Paper: Multilateralism’s Role in the War on Terror

This post was my first paper in my freshman-year “Political Analysis” class.

Multilateralism in Anti-terrorism

The world changed on September 11th, 2001. The nature of our enemies and the nature by which we must oppose them changed. The Bush Administration and commentators such as Charles Krauthammer have argued that the nature of terrorism justifies — even requires — unilateral military action. But this belief is shortsighted and ignores significant benefits of multilateral work. In fact, unilateral military action should never be utilized in the War on Terror unless needed to stop an attack in progress. This viewpoint holds under both surgical missile or commando strikes and under prolonged military campaigns; it is supported by moral, political, and financial arguments.

In order to discuss this argument, definitions of key terms are needed. Unilateral action here means military action undertaken without support from the majority of governments (weighted by size, strategic alliances, and proximity to the operation) reasonably expected to desire long-term peace in a targeted region. Under this definition, the war against the Taliban, while fought exclusively by the United States, was a multilateral action; the Iraq War, even with its “Coalition of the Willing” is not multilateral because of opposition from key states such as Germany, France, and Russia, all of whom desire long-term Mideast stability. International terrorism is defined as terrorist activity whose perpetrators, actions, or victims cross international borders. Embassy bombings are international; the London subway bombings were not because the perpetrators were British, conducted their terrorist attack on British soil, and targeted British citizens.

Multilateral action is clearly morally superior to unilateral action. Because combating terrorists militarily is almost by nature a preemptive activity, justifiability and legitimacy are more important in the War on Terror than ever before. Unfortunately, unilateral preemptive action is provocative and crosses a dangerous line towards assassination — a line even more dangerous because targeted terrorists are often prominent businesspeople or local leaders within a friendly government, thereby protected by U.S. bans on assassination. Performing a strike unilaterally is thus a bad idea. Even worse, unilateral strikes violate national sovereignty, provoke strong outcries at many levels, inflame the Islamic nations we must befriend and moderate, and lack international legitimacy.

Consider the recent CIA strike at Ayman al-Zawahiri, supposedly hiding within a Pakistani village. According to a January 15th Associated Press/Washington Post report (Pakistan), the strike utilized a missile launched from an unmanned Predator drone and killed at least 17 people. In response, “[t]housands of tribesmen staged protests and a mob set fire to the office of a U.S.-backed aid agency.” “Local authorities” claimed that no foreigners were located in the village, the Pakistani government filed a formal protest, and the Pakistani Information Minister called the strike “highly condemnable” and promised such strikes would not be allowed again. Meanwhile, our own intelligence services were not even sure the strike had killed al-Zawahiri.

Asking Pakistan to assist with or complete the operation would have resulted in a vastly different outcome, as the operation would then have been a local police action rather than a foreign assault. A future multilateral approach could save the United States the resources of a cruise missile or strike force, prevent local resentment of Western troops, and foster relationships required to promote peace and discourage support of terrorists. Domestic police actions foster an aura of legitimacy, an important issue no matter how much commentators scoff: it if difficult to accuse the Americans of violating Muslim lands if the Muslims lead each strike. Previous Pakistani operations suggest multilateral approaches might even increase our success rate over missile strikes.

These same arguments apply more significantly way to operations like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The grander scale of these conflicts create higher costs of unilateralism and greater benefits of multilateralism. Afghanistan, while utilizing troops exclusively from the United States, was multilateral in many senses of the word thanks to the strong global support for our operations there. The war was legitimized by nearly universal support and anger over the September 11th attacks. Protests throughout the world were almost nonexistent, the Taliban was quickly subdued, and the United States was popular locally thanks to airlifted food and medical supplies. Yet the administration made a critical mistake: for some reason, they deliberately decided to go it alone in Afghanistan. Our NATO allies offered their assistance, and the UN would likely have gone along too. While militarily the challenge was small, the decision meant the United States payed for the whole operation alone; more importantly, it had to undertake the entire task of nation-building nearly alone. That was a mistake for many reasons.

An explicit goal of each war was to remove a terrorist-supporting regime and create a viable, peaceful democracy in its place — in other words, we expected to be nation-building at the conclusion of the war. This doctrine is characterized by Charles Krauthammer as “supporting democracy where it counts.” Democratic nation-building is an intense and expensive activity, often costing more than the war it follows. Recent studies by the RAND Corporation (Dobbins, UN & Dobbins, America) have concluded that successful nation-building requires an absolute minimum five years of support. Unfortunately, a five-year military presence composed of a single nation often looks like an occupation. Occupations provoke resistance from locals and drag up specters of empire; liberal commentator Joseph Nye argues the American people will not accept becoming an empire, and conservative Charles Krauthammer claims the United States doesn’t desire land or colonies. These tendencies toward resistance within the subject nation and withdrawal in the United States combine to provoke dangerously early exits of military force, as demonstrated by the low success rate of United States nation-building exercises (RAND Corp.’s studies found only 1 or 2 successful attempts of 5 since World War II).

The United Nations, on the other hand, has a relatively high success rate in nation-building (6 of 8), generally spends less money on its nation-building than the United States, and can resist the pressure of early withdrawal because it has no direct citizenry and the UN’s international forces are frequently viewed at the local level as true peace keepers rather than an occupying force. The UN has proved itself more capable than the United States at the spread of stable democracies, apparently key to the War on Terror. Moreover, foreign support is gained more easily when the nation-building is led by a group like the UN, and UN support is more easily gained if the original conflict is multilateral. For these reasons alone we should demand multilateralism in any war conducted partially to spread democracy.

Iraq is in many ways the opposite of Afghanistan; while the Bush administration emphasized its “Coalition of the Willing” in Iraq, that war provides many negative lessons encouraging true multilateralism. There are many reasons Iraq was not a truly multilateral activity. First, because key allies (supportive of the War on Terror) like Germany and France vehemently opposed it; second, because no local country besides Kuwait supported the war. Next, because despite the much-flaunted membership of over 30 countries, the United States provided nearly the entire force: 105,000 U.S. troops against 22,700 other in early 2004 (Dobbins, America). The effects of this illegitimately-perceived war are obvious. Consider international reaction to the Gulf War versus this Iraq War and the continuously-dropping popularity of the United States abroad. Politically, the Iraq war drove Iran, which before the war began to moderate itself, back towards extremist positions and production of an atomic bomb. Financially, the United States now spends roughly $6 billion per month in Iraq alone. Those who claim that Iraq is a multilateral affair need only look at Britain to see the fallacy; the greatest ally in Iraq spent a mere 4.9 billion pounds (roughly $8.6 billion) on its entire War on Terror in all of 2004 (Daneshkhu). The U.S. spent more money than that (some $1 billion monthly) on Afghanistan alone (Belasco). Unilateral activities have cost the nation politically and financially; lack of skill at nation-building and the refusal to allow the UN to take over the process have left Iraq a country less stable than ever and less inclined towards freedom. This expensive quagmire is a compelling argument for true multilateralism.

Yet the arguments against multilateralism are many and varied. They range from philosophical to pragmatic, and Charles Krauthammer presented many of them in his 2004 speech at the American Enterprise Institute’s Annual Dinner. He calls liberal internationalism “all very nice…noble [and] crazy.” He claims American power must be grown because American power has saved the world and other countries many times over. American preemption and unilateral retaliation are a necessary aspect of world peace. And America has the responsibility to use its military might to spread democracy “where it counts.” But these arguments are contradictory and based in logical fallacy.

Krauthammer claims liberal internationalism — subjugation of American interests to global ones in hope of a global community that functions as a domestic community — is foolish because it depends on a fundamental shift in human nature. But that required human nature is already found in the proponents of liberal internationalism, and history has shown a tendency toward ever-larger nations that are internally more and more peaceful. Occasionally overgrown empires have collapsed, but today’s United Kingdom is composed of at least 4 previously separate states, each of which once warred internally. Great Britain is friendly with much of the former English Empire (Australia, Canada, the USA, Great Britain, etc.), and Europe has begun to coalesce into a unified power. So the trends of history may in fact support that crazy liberal internationalism.

American power has indeed saved the world many times over, but there was no particular reason for the saving power to be American; the United States was simply the only concentration of power strong enough to do the saving. The UN could wield that same level of power in world-saving and peacekeeping roles. The “land mine between barbarism and civilization” could just as well be the UN or NATO, and preemption does not exclude multilateralism. Our self-interest in and responsibility to spread democracy “where it counts” are shared by every democracy on earth, and so any attempts that truly count will win support, and the UN has already proved itself a far better nation-builder and democracy-creator than the United States, yet even ignoring these arguments a unilaterally imposed democracy often lacks legitimacy and appears to be a puppet government — just look at Afghanistan today.

Multilateralism’s benefits are clear and strong; its downsides include such horrific concepts as inspiring global accountability. Unilateralism has proven itself a failure in some of our key goals for the War on Terror and provided benefits like allowing the United States to pay for entire wars — wars which the administration claims do the entire world good — by itself. The choice is no choice at all.

  • Congressional Research Service, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan and Enhanced Base Security Since 9/11. Amy Belasco.
  • Daneshku, Scheherezade. “Conflict in Iraq has cost taxpayers Pounds 3.1bn.” The Financial Times Limited. Sept 13, 2005: 4.
  • Dobbins, James et. al. The UN’s Role in Nation-Building. Santa Monica: The RAND Corporation, 2005. (accessed January 30, 2006).
  • Dobbins, James et. al. America’s Role in Nation-Building. Santa Monica: The RAND Corporation, 2003. (accessed January 30, 2006).
  • Krauthammer, Charles. Speech to the American Enterprise Institute AEI Annual Dinner,, February 10, 2004.
  • Nye, Joseph S.”U.S. Power and Strategy After Iraq.” Foreign Affairs. 82.4 (2003): 60.“Pakistan condemns purported CIA airstrike.” Lexington Herald-Leader. Jan 16, 2006 acc Jan 30, 2006