How Military Interveners Overcome Opposition at the United Nations

The SMU Tower Center’s National Security Chair, Stefano Recchia, recently published an article titled Overcoming Opposition at the UNSC: Regional Multilateralism as a Form of Collective Pressure in the Journal of Global Security Studies.

We spoke with Dr. Recchia to learn more about his research and its important policy implications.

What is your research primarily about?

For the last several years in my research I have looked at major-power decision making about the use of military force. Specifically, I have sought to better understand why powerful democracies such as the United States, France, or the United Kingdom nowadays typically seek international approval from the United Nations (UN) before they intervene militarily abroad. If we think about it, this phenomenon is quite puzzling—especially for the United States, a military superpower that certainly has the capabilities to intervene on its own without the need to obtain anyone’s permission.

So why do powerful states seek international approval?

What we know from existing studies is that UN approval generates legitimacy, which is instrumentally valuable to states for at least two reasons:

  1. It generally increases support for military intervention among domestic audiences at home—in the U.S. Congress, for example. This is especially the case for humanitarian interventions, when there are no traditional national security interests involved.
  2. It also boosts international cooperation on the intervention at hand and facilitates burden sharing; or, at least, it reduces the likelihood of opposition on the part of other powerful states that might create serious problems down the road. 

In my book, Reassuring the Reluctant Warriors, I made the case that America’s top-ranking generals and admirals play an underappreciated role in steering U.S. policy on military intervention toward international engagement. The generals and admirals are usually “reluctant warriors” who value burden sharing with foreign allies and partners. I found that civilian leaders who favor the use of force in particular instances, such as the secretary of state or national security advisor, are at first often inclined to bypass the UN to maximize U.S. freedom of action. But the calculus of these civilian leaders is likely to change—and become more favorable to building consensus with foreign partners through the UN—when the uniformed officers push back against hasty military action by highlighting related risks and operational costs.

We can see that in this article, you take your research in a new direction.

Correct. In this new project, I ask: How can states that are planning to intervene militarily actually obtain UN approval, when influential UN member states (notably, permanent members of the UN Security Council) are initially reluctant to offer their support? This is not just a hypothetical question. A state that wants UN support for a particular intervention must obtain unanimous approval from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the United States, China, Russia, France and Great Britain. The United States itself has found it increasingly difficult to obtain UN approval over the last two decades. In 2003, the George W. Bush administration failed to get UN approval for the Iraq War, and more recently, when the Obama administration was weighing the possibility a humanitarian intervention in Syria, China and Russia made it very clear that they would oppose this at the UN. In the past, the United States would sometimes offer financial incentives, or side-payments, to secure enough votes in support of its preferred policy at the UN; however, as Washington’s economic clout declines relative to rising powers like China, these powers are less likely to be bought off.

What exactly do you find in this article?

I find that countries seeking a UN resolution of approval are more likely to be successful if they follow a two-step approach. What this means is that they should first aim to secure the backing of a regional international organization—like the African Union, the European Union, or NATO. Such regional backing is often easier to obtain, partly because less powerful regional states are easier to persuade. Then, in a second step, regional backing can be leveraged to put pressure on holdouts at the UN Security Council and get them to also support the intervention.

As I discuss in the article, France has been especially successful at obtaining UN approval through this method. The French have launched more than a dozen military interventions in Africa since the end of the Cold War. In 2003, France wanted to intervene in its former colony, the Ivory Coast, as well as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to preserve its political interests. I found that when France requested UN backing for these interventions, the United States was initially quite reluctant to offer its support. The main reason was that only weeks earlier, France had refused to back a UN resolution of approval for the U.S.-led war against Iraq. Nevertheless, the French eventually persuaded the U.S. administration to support their African interventions at the UN. How did they manage that? In the Ivory Coast case, France first secured strong backing from the Economic Community of West African States, a regional organization that includes Nigeria and Ghana, two important partners of the United States. In the DRC case, France first obtained the approval of the European Union, an organization that consists of major U.S. allies. By first securing such regional backing, France made it more difficult for the United States to withhold its support at the UN, because that could have resulted in diplomatic friction not just with France but with all those other U.S. partners.

This is fascinating. What are some of the policy implications or takeaways for the United States?

I believe that what has worked well for France could also work for the United States. As I noted, moving forward the United States will find it more difficult to simply use its economic clout to gain UN approval for its military interventions. The United States is more likely succeed in its UN diplomacy, if it first forges regional coalitions in support of its policies, working through regional organizations. There is already some evidence that this can be advantageous to the United States. For example, when the United States and some European partners wanted to intervene in Libya in 2011, they first secured regional endorsements from the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council. This subsequently proved to be crucial in persuading China and Russia not to block a UN resolution of approval for the Libya intervention. The alternative to forging such regional coalitions as a stepping-stone to UN approval might be for the United States to intervene unilaterally, without any international support. But that would be costly and could be expected to result in significant international push back.

For a deeper dive into this topic, find the full published article here.

Stefano Recchia holds the John G. Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security at SMU. He also directs the program in national security at SMU’s Tower Center for Public Policy and International Affairs. His research interests revolve around military intervention decision making and international cooperation in security affairs. To learn more about his research and publications, go here.