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Canada’s Position on the Use of Force Internationally

The International Use of Force in an Ill-liberal Era:
(The Responsibility to Protect at a Cross-roads)

Mark B. Taylor
Managing Director, Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies (Fafo AIS)

Good Evening. I would like to the organisers of the Couchiching conference for a series of extremely interesting conversations and presentations over the past few days; and for the invitation to speak to you tonight – which is, for me, a rare chance to speak with a group of well informed fellow Canadians.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe the use of force up close and over several years of human rights advocacy, security monitoring and diplomacy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the early 1990s. My comments will be coloured by that experience, in part because I think the experience of the Israelis and Palestinians anticipates a lot of the dynamics we now face globally and holds important lessons for the rest of us – especially the United States – concerning the use of force.

But much of what I will have to say tonight begins and ends with Iraq, where Fafo has done quite a bit of work in the past 18 months, and where the conflict has affected us at Fafo directly, something I will come back to in a minute.

First, I’d like to throw out two sets of questions which I think capture the problem of the international or multilateral use of force in the interests of the responsibility to protect in a single super power world.

How can the international system ever hope defend human security if we aren’t able to hitch it to the realpolitik and specific interests of the world’s major powers, or even just UN member states? Is it not the height of naïveté to think there would ever be international armed intervention to protect people that wasn’t at least partly about something else? …say, for example, the “cold hard reality” of US strategic interests?

On the other hand, is not also deeply naïve to suggest that the fledgling legitimacy of an international responsibility to protect would have survived being used to legitimise the US invasion? Have we forgotten that the point of international norms and law over the past 60 years has been to prevent wars, not justify them, and in the last 15 years, to prevent suffering in war and dictatorship, not exacerbate it?

The questions formed two sides of the impasse we reached over Iraq: Regime change in Iraq was impossible without the United States, and impossibly wrong with it. The ability of the international system to come up with a formula for the righteous use of force, ran aground on the rock of US strategic interest in an illegal war.

Still, many of us respond positively to the Old Testament gusto with which our Generals – some of them in armchairs, some of them not – tell us that evil doers should suffer our wrath so that their victims might be liberated.

Yet, at the same time, we can never seem to get it right. When a multilateral option is needed, our governments can never seem to work together with other governments to marshal the troops, money and organisational clout, and – crucially – political will to match the threats to people in, say, a Chechnya or Afghanistan in the 1990s, or West Africa and now Darfur.

We have now reached the end of over a decade of and a half of an apparent increasing global concern with peace and conflict […. Increasing concern reflected in the increasing number of resolutions at the UNSC establishing norms and principles concerning the protection of civilians; a concern which has also seen an explosive rise in the number and size of peace operations, humanitarian assistance and even global development aid flows…]. Yet we don’t seem to be able to implement it consistently, or with effectives, or – arguably – with legitimacy in the eyes of those whom we seek to help.


There two general parts to my answer. One has to do with the role of major powers and US foreign policy in particular, which is central to the international use of force in almost every case. Given the excellent presentations of Mary Kathryn and Monika who preceded me, I will say only a very little about this.

In each case of the post Cold War era, the UN and its Member States have been forced to adapt to the behaviour of the United States. To paraphrase senior UN diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, the “international community” can be defined as consisting of all those states with a particular interest in a conflict …plus the United States. Even in those geographic or issue arenas which are not of core national interest to the U.S., the policies and positions assumed by its government are the key reference point for all others, governmental and non-governmental actors alike.

The willingness of the US to use force, alone or in coalition, has waxed and waned over times and across particular countries. One Canadian diplomat friend of mine compared it to a hesitant Cyclops… In the 1990s the US seemed congenitally incapable of bringing significant political will to bear on more than one international security crisis at a time…

…Today, the hesitancy and cooperation of the post Cold War era is gone. US policy on its use of force, has been returned to almost its Cold War position as one of many tools to achieve specific strategic ends, rather than as the assumed basis of US action internationally. Responding to the moral outrages conducted in non-strategic countries – in other words the emergence of an international responsibility to protect – does not enter into the US scheme of things. In fact, the cumulative effect of a more nationalistic, security conscious and imperial US has been to undermine the very same rules and institutions of globalism built in part with US leadership during and after the Cold War.

The British had a famous saying that, for Britain, the real point of NATO was not just to keep the “Russians out, but also to keep the US in Europe and the French and Germans down”. This is very much the approach of the US to international organisations and international law: these institutions will be measured against their effectiveness in permitting the pre-emption of rivals to US power and influence, in dealing with terrorism, WMD and permitting regime change…but if they don’t do those things well, they will be declared irrelevant.

I want to move on to my second point about the present impasse, about the changing nature of armed conflict and crucially, about our inability to intervene to protect people. Here my point is that international and multilateral effectiveness is in no small part a function of our ability to deal with the social and political mechanisms of governance of the use of force in contemporary armed conflicts.

In early 1995, Yassir Arafat played dinner host to a group of senior European diplomats from at his new, makeshift office near the beach in Gaza City. He had arrived in mid-1994 and, ever since, a steady stream of official visitors had made the pilgrimage to Gaza eager to show their support to the peace process launched by the Oslo accords.

On this occasion, Arafat was particularly gracious. His guest, the Minister of Development, had pledged a lot of money to nascent Palestinian Authority and was a staunch supporter of the state building project at the heart of the Oslo process. So staunch, in fact, that the host government had been paying the bills of the Palestinian Ambassador to their own country for some time.

At one point during the dinner Arafat, smiling, turned to one of the senior members of the Minister’s delegation to confirm that their government would continue to “take care of my Ambassador”, as he put it.

“How shall we do that, Abu Ammar?” asked a diplomat cheekily. “Like this?” he said pointing his index finger at the luckless Ambassador, thumb up, playfully mimicking a pistol, “Or like this?” he asked rubbing the same thumb and forefinger together in the universal sign for money. The question was in jest, from a seasoned diplomat with long experience of the Middle East who had a good relationship with Arafat.

Arafat didn’t blink: “I usually find it best to do both”, he said without a trace of a smile.

As Arafat well knows, guns and money are key components of political power. I do not mean to reduce all political leaders to mere mafia dons or warlords. Nor do I mean to suggest that political power can be reduced to access to finance and coerce force. Nor would have Arafat: for at the same time as we sat at that dinner in 1995, Arafat was busy turning Palestinian society into his own version of a national security state. He was doing this based on a renewal of tribal structures (a tactic both the Israelis and British before them tried to implement and failed) and massive patronage in the form of a jobs in the security forces for his unemployed political cadres. He was doing so with the full backing of the Israel, and international community – of which I was a very minor part at the time.

The creation of a national security state in Palestine was a strategy that would ultimately fail to bring peace and worse, generate a steady and horrific escalation in the use of force – everything from terrorist attacks in Israel to the increasing level of the use of force by the IDF in the WBGS.

The blame for this must be shared with the Israeli leadership, for it was not Arafat’s strategy alone. But the point for us here tonight is that – as we’ve heard over the past few days – group identity, social solidarity, political trust (marginalisation) are all key components shaping the governance dynamics of the use of force. The failure of the that peace process, and the resulting unprecedented levels of violence in Israel and Palestine, were the direct result of the constraints imposed on national building in Palestine by the social foundations of politics as practiced by Yassir Arafat (crucially the marginalisation of Hamas).

This may seem obvious but as a former practitioner I can tell you that the social foundations – the constituencies – of those resorting to force in, for example, a civil war – are rarely understood by international interventions; in Palestine, for example, we narrowly averted civil war amongst Palestinians in the immediate aftermath of Oslo in 1993-1994…the war amongst Palestinian was averted by a mechanism in which clan and political party leaders resolved each others conflicts, in which the political actors mediates social conflicts and vice versa.

This kind of analysis, if understood, is invaluable for international actors trying to understand what will work to stop the killing. But that understanding rarely survives the pressures of the international politics; and thus, that understanding rarely guides our interventions. Inevitably, our inability to grapple with the ultimately local nature of the use of force in most contemporary conflicts comes back to haunt us.

So, the second part of my explanation of the impasse over the use of force in protection of the vulnerable today is that we have yet to understand the rise and impact of local, non-state violence or use of force – what I will call irregular warfare.…remembering that the users of force may be factions within state armies, state sponsored militia, opposition rebel or guerrilla movements, insurgencies or counter-insurgencies, community vigilantes, or private military companies, and, yes, terrorists.

I will not go through each of these, but rather try to trace the impact of irregular warfare on the international politics concerning the use of force, in particular the responsibility to protect.

During the 1990s and into the first few years of our decade the total number of conflicts steadily declined. This may be contrary to what some of you might think, but the perception of more conflict after the Cold War is wrong: it arise because, after the end of the cold war there were far more international responses to conflict than before, by both the United Nations, United States and others. So, while there may be a perception that the world is a more violent place, that perception was in part because we’ve been getting out a bit more.

But that perception was also because the impacts and nature of the conflicts were changing. So, while the total number of conflicts steadily declined during the early 1990s, by the end of the decade number of wars that were once ended seemed prone to re-starting. In addition, the conflicts that were ongoing were lasting longer on average and proving more difficult to resolve. Finally, and most important, all of these wars were either civil wars or combinations of civil and inter-state wars (regionalised civil wars). Well over half of the 40 million war dead since 1970 died in civil wars.

I will not go into the debate over the causes of civil wars – whether the offspring of colonial expediencies, ancient hatreds, ethnicity, greed or grievance – except to say that in most cases it is a mix of all of these. In fact, the dynamics of civil wars, and what is sometimes called the “failed” or “fragile” state, are central to understanding the advent and development of irregular warfare. In irregular wars, the effectiveness of the state fades fast. Conflict undermines the ability of the state to govern. As the state recedes in relevance under the combined pressures of violence and the informalisation–or even criminalisation–of domestic economies and politics. In response, households, and communities find alternative forms of livelihoods, alternative forms of governance and, crucially, alternative forms of security.

These alternative forms consist of some kind of relationship to the very militias, rebels, guerrilla, or army units who are fighting the war. It has not been lost on those trying to stop the fighting, that those doing fighting in irregular wars have no real structure for international interveners to attack. They are increasingly able to use global commercial flows – trade, transport and communications – to gain the resources necessary to keep the war going, and to strike at targets well beyond the conflict zone.

In many ways, irregular wars are about the weak finding ways to fight the strong. Whether guerrilla warfare, asymmetric warfare, insurgency, or terrorism all are using some form of indirect methods to undermine there enemies political legitimacy. Indirect attacks bring reprisals down on populations; in Palestine, Hamas attacked Israelis primarily to provoke an Israeli response that undermines Arafat, their main political rival. In Iraq, insurgents attack Shi’a civilians in order to undermine the Coalition and the government. In terms of the cold calculations of tactics, it is no surprise that armed opposition to overwhelming US military strength has resorted to car bomb – a classic terrorist technique – to such devastating effect in Iraq.

I must at this point make a disclaimer, which is that I do not mean to suggest that all forms of armed resistance are or could be terroristic or illegitimate. I think there are clear examples of legitimate resistance, although I personally hold to the non-violent sort.

My point is simply that when we talk about the need for overwhelming use of force in the responsibility to protect, we forget that the people, human beings, on the receiving end of the use of force tend not to distinguish between smart bombs and dirty ones, between targeted assassinations by well trained snipers or helicopter gunships and the more stripped-down ‘shoot-the-best-and-buy-the-rest’ logic of certain dictatorial regimes.

This deeply local, social reality is the reality with which the international use of force is simply not equipped to deal. The revolution in military affairs has made it possible for the US and other to conduct a counter insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it has not – and in my view, will not – enable them to win, that is declare victory with credibility in the eyes of Iraqis, Afghanis or Americans. More important, it will severely compromise their ability to leave the country with a legitimate governing authority in place.

Which brings us a key component of the Responsibility to Protect: Peacebuilding, or what might be called ‘the only exit strategy’. Peacebuilding is in danger: when twinned with illegal adventurist wars, I fear we must face the reality that, no matter what we intend by it, peacebuilding in the name of responsibility to protect runs the risk of evolving into not much more than the “hearts and minds” components of counter-insurgency operations, at least in the eyes of those we seek to help.

In the spring of 2003, as the war in Iraq raged, I got an email from my closest friend, a former colleague in the UN in Palestine and then at Fafo, and then a senior UN mandarin and key advisor to the UN leadership on the middle east. In it he wrote critically about the rush of his UN colleagues to find a role for the UN in Iraq, saying it was wrong and tactically unwise. He wrote that that the UN had to be ready to engage with the US when it came calling, as it would do, but that the UN needed to do so on the basis of international legitimacy, which would it could not claim if it became the “hearts and minds” campaign through a knee-jerk humanitarian response. It was that legitimacy, he argued, that the US would need to find its way out of what could be an Iraqi quagmire. If handled properly, the UN could provide that legitimacy.

Within four months he was dead, killed in the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. A victim of terrorists, to be sure, but targeted by terrorists with the specific aim undermining the legitimacy of UN international interventions in support of the vulnerable.

Our international system is at a cross-roads in the use of force in solidarity with those threatened by war and dictatorship. Will intervention in the name of the responsibility to protect only ever be “regime change”? Will we find ways to intervene that make sense of local conflict dynamics or conflict resolution? Will peace-building become the “hearts and minds” component of super-power of counter-insurgency? The answer will come over the coming years and will depend upon whether we can protect and promote responsibility to protect as a universal principle involving protection for all, not just our allies.

Thank you.