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Force in a Single Superpower World

Dr. Monika Wohlfeld
Deputy Director of the Conflict Prevention Centre of the Organization
for Security and Co-operation in Europe

The opinions expressed in this paper are the author’s own and do not represent the policy of the OSCE.

When is the use of force legitimate? Who arbitrates on what is legitimate in the absence of consensus? When must peace be sacrificed to achieve justice? These are profound questions that we ambitiously address today. They engage fundamental issues at the heart of our understanding of international society, drawing on one’s assumptions about the very nature of world politics.

I propose that the manner in which these issues are framed will determine the conclusions that we will reach. In particular, I believe that one’s notion of what security is leads us to favor certain strategies of achieving that security, which naturally provides our answers to the questions at hand. Consequently, I will not address the practical questions of our session directly but instead propose a different context in which to understand them, a context inspired by my experience at the OSCE.

To talk about the legitimate use of force is to talk about security. Force, after all, is a tool used to achieve a goal and in our world today, that goal is most often reducing perceived threats to one’s values. To speak on the use of force as a European often tempts a naïve comparison with an American view of the use of force. I believe that thinking in these categories is misleading because it obscures the complexity of security thinking in both Europe and the United States. Even prior to the expansion of the European Union it is doubtful that there was ever a consensus between, for example, British and French perspectives on the use of force. The accession of Central European states, however, challenges the notion of such an agreement, as evidenced by different positions on the war in Iraq. Controversial assessments on the differences between “old Europe” and “new Europe” may be exaggerated, but they do contain some truth: Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld, for example, has praised the United States’ “brilliant military victory” in Iraq, to which Poland contributed 2 500 troops. The limited development of the Common Foreign and Security Policy attests to the difficulties of reconciling different European points of view.

This complexity applies equally to the United States. While public debate on the war in Iraq was perhaps more muted than might have been expected, there are deep divisions between liberal internationalists and neoconservatives on the orientation of American foreign policy. Many dispute the neoconservative claim that the United States’ role in ensuring world security gives it the right to unilaterally determine what is appropriate in assuring its own security. These debates have spilled on to the pages of Foreign Affairs and other influential journals, with appeals to re-establish America’s legitimacy in world affairs and return to a long tradition of building multilateral institutions. Perhaps most telling of all is the discussion about the ‘revolutionary turn’ in US foreign policy in the past few years: it is indeed a break with the past, not a longstanding tradition. It is important to recognize these internal debates because it shows that there is less divide than there appears at first glance and that agreement can yet be built from these foundations.

And such an agreement on the legitimate use of force must be rebuilt. The work of the OSCE is emblematic of how security should be conceived in the new security environment: as comprehensive and indivisible. It is comprehensive in the sense that it covers “new security” threats as well as traditional military ones, including threats to economic, environmental cultural and generally human well-being. The subject of security has also evolved. Security is no longer enjoyed by simply states but also individuals. This fits broadly within a positive image of security, which is conceived not simply as the absence of violence but as the guarantee of peace, even for single individuals. Closely related to the notion of comprehensiveness is that of indivisibility. With increased interdependence, security cannot be parceled out or divided, but exists as a property for all of international society. If a threat to one is a threat to all, then there cannot be multiple securities of states but a single security that then becomes a collective responsibility. Therefore, security is a collective good that is secured with cooperation between states rather than competition.

Such a vision of the nature of security also shapes strategies about how best to achieve it. If security is a cooperative project then institutions are needed to achieve common action. Multilateralism becomes a critical tool in building this notion of positive security, a platform to coordinate and ensure the efforts of the many participants. These institutions have to be legitimate, respected by all and perceived as working towards the common interests of all participants. Hence the aversion towards unilateral action: even the most powerful state cannot force the cooperation of others, the sine qua non of cooperative security, because it lacks legitimacy in the eyes of others. The project of strong international law is emblematic of this security logic. It is an instrument that is by nature legitimate, as it is the product of consensus between states, and impartial, as even the powerful are equal before the law.

Ultimately, differing conceptions of security and security doctrine are arguably shaped by the tools at hand. As has been observed, the preeminence of the United States in terms of military power makes unilateralism a potential and tempting option. Conversely, Europe’s lack of ability to project force gives it an inherent interest in constraining the way in which the Unites States acts. Without the pejorative connotations, there is some truth in Robert Kagan’s observation that “multilateralism is a weapon of the weak.” However, the European inclination towards multilateralism is also the product of centuries of experience of violent conflict, an experience crystallized at the end of the Second World War into a new strategy to avoid conflict through cooperation. It would be dangerous to ignore this experience and repeat the mistakes of the past.

Yet contemporary security threats, particularly terrorism, force a revision of both how the international community prevents the emergence of threats and how they are addressed once they materialize. Enthusiasm for comprehensive security may have broadened security horizons, but it must be revised to prioritize these new threats, particularly movements and organizations that use terrorism as a strategy. Yet, cooperative security remains uniquely placed to deal with the root causes of transnational threats such as terrorism. The work of the OSCE in particular is an excellent example of how inclusive institutions with a broad view of security can engage these challenges. A commitment to prevention remains the most intelligent and efficient way of assuring our security.

However, we must also have the means to deal with acute threats once they arise. The current institutions used to legitimate the use of force are founded on and understood within the context of the traditional notion of state sovereignty. Terrorism and the transnational nature of conflicts within states make pre-emptive force no longer sufficient as a tool for assuring state security. Preventive force, authorized by cooperative institutions, will become indispensable under these circumstances. The legitimacy of such action is vital for an effective international order, as the power of any single state can never be sufficient to keep the peace without it. In Rousseau’s celebrated formulation: “The strongest is never strong enough to be always master, unless he turns strength into right and obedience into duty.” The challenge is how to close the current gap between moribund consensus procedures and rash unilateralism in the process by which force is rendered legitimate.

Three questions must be answered: for what purposes is force justified, what manner of use of force is permitted and who adjudicates the latter two. Of all three questions, the last is the most contentious. One possibility is the reform of formal institutions, the United Nations Security Council, in order to increase its flexibility. The restriction of veto rights is both consistent with the principles of cooperative security and necessary, particularly with any expansion of membership. However, an equally important initiative is to change the functioning of the Security Council, by re-imagining way in which the institution is understood. With so much at stake, states can no longer hold preventive force hostage to partisan considerations.

Although regional organizations can and do play an important role in the cooperative effort of providing security, they have only a limited use in adjudicating for what purposes and what manner force can be used. After all, their limited membership and diverging agendas cannot be overlooked. But they can contribute substantially to a common effort defining of what constitutes security and how to achieve it. In the OSCE context, one of the palpable fruits of such work has been the OSCE Strategy to Address Threats to Security and Stability in the Twenty-First Century, adopted by the 55 States of the Organization at the 2003, Ministerial Council.

To conclude, there exists a practical imperative to rebuild a common understanding of legitimate force to strengthen international order. Yet while there is a pressing need to define a new consensus on a framework for the legitimate use of force, we must ensure that these institutions that also prevent the need for violent conflict in the first place. Ultimately, this is the most compelling reason why cooperative security must prevail in the current debates. Independent action on the part of states, unencumbered by the duty of forging common agreement, may be more efficient in addressing security threats in the short run. However, cooperative security is the best way of achieving a durable, international order in the long run, one which can both legitimately address immediate threats but also preventing those threats from emerging.