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74th Annual Summer Conference, August 4–7, 2005

Force in a Single Superpower World

Summary by Benjamin Petric

Mary Kathryn Barbier


When is the use of force, especially when used by the world’s strongest superpower, acceptable? A number of scenarios serve as a guide to help answer this complex question:

1. An Attack: Pearl Harbour, 9/11 – these were direct attacks against the U.S. and they warrant the use of force in response.

2. Pre-Emptive Force: When an adversary is on the verge of attacking. Though pre-emptive military action was abolished by the U.N. in 1945, in the case of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) a pre-emptive strike is ethical in that the public is protected from, rather than exposed to, harm. Appeasement often fails, as evidenced by the example of the attempted pacification of Hitler during the 1930s.

3. Collective Security Fails: For instance, in Iran, if all peaceful efforts fail, it may be necessary to launch an attack. The U.S. must act despite criticism from the international system it is trying to protect because (a) appeasement will fail, and (b) Israel’s involvement would lead to an expansion of conflict into the Middle Eastern sphere.

The international community is under attack, and as the world superpower, the U.S. has an ethical obligation to intervene on behalf of the international community. For example, the failed states of Somalia and Afghanistan exist outside of the international state system. In the case of Afghanistan, the state was considered “un-Islamic” by its extremist leadership, and the goal of intervention there is to help Afghanistan become a viable member of the state system.

Considering, among other issues, Iraq’s potential link to terrorist organizations, Saddam Hussein’s consistent efforts to hinder the efforts of U.N. arms inspectors, and Saddam Hussein’s history, the U.S. had reasonable grounds to suspect that Iraq possessed WMD and would be willing to use them. Accordingly, it was only humanitarian to use force against Saddam Hussein: “The United States cannot and will not run the risk to the American people.”

Collective security doesn’t always work, and when the U.N. is unable to act, the U.S. must find political and ethical means to intervene despite condemnation. Otherwise, it risks condemnation for acting too late, or for failing to live up to its responsibility altogether.

Monika Wohlfeld


Security is inherently a complex issue, and it is made all the more so in the European Union (E.U.) as there are 25 member states to accommodate. Divisions on the issues of when and how force is to be used exist within the E.U. between “Old Europe” (original members) and “New Europe” (members who have recently joined). Further, it is important to remember that the E.U. does not speak for Europe necessarily.

The E.U. lacks a defense strategy and this leads to frustration on the part of the U.S., and tension between the U.S. and the E.U. Nevertheless, there is hope for common ground.

Security must be defined in a comprehensive manner, encompassing military, economic, environmental, social, and cultural threats among others. The definition of “security” will shape action, encourage multilateralism, provide a platform to coordinate efforts, and create institutional legitimacy.

Though the E.U. lacks the ability to extend force, multilateralism is by no means “the tool of the weak.” Instead, it the result of wisdom generated by centuries of conflict and two World Wars.

Regional organizations can and do play an important role in cooperative security, but are limited by their capacity and membership. Nonetheless they can help in a number of ways, including helping to define security, conflict prevention, and peacebuilding (both short and long term).

A new consensus on the institutional frameworks surrounding the use of force is required in order to create legitimacy. Long-term security solutions require cooperation to address and prevent security threats.

Mark Taylor


Efforts in Iraq lack legitimacy and are ineffective. Why? In the post-cold-war era, U.S. foreign policy serves as the key reference point to all other policy debates and the international community has had to adapt its foreign policy to that of the U.S. Despite having worked to develop the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) document along with the rest of the international community, “Imperial” U.S. now undermines its efforts during the cold war as legitimate R2P is no longer part of U.S. action in the international sphere.

The changing nature of armed conflict demands that political and social mechanisms be developed to deal with it. Since the end of the cold war, wars have actually decreased in number (though the perception is the opposite, only because of increased response to wars since the end of the cold war). Yet, since the late 1990s the number of long, drawn out civil wars, as well as the number of local, nonstate actors engaged in irregular and/or assymetrical warfare, has increased.

These types of warfare are adopted by the weak with the purpose of undermining the political legitimacy of their stronger opponent. Irregular and asymmetric warfare undermines state economies, ability to govern, and security. Accordingly, households develop alternative means to create their own security, hence the proliferation of guerillas and militant forces.

The international community rarely understands the dynamics that exist within populations caught in civil war. Mechanisms exist between local leaders and the community to successfully intervene in civil conflicts, yet international interventions rarely take this into account: The local nature of conflict is forgotten.

The international system is at a crossroads in the use of force. Today, intervention in the name of R2P results in regime change. The question is whether we will include local knowledge when attempting to intervene in civil conflicts as an alternative to the status quo. Finally, R2P must be embraced as a universal principle, not just applied in the case of the allies of the current world superpower.