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Multilateral Constraints on the Use of Force: A Reassessment

Authored by Dr. Seyom Brown. | March 2006

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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—asystem 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 alliance-insensitive. 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.


This is a time of fundamental questioning and debate in the transatlantic community about the functioning of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance and other multilateral security arrangements. The controversies have included the following issues.

Deference to the United Nations.

Should members of the transatlantic community, whenever time allows, always first seek United Nations (UN) Security Council authorization (or at least give it the right of "first refusal") for the use of force internationally?

Interpreting Article 51.

Shall the UN proviso permitting individual or collective self-defense before the Security Council has taken measures "if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations" be deemed to apply also to imminent attacks—thus allowing preemption? Shall Article 51 be interpreted as prohibiting preventive or humanitarian military operations not authorized by the Security Council, or as simply not covering such operations in the absence of Security Council authorization?

The Role of NATO.

Should members of NATO, if the Security Council has refused authorization or is deliberating too slowly, then always seek authorization (if time allows) from the NATO Council for the use of force internationally? What obligations should be put on European members (or the European Union [EU] when acting collectively) to give NATO rather than the EU the "second refusal" rights? What role and procedures should NATO adopt for cases in which non-NATO members of the transatlantic community would be crucially helped by NATO's legitimation of their resort to force and tangible assistance?

Coalitions within NATO.

When the transatlantic community and/or NATO is unable to forge a consensus sought by some members to authorize the use of force, what should be the relationship between the organization as a whole and the coalition within it seeking legitimation of its planned military operations? What less-than-consensus voting arrangements and procedures can be devised to allow a substantial group of members—say the EU, or a U.S.-led "coalition of the willing" who feel impelled to use force—to employ some of NATO's assets, particularly its communications and warning systems?

NATO's Decisionmaking Processes.

What discretion should the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) have over conduct-of-war decisions? How much should he be constrained by the North Atlantic Council (NAC) and by the National Military Authorities? How much should the Council and/or SACEUR defer to the recommendations of the multinational Defense Planning Committee? Should all significant escalation decisions (e.g., employing a new category of weapon; bringing an additional class of targets under attack; significantly augmenting troop strength; and cease-fires) be referred back to the Council for prior authorization?

The Authority of Sub-coalition and National Military Commanders.

How much autonomy of command and control should be retained by sub-coalition commanders (e.g., the U.S.-led operation in Kosovo and the EU military operation in Bosnia) and national commanders? What are the consequences of maintaining effective transatlantic coordination of military operations, let alone disciplined command and control of multinational forces, if other members of NATO emulate the standing U.S. policy, promulgated in Presidential Decision Directive 25 (May 1994): "The President retains and will never relinquish command authority over U.S. forces?"

The controversies have been driven by changes in the structure of world politics and changes in the shape of war, and the interaction between these two domains of the global system. The political changes are producing a "polyarchic" system of fickle alliances and loose security communities in which allies or supporters on one issue can be adversaries on other issues, and today's friend may be tomorrow's enemy. The military innovations are reducing the requirements for foreign bases and force prepositioning, and in some cases are leading national security officials to view multilateral military arrangements as strategic and tactical liabilities.

In addressing the resulting predicaments posed for basic U.S. national security policy, this monograph focuses primarily on the multilateral institutions and norms in the transatlantic community that deal with the use of force. The analysis is not simply of what has been happening in and to these multilateral institutions and norms. It is equally an exploration of ways the United States can participate in and help shape the multilateral institutions and norms of the transatlantic community so as to preserve their contributions to U.S. and international security while avoiding excessive constraints on U.S. military flexibility.