Conflict and intervention - the role of multilateralism

Conflict and intervention – the role of multilateralism

There are five good reasons for the major powers – especially the US – to commit themselves to consensus decisions on multilateral intervention achieved through the Security Council in cases of communal conflict, such as Syria.

 Suggested Reading Conflict Background GCCT

By Gerard M. Gallucci

The decades since WWII have seen a rise in communal conflict, in large part a consequence of decolonization and globalization. The former brought groups into contact on particularly intimate terms as they were left to live together inside arbitrarily chosen borders while fledgling their states sought to develop institutions and economies. The latter threw peripheral peoples into contact with each other across borders while exposing them to the economic, political and cultural imperatives of the Western hegemony. Within developing states, groups competed for power often generating conflict beyond the capacity of the political system to resolve. Communal conflicts fester when groups come to define and organize themselves using ethnic, national, or religious criteria and make claims against each other or the state. Such conflicts become violent when leaders – conflict entrepreneurs – arise who seek to hold or gain political power by precipitating or provoking reaction.

Internal conflicts within states usually are asymmetric, as each group uses its own advantages. One side may control the state and military. The other may have the support simply of a large (even majority) portion of the population. Leaders may emphasize confrontational politics or seek to gain support from outsiders. When internal conflicts become violent they rarely lead to negotiations because the dynamic is to intensify as each side responds to the use of violence, its own own and from the other side. Negotiated outcomes if achieved (or imposed by outsiders) may be more unstable than victory of one side over the other – as in the case of the 1994 Tutsi victory in Rwanda – or require longterm intervention by outsiders.

Stability requires sustainable political development and economic growth. Government must come to deliver public goods – domestic security, rule of law, political freedom/participation, economic opportunity, infrastructure, education, health services, civil society – to its citizens. Key is good governance, e.g. avoidance of corruption, rigged elections, private militias, compromised judiciary, reliance on police and army for order, and ethnic politics. The indicators of incipient problems include crime, inflation, capital flight, high infant mortality, low literacy. Building a state that can deliver public goods requires consolidating control, maintaining order, extracting resources and building legitimacy. This too may generate violence as those who feel themselves losing power or position resist the process.

The challenge is compounded by the fact that developing countries in the 20th and 21st Centuries must in effect recapitulate in the near term the process that the West underwent spread out over four hundred years. They do so with domestic populations with expectations based on what they can see elsewhere and within the constraints of entering a system already fully grown with advantage accumulated at the center. These developing states are periphery not core. Such states may simply fail and threaten not only their own people but regional stability and international security as well.

Weak and broken states rarely fix themselves. Yet the typical Western response includes neglect, wishful thinking, inaction, waiting until after the violence abates, failure to anticipate or address structural problems, looking to quick fixes and relying on the military. But the essential failure has been when the West – led by the US – eventually does intervene through “coalitions of the willing” meant to evade the necessity of achieving a true multilateral consensus for action achieved through the mechanisms established under the UN Charter.

The UN was founded after WWII on the basis of the hope that the nations that had beaten Nazi Germany and fascist Japan would work together to ensure peace between sovereign states. The Security Council – and mainly the Perm Five – would provide the military and political support necessary to ensure peace between states. Force could be used only in self defense or by the decision of the Security Council (under Chapter 7) to deter or counter aggression of state vs state. It never really worked out that way and the events of the 1990’s – Somalia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, Kosovo – seemed to require a new focus on dealing with communal conflict within states. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s High Level Panel on Threats (reported December 2004) recommended criteria for the use of force to be legally undertaken in such instances. (The Panel also recommended a focus on development, including of state capacity, to avoid the reasons for conflict.) In 2005, the UN adopted these in the context of a new international norm: the responsibility to protect (R2P). R2P established the legal and moral grounds for the use of force not in self-defense but to intervene to protect others.

With R2P, sovereignty was now to be seen as entailing a state’s responsibility to protect its people. If a state was unable or unwilling to protect its people that responsibility would pass to others. To this end, the international community might employ coercive measures including political, economic, judicial and ultimately military means under Chapters 6 and 7. But use of force would have to meet several criteria: the threat to the affected population must be serious; intervention must be undertaken with the right intention (to help those in danger and not for gain); force must be used as a last resort after other means failed; the force used must be proportional to the ends, have reasonable prospects for success and on balance produce positive consequences.

Consistent with international law as established by the UN Charter, the decision to intervene would have to be reached by the Security Council. Consideration of intervention might be triggered by large-scale loss of life, ethnic cleansing (actual or anticipated) or state failure. Intervention might be justified as a result of state failure to protect its people whether through action, inaction or neglect and whether carried out by killing, forced expulsion, terror or rape. But in deference to state sovereignty (and realpolitik), R2P and the use of force would not be triggered by human rights abuses short of these.

The UN adoption of R2P gave the major powers the legal means to intervene against governments committing great crimes against their people. This would mean stepping into the middle of communal conflicts, not a step to be taken lightly. Intervention done in the right manner means using sufficient force to impose and maintain peace with minimum bloodshed and staying a long time to help rebuild (or build) a stable political and economic order. There are five good reasons for the major powers – especially the US – to commit themselves to consensus decisions on multilateral intervention achieved through the Security Council in cases of communal conflict such as Syria:

  • Two (or more) heads are better than one. While a single country may decide on intervention for a number of reasons – good or not – the requirement to rub these against the considerations of other states (there are always 15 in the Council) may help achieve better decisions.
  • Better decisions mean perhaps achieving better outcomes as intervention would have broader support and more resources behind it.
  • More support and resources mean more ways pressure – diplomatic, economic and political as well as military – may be brought on offending regimes or groups.
  • Responsibility and costs are shared.
  • States are spared the results of the failure of unilateral intervention to achieve their goals.

The UN Security Council Perm Five does not have a good record of achieving consensus on intervention. Russia, China and others have been suspicious of setting precedents that might be used against them. But the costs of failure – from both intervening or not – are great. The responsibility to protect in the most effective and humane manner falls on the Perm Five and especially its two chief rivals, the US and Russia. They need to work better with each other.

It must be said that the main fault of Security Council dysfunction lies with the US (which as the main status quo power also has more to loose with global disorder). Washington needs to avoid the temptations of going it alone – resorting to NATO is not multilateralism. Empty preaching on human rights and democracy also has not proven very effective. Intervention in communal conflict is serious business and not an occasion for arrogant posturing. Putin is right, the horrible state of affairs from Libya to Afghanistan is largely the result of unilateral US action. Working together on Syria – Russia seems to have been sending signals recently that support for Assad is not absolute and Secretary Kerry, at least, seems to have heard it – offers a real chance to together staunch the flow of terrorism and refugees. NATO also should keep Turkey on a tighter rein and Moscow should back off further provocations. Russia and the US should work it out and then use the Security Council as it was intended, to implement a consensus decision on what is to be done.

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He now works as an independent consultant and as adjunct professor for national security policy at the Daniel Morgan Academy in Washington, DC.


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