U.S. troops abroad lower allies’ will to fight for their own country

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (2-L), Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (C), US President Donald Trump (2-R) look on as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a working dinner meeting at the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) headquarters in Brussels on May 25, 2017 during a NATO summit. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Matt Dunham (Photo credit should read MATT DUNHAM/AFP/Getty Images)U.S. President Donald Trump has consistently criticized allies for their lack of contributions to common security and defense efforts. A new article in Contemporary Security Policy shows he is partially right: The presence of U.S. military personnel abroad, while bolstering U.S global influence, also lowers the willingness of the host states’ citizens to fight for their own country.

U.S. President Donald Trump is clear in his demand that allies must contribute far more to common defense efforts. Even before becoming president, he claimed that allies “are not paying their fair share” and that they “must contribute toward their financial, political, and human costs … of our tremendous security burden”; and that if they do not, “the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”

In short, the message is that defense burdens are unequally shared, and that allies unfairly free-ride on The United States’s military might. The United States’s military might, for its part, is unprecedented and unrivaled. The U.S. military budget exceeds 600 billion dollars, accounting for over one-third of world total military spending. The U.S. also has a vast, globally-spanning network of military bases, which no other country comes close to equaling.

These overseas military facilities have many noteworthy effects. One is that they significantly augment U.S. influence abroad and contribute to upholding U.S. hegemony – or Pax Americana. Another is that forward-deployed U.S. troops provide a “tripwire” that credibly conveys to any enemy of the ally that an attack on the latter will most likely draw in the United States. The tripwire function served by U.S. soldiers was brilliantly described by Thomas Schelling at the height of the Cold War; the same rationale still underlies much of U.S. base policies, including in states such as Japan, South Korea, and recently Poland as well. When U.S. troops are placed “in harm’s way,” deterrence is markedly strengthened. But so, too, is the ally’s knowledge that their patron cannot realistically abandon them. The ally’s scope for free-riding is therefore inevitably linked to the tripwire mechanism.

For U.S. allies, then, butter can to an extent be substituted for guns. This lies at the core of President Trump’s admonitions about allies’ purported free-riding: Their military spending usually make up only a meager share of total national income. On the other hand, it is quite common for allies of the United States to reciprocate by contributing in other ways; they often make other important policy concessions – such as providing access or basing rights, making financial contributions to the alliance, or, more generally, aligning their foreign policies closer to the United States.

This also means that it is not a straightforward exercise to measure whether allies “free-ride” on the United States. Still, the problem is more salient when burden-sharing and free-riding are conceived of as material – that is, as highly tangible – concepts (such as defense spending as a share of GDP). These are eminently measurable factors that the United States can influence quite directly. Things differ, however, when we consider the attitudes, norms, and values of the allies’ populace, such as the willingness to fight for their own country. The U.S. can certainly not have any direct power over the sentiments of people, which are exclusively intangible factors. This implies that, if the deployment of U.S. troops causes a lowering of citizens’ willingness to fight for their own country, the latter cannot as easily be compensated by policy concessions in other areas. Free-riding might therefore be more prevalent in its non-material version.

In our empirical analysis, which covers the period 1989–2014, we rely on global survey data that draw on the responses of over 200,000 people in about 100 countries. Our results show that citizens’ willingness to fight for their own country drops markedly if U.S. troops are stationed on their soil. Even when we control for a number of other relevant factors that can impact willingness to fight, U.S. overseas military bases remain a potent predictor. The forward-deployment of U.S. troops seems – as an unintended consequence – to contribute significantly to non-material free-riding by allies of the United States.

The results also indicate the existence of a tripwire- or free-riding threshold. One hundred U.S. troops, for example, are largely insufficient for purposes of creating a tripwire effect. A few hundred troops, however, may well be enough. And once U.S. troops numbers pass 500, and in particular 1000, it seems that the host state’s citizens become firmer still in their belief that their state’s defense has been credibly outsourced to the United States. These numbers approximate the size of a battalion – that is to say, an independently-functioning military unit. A battalion-sized U.S. force is a fully-working tripwire. But a battalion-sized U.S. force thereby also signals that the United States is providing for the defense of its ally – which essentially means that less is required by the ally itself.

The empirical evidence of non-material free-riding means that President Trump (and the many who share his opinion) is not necessarily in the wrong when he claims that allies free-ride. However, it is also true that U.S. alliances and forward-deployed troops are not acts of charity. They are, in fact, key ingredients of a long-standing grand strategy that stresses the centrality of a global presence; vital U.S. security and economic goals are served by the network of bases. Both the United States and its allies gain much and lose a bit from such relationships. For that reason alone, we can surely expect that the debates and bargaining about defense burdens and free-riding will continue for a long time.

Jo Jakobsen is a professor in political science at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Department of Sociology and Political Science. Tor G. Jakobsen is a professor in political science at NTNU Business School. They are authors of “Tripwires and free-riders: Do forward-deployed U.S. troops reduce the willingness of host-country citizens to fight for their country?”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming.

Alliance Entrapment and the Foreign Policy of Donald Trump

lanoszkaIn a new article in Contemporary Security Policy, Alexander Lanoszka provides a new conceptual framework to study how allies can entrap the United States in their conflicts. He argues that the Trump administration is actually attuned to those entrapment risks.

When Donald J. Trump became U.S. President in January 2017, many observers feared that he would abandon U.S. deterrence and defense measures in Europe in favor of rapprochement with Russia. After all, during his campaign he strongly criticized fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as having suckered the United States into shouldering their defense burdens and even bearing the risk of their foreign policies. Yet almost one year into office the Trump administration has seen Montenegro join NATO, signaled strong support to Poland, contemplated selling lethal arms to Ukraine, and even approved of Georgia’s stance in its territorial disputes with Russia.

Foreign policy experts might be forgiven for thinking that Trump plays fast and loose with the so-called alliance dilemma. This alliance dilemma arises when a defender calibrates its security commitments to its ally. If the ally is confident that the defender will rescue it, then that ally might take undesirable risks. The defender thus worries of entrapment—that is, of being dragged into unwanted wars. However, if that ally doubts that it can truly rely on its defender in a future crisis, then it fears abandonment. Whereas Trump generated abandonment fears as presidential candidate, his actions as president might be seen as being blind to entrapment risks.

Are they really so blind, though? In a new Contemporary Security Policy article, I argue that international relations scholars have postulated different accounts of what shapes entrapment risks, often advancing theoretically incomplete arguments and contradictory policy prescriptions when taken together. Moreover, scholars often have overlooked how an underlying conflict makes both alliance formation and war more likely, making it empirically difficult to tease out an underlying entrapment risk from confounding factors. Leaders might even discount entrapment risks in pursuing their international strategies.

Four factors allegedly drive entrapment risks. One is institutional: by giving carte blanche to an ally, the defender emboldens that ally to adopt a risky foreign policy that raises the likelihood of water. Another is systemic: the number of major powers in the international system (i.e. system polarity) and whether attacking is easier than defending. If attack is easy and at least three great powers exist, then entrapment is likely because the defender will see the ally as necessary for maintaining a favorable balance of power. The third factor is reputation. An ally might believe that it will receive the support of a defender eager to preserve its commitments just for the sake of appearing reliable.

The final factor is transnational ideological. In the case of NATO, the alliance evolved from securing members against the Soviet threat to defending liberal democratic values. Accordingly, states that appeal to those values can maximize their likelihood in gaining support from that alliance, especially if they can also leverage elite networks.

Some critics argue that Georgia tailored its institutions to extract U.S. and NATO support in the years leading up to the August 2008 war with Russia. Indeed, those critics contend that Georgian leaders came to believe that alliance support was forthcoming even though their country failed in its application for the Membership Action Plan (MAP) earlier that same year. Their confidence made Georgian leaders more aggressive towards Russia than what was rationally justifiable, thereby creating the danger for that local conflict to spiral out of control.

These four accounts are compelling, but they do not square with other observations about international politics and even imply contradictory policy prescriptions. States can use institutional mechanisms—such as treaty precision and conditionality—to attenuate entrapment risks. Yet systemic drivers leave states powerless to formulate policies that would minimize entrapment risks. Moreover, defenders also wish to have reputations for not being reckless with their alliance commitments.

Arguments emphasizing transnational ideological networks need to explain why a pro-ally lobby should succeed in influencing the foreign policy of a defender over other competing interests. Indeed, in the Georgian case, such arguments need to explain why Georgia succeeded in eliciting support from the United States, Poland, and the Baltic countries but not from Western European allies. They also need to explain why Georgia still felt emboldened to behave aggressively towards Russia despite its rejected MAP application. Perhaps Georgian leaders like then President Mikheil Saakashvili were prone to misperceptions, hot-headedness, and other decision-making biases that would have raised the likelihood of war even in the absence of NATO.

What do these observations mean for comprehending Trump’s policy towards Europe and Russia? One take-away is that the Trump administration is not only attuned to entrapment risks, but even accepts them so as to place further pressure on Russia. By having allies become stronger vis-à-vis Russia, the Trump administration may believe that it is enhancing deterrence.

Indeed, many of the accounts of entrapment described above overlook a basic analytical issue—that is, conflict drives both alliance formation and the war. More conflict means a great acceptance of alliance entanglements and higher likelihood of war breaking out. The Trump administration may not want war with Russia, but it nevertheless believes that peace is best achieved through strength.

Alexander Lanoszka is lecturer in the Department of International Politics at City, University of London. His new Contemporary Security Policy article may be accessed here. For more on his research, please visit his website at www.alexlanoszka.com. You may also follow him on Twitter.

Explaining US Foreign Policy Towards Russian Interventions


Variation in US responses towards Russian military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine can be understood through the lens of constructivism by highlighting the power and communality of norms.

By Florian Böller and Sebastian Werle. They are the authors of “Fencing the bear? Explaining US foreign policy towards Russian interventions”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming. The full article is available here.

The occupation of the Crimean peninsula in February 2014 led to a major disruption of the relations between Russia and the West. The crisis also seemed to prove a pattern of Moscow’s renewed geopolitical aspirations that started already with the Georgia intervention in 2008. Scholars and pundits have tried to set Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Georgia in perspective to its international position (neorealism), have discussed domestic motives for Putin’s power politics (liberal theory), or heralded the dawn of an ethnocentric foreign policy doctrine (constructivism).[1]

However, there is a remarkable lack of attention to the fact that the West’s response to Russia’s manoeuvres is all but coherent. Most notably, the West’s lead nation, the US, has chosen very different policies to deal with Russian interventions. When Russia intervened in Georgia in 2008, Washington, DC responded with diplomatic means. In 2014, the US opted instead for sanctions and hard deterrence. In our article, we try to explain this varying US foreign policy response towards Russian interventions.

There is a remarkable lack of attention to the fact that the West’s response to Russia’s manoeuvres is all but coherent.

US foreign policy towards Russia can neither be fully explained by neorealism nor by liberal approaches, the two dominant IR paradigms. From a neorealist perspective, the variance in US behavior would be explainable, if the relative gains for Russia were more substantial in the case of Ukraine 2014 than in Georgia 2008. However, rather than enlarging its power grip over new territory, in both cases Russia merely secured its influence over regions that had already been within Moscow’s reach. Thus, while neorealism can adequately explain the weak US response in the case of Georgia, it runs into difficulties to account for the comparatively strong measures in the case of Ukraine.

Similarly, liberal theory cannot fully account for the variation in US foreign policy. Considering the financial costs of imposing sanctions against Russia, neither in 2008 nor in 2014 the magnitude of US-Russian economic relations was significant enough to produce policy externalities for important domestic groups. From a liberal perspective, it is also puzzling that the hawkish Bush administration responded with softer measures than the Obama administration, which is often described as reluctant, favoring a doctrine of foreign policy restraint.

In contrast to the neorealist and liberal perspectives, the qualitative comparison shows that US reactions to Russia’s assertiveness can be best understood through the lens of constructivism.

CSP_Blog_16_10_Boeller_photoIn the case of Georgia, President Bush primarily sought to construct the Georgian crisis as a threat to the value of democracy. Bush’s narrative portrayed the situation as a conflict between the democracy of Georgia and Russia’s autocratic and aggressive regime. President Obama on the other hand stressed general principles of international law throughout the conflict over Ukraine. The president condemned Russia’s occupation of Crimea as a ‘clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity’. In his remarks to justify the imposition of sanctions on 6 March 2014, Obama argued, that the countermeasures were intended ‘to oppose actions that violate international law’.

Comparing the normative power of both assessments, it is clear that the attempt to frame Russia’s action in the Ukraine as a violation of the principle of territorial integrity (and thus Article 2.4 of the UN Charter) trumps the norm of democratic government. While the expansion of democracy played a central role in the neoconservative agenda of the Bush administration, it cannot draw on a similar level of legitimacy in international law compared to the prohibition of the use of force. Even domestically, democracy promotion does not rank among the core international goals of the US according to public opinion polls.

Furthermore, in the case of the Ukrainian crisis, the US could count on international support both from its allies in Europe and international organizations. A similar consensus was not obtainable in the case of the Georgian crisis. Some European allies of the US, most notably Germany and Italy, hinted at Georgia’s own responsibility for the outbreak of the crisis, thus disputing the Bush administration’s assessment.

The expansion of democracy cannot draw on a similar level of legitimacy in international law compared to the prohibition of the use of force.

Overall, both the national and international power of the conflicts’ central norms (international law vs. democracy) as well as the communality of the normative assessments (near unanimous Western response vs. contestation over the conflict) help explaining the puzzle of why the US took harsher measures in response to the Ukraine crisis in comparison to the Georgia conflict.

What implications entails this conclusion for the debate on US foreign policy? It seems that rather than acting erratic and following an incoherent ‘double standard’ regarding the promotion of a value-based world order, US decision-makers take domestic and international norms into account, although the US still possesses sufficient material resources to react unilaterally to threats to its interests.

Recent foreign policy decisions under the Obama administration show a similar pattern. In cases such as the air campaigns against Libya in 2011 and “ISIS” since 2014, or regarding the non-proliferation policy towards Iran, the US also attempted to act in a multilateral setting, which generates considerable domestic and international legitimacy. It remains to be seen whether this foreign policy approach will suffice to contain Russia’s geopolitical aspirations. Yet, this multilateral and norm based strategy currently seems to be the only policy option, which summons enough societal acceptance.

Florian Böller is an Assistant Professor for International Relations at the Department of Political Science, University of Kaiserslautern, Germany. Sebastian Werle is a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science, University of Kaiserslautern, Germany. They are the authors of “Fencing the bear? Explaining US foreign policy towards Russian interventions”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming. It is available here.

[1] See for an overview of the debate: Elias Götz, “Putin, the State, and War: The Causes of Russia’s Near Abroad Assertion Revisited”, in: International Studies Review (2016), online first DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/isr/viw009.

The Failure of Institutional Binding in NATO-Russia Relations

krickovicNATO and Russia have failed to develop institutionalized relations that would bind each side to predictable patterns of behavior. As a result, Europe is now locked in a dangerous spiral of security competition. In order to avoid conflict in the future both sides need to find new ways to make institutional binding work.

The security situation in Europe has dramatically deteriorated since Russia’s seizure of Crimea in March 2014. Russia and the West now find themselves locked in a dangerous spiral of security competition. In June 2016, NATO held its largest military maneuvers in Europe since the end of the Cold War, deploying over 30 thousand troops in a simulated defence against a Russian invasion. The looming “Russian threat” will be the main theme of the upcoming NATO summit in July.

The Alliance is expected to formally announce the rotational deployment of four multinational brigades to the Baltic republics and Poland – a move that the Russian side sees as a violation of earlier promises by NATO that the Alliance would not base its forces in these countries. Russia is responding by ramping up military exercises and deployments on NATO’s borders. Close encounters between NATO and Russian units are happening with increased frequency, presenting the danger of unplanned incidents that could spark a larger armed conflict between the two sides.

NATO and Russia have been unable to develop institutionalized relations that would integrate Russia into the larger European security architecture and prevent security competition from emerging. Liberal International Relations scholars argue that states can protect their security without threatening other states by forming binding institutional relationships. These relationships commit them to predictable patterns of behaviour, reducing the threat that they would normally pose to one another in an anarchical international environment. Institutional binding also helps solve the problem of relative gains, i.e. states’ concerns about how the gains from cooperation are distributed between them. Because they are secure about each other’s intentions, states locked into binding security arrangements are free to cooperate on security and other issues without having to worry about how the distribution of these gains affects the balance of power between them.

An examination of the two most contentious issues in their relationship – NATO enlargement and Missile Defence – demonstrates why binding failed to develop between Russia and NATO. Russia put forward proposals on both issues that would prevent NATO from taking actions that would threaten its security. Russia looked to develop an institutionalized voice within NATO that would force NATO to acknowledge its concerns about expansion. In order to guarantee that NATO’s missile defence system would not undermine its nuclear deterrent, Russia proposed the development of a joint NATO-Russia system and the adoption of a legally-binding international treaty that would forbid NATO countries form targeting Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

NATO refused to accept these proposals for fear that this would embolden Russian revisionism and compromise the integrity of the alliance. For its part, Russia was unwilling to accept restraints on its own behavior, such as greater transparency in its military and security affairs or ceding some control over security issues to joint Russia-NATO institutions, which would have addressed NATO’s concerns about Russia’s intentions.

Ultimately, neither side was able to make the concessions needed to make binding work because they feared that this would empower the other side and thereby threaten their security. NATO moved forward with enlargement and missile defence, despite Russia’s objections. Russia looked to counter these policies, by pursuing a more bellicose foreign policy towards Georgia and Ukraine and by developing aggressive countermeasures against missile defence. These moves have exacerbated tensions to the point where some observers believe that we are now in a new Cold War.

The problem is not that binding institutions have failed Russia and NATO, but rather that they have never had the chance to work. Russia and NATO find themselves facing a “Catch-22”: they need binding arrangements to overcome the relative gains problems that inhibit security cooperation, yet, their initial concerns about relative gains prevent them from establishing these arrangements in the first place. The real challenge is thus to find ways to assuage these initial concerns about relative gains so that functional binding arrangements can be established.

Up until now, the two sides have tried to establish binding arrangements through one-off solutions. While these solutions promise to put an immediate end to security competition, they also require both parties to submit to comprehensive constraints on their freedom of action – something that is unacceptable to them because of their concerns about relative gains.

Less formal and institutionalized binding arrangements may better serve the interest of peace and security in Europe. Both sides could commit themselves to the creation of a buffer zone of neutral states between Russia and NATO countries that would include Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Such an agreement could be structured so that it not only guarantees these states’ neutrality but also obligates Russia and the West to take joint responsibility for their economic development. In this way, these states could be a bridge, rather than an object of contention, between Russia and the West.

On missile defence, NATO could agree to share sensitive data with the Russian side about the technical parameters of the missile defence system and allow Russian monitors to have access to its missile defence sites. Both sides could also agree to limits on the number of missile interceptors that each can deploy. In this way, Russia would be assured that the system is not directed against it without compromising the system’s effectiveness against missile threats from third parties.

Such piecemeal arrangements will not put an immediate end to security competition. But they will help Russia and NATO to gradually build a higher level of trust, which will allow them to develop more comprehensive binding arrangements in the future. Previous efforts at institutional binding failed because both sides did not appreciate the continued significance of relative gains and overestimated the ability of formal institutions to overcome the initial impediments to binding. In order to make binding work in the future, NATO and Russian leaders must acknowledge these hard realities and find ways to craft binding arrangements that address them.

Andrej Krickovic is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, Higher School of Economics, Moscow. He is the author of “When Ties Do Not Bind: The Failure of Institutional Binding in NATO Russia Relations”, Contemporary Security Policy 37(2), pp. 175-199. It is available here.

Conventional arms control is impotent as an instrument of peace

CSP_Blog_16_07_Fatton_PhotoArms control regimes fail when they are needed most. When international tensions run high, governments tend to listen to military advice. This undermines the prospect and stability of arms control.

In March 2015, amid tensions with the West over Ukraine, Russia pulled out of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), an agreement aiming at preventing conflict in central Europe with NATO members. Moscow’s decision is another example of a country disengaging from conventional arms control when relations with other member states deteriorate. This raises an important question: can conventional arms control survive periods of tension and preserve peace?

The answer is no. When international tensions are high, conventional arms control regimes cannot be established and break down if already set up. Their prospect and stability depend on an atmosphere of détente between countries. Therefore, these regimes fail when most needed and are impotent as instruments of peace.

To understand this impotence, we need to study the role of military institutions. In hostile environments, governments tend to rely more heavily on the military for advice. The complexity of military affairs makes this unavoidable, so military influence on foreign policy increases. Government leaders consequently absorb the biases inherent to the military, which include worst-case analyses and an exclusive focus on military assets to guarantee national security. These biases are incompatible with the exercise of arms control.

To illustrate how domestic politics affects arms control, it is useful to study Japan’s participation in the naval arms control framework (the Washington System) during the interbellum and Russia’s relationship with the CFE after the Cold War. Both regimes, established respectively in 1922 and 1990, were set up amid improving relations between member states and decreasing military influence within Japan and the Soviet Union. The 1919-1920 Paris Peace Conference was instrumental in the rapprochement between Tokyo and Washington. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 and the 1990 agreement on the reunification of Germany solved two disputes that had kept the Soviet Union and the West apart for decades.

On the other hand, the Washington System and the CFE broke down when government perception of the international environment deteriorated. The international tensions that emerged around the early 1930s Manchurian crisis and the 2004 NATO enlargement, and later the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, heightened military influence in the two countries. Japan withdrew from the arms control regime in 1936 and Russia in 2015 (Table 1).

Table 1. Findings of case studies on the Washington System and the CFE.

This does not mean that conventional arms control regimes, once established, cannot have positive effects. Arms control may help reduce further the level of insecurity among member states by improving perceptions of others’ intentions and the predictability of behaviour. This in turn weakens the influence of the military inside countries. When arms control mitigates the perceived insecurity, armed forces lose importance in the eyes of government leaders.

While the Japanese and Russian cases both illustrate the impotence of arms control in times of tension, there are also some differences. The decline of military influence following the establishment of the conventional arms control regime was deeper in Japan. This allowed Tokyo to disregard the position of the navy on arms control during the Geneva and London conferences of 1927 and 1930. Inversely, the Russian military successfully pushed for the partial revision of the CFE in 1999. This is because the perception the leadership had of the international environment was more debated in Russia. Contrary to the Japanese government during the 1920s, the Kremlin’s assertion that the West held benign intentions was strongly contested by some domestic actors during the 1990s. The military was not politically isolated and consequently maintained a certain influence.

This highlights, once more, the centrality of domestic politics in arms control dynamics. The perception of the international environment may be a major political issue, manipulated by domestic actors seeking to advance their interests. These actors’ opposition to government perception helps the military maintain influence on foreign policy.

Finally, it is necessary to say something about nuclear arms control regimes. While they seem more resistant to international tensions than conventional arrangements, decision-makers should nonetheless keep the above in mind regarding nuclear agreements, especially the 2015 Iran deal. The military possesses high influence in Iran and some prominent domestic actors continue to claim that the West holds hostile intentions. Therefore, it should not be assumed that this regime is shielded from military assaults. Western countries, the United States in particular, must give heed to the image they portray to the Iranians. Otherwise, the military institution could be put in a position to threaten the stability of the agreement.

Lionel P. Fatton is Research Associate at CERI-Sciences Po and Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. He is the author of “The impotence of conventional arms control: why do international regimes fail when they are most needed?”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming. It is available here.

Something Must Be Done, But What? On Humanitarian Interventions

CSP_Blog_16_04_AbeWhen confronted by shocking images of gross human rights violations, massacres and massive flows of refugees, many people may shout: ‘something must be done!’ Unfortunately, such tragic images are, on a daily basis, coming out of Syria and northern Iraq where the Islamic State reigns, and many other places all over the world. Moreover, thanks to the development of inexpensive communicative devices, such tragic images are spread worldwide at a historically unprecedented speed.

However, cries for ‘something must be done’ will soon be followed by the question: ‘but what?’. One key consideration is the legitimisation of intervention by the international community. Foreign intervention breaches of the principles of sovereign integrity and non-use of force, both of which are stipulated in the Charter of the United Nations. Whilst action can be legitimised by UN Security Council authorisation, often agreement in New York is difficult to achieve.

By questions of legitimacy do not end with UN authorisation. Foreign military intervention may bring about casualties among local civilians and soldiers of intervening states, even it was mandated to bring a conflict to a close. So we may experience a situation in which proponents of intervention use lethal force and, at the same time, voices calling for troops to be withdrawn from battle will become louder.

This question has been repeatedly posed since the end of the Cold War. One of the first instances was the war in Bosnia (broadly speaking, the former Yugoslavia). In this case, international action was strongly urged as it was stated: “Shame in Our Time, in Bosnia” (The New York Times, 21 May 1992). As the intervention continued, nevertheless, other voices were increasingly raised, warning about the dangers of becoming deeply involved. After all, Western governments were subjected to public criticism for failing to stop the war and, at the same time, for dragging their public into a foreign war.

Former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind described this difficulty by stating that:

‘something must be done’ may not be sustained if involvement in a bitter conflict in a country in which no vital national interests are at stake results in casualties. The clamour for action can turn, almost overnight, into an equally vigorous clamour to ‘bring our boys home’.

Why do such ‘dilemmas’ appear, even when action is required genuinely for humanitarian reasons? Supposedly, this is because we are living in a world where information and normative concerns are globalised, but the political system remains unchanged. The traditional international system has been established with the rule of non-intervention and the principle of non-use of armed forces to make inter-state relations more stable. Meanwhile, information recognises no territorial borders and in domestic politics its unrestricted flow has created an agenda too inhumane to ignore. This gap between a geographically-constrained world and a globally spreading world generates dilemmas for state decision makers.

In my article I analyse this dilemma in the case of Bosnian intervention and I discuss the consequences it had for NATO. These questions remain, however, critically important today. The intervention of the international community in Libya in 2011, for example, was very much inspired by the idea that ‘something must be done’ to protect civilians against the Gaddafi regime. On the other hand, the international community has been reluctant to further provide support to Libya after the NATO missions were done.

Yuki Abe is an Associate Professor at Kumamoto University, Japan. He is the author of “Norm dilemmas and international organizational development: humanitarian intervention in the crisis of Bosnia and the reorganization of North Atlantic Treaty Organization”, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol.37, No.1, pp.62-88. It is available here.