planning) that when the United States participates in a multilateral NATO action, the actual conduct of operations is by those modular units that can operate with sufficient unity of command and control—minus debilitating national caveats—to efficiently achieve U.S. military and political objectives.

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