Project on Defense Alternatives

Interventionism Reconsidered:

Reconciling Military Action With Political Stability

Lutz Unterseher
A PDA Guest Publication
September 1999

1. Defining the Topic

This contribution focuses on armed interventions on behalf of the international community, which differ from traditional peacekeeping missions (using "blue-beret" contingents) in at least one vital aspect: the role of lethal force. Whereas in blue-beret missions weapons have been normally (and ought to be) confined to personal self-protection, the kind of military expeditions discussed here cannot, as a matter of principle, rule out the use of force above the individual level. Indeed, they imply the systematic application of combat power, if necessary.

This is not to suggest that traditional peacekeeping contingencies are going out of fashion. On the contrary, there likely will be a steady demand for "neutral" agents, symbolically representing the world community, to supervise armistice, demilitarisation, and similar agreements after combatants have laid down their arms. In this role of quiet undramatic stabilisation, blue berets have usually performed well -- and it is deplorable that their contribution has not been sufficiently appreciated in the international arena.

Problems can arise, however, when troops trained, structured, and equipped for traditional peacekeeping (with its restrictive rules of engagement) are employed in missions such as the protection of humanitarian sanctuaries and convoys under acute threat. As shown by the events in Bosnia-Herzegovina, placing excessive military demands on blue-beret soldiers means abusing them. Predictably, the result is poor performance and, rightly or wrongly, a loss of respect for the ultimate authorising agency, the United Nations.

This state of affairs has encouraged those who favour lowering the threshold for employing maximum force in peace operations. This position has also called forth its opposite: critics who maintain that "overkill" approaches, while possibly suppressing conflict in the short term, will only stimulate long-term revanchist sentiments and undermine the prospects for a stable peace.

Lost in this polarised debate is another possibility: the use of armed intervention above the level of traditional peacekeeping, but substantially below that of "war-fighting". Associated with this is a unique principle of "adequacy": an employment of armed forces and (possibly) forceful measures that is sufficient to deal with and discourage military challenges, while not being of a character or magnitude that compromises the primacy of political conflict resolution.

2. Pacifist Fallacies

Pacifists in Central Europe and elsewhere often argue that armed intervention of any kind, regardless of authorising agency, cannot lead to a resilient peaceful transformation of a crisis region. Any armed intervention, they contend, has incalculable effects, too often leading to the destruction of those values, assets, or people that the intervention was supposed to protect.

They make a strong case for conflict prevention and resolution by peaceful means and for the strengthening of supranational institutions, representative of international law. These, they say, should be given the support and resources they need to develop effective capabilities for monitoring and mediating crises. These prescriptions are laudable, important, and entirely reasonable. Unfortunately, they are not enough.

What should the world community do when international efforts to stabilise a crisis situation or stave a humanitarian disaster by peaceful means fail? What should we do when such efforts come too late or are not accepted by the combatants? Are we to be left then with only two options: do nothing or yield to military doctrines of "decisive" force? This dilemma is especially acute today because the competency of international agencies is presently so underdeveloped.

When the pacifists - especially the Greens of Austria and Germany - were confronted with media reports of mass rape, torture and murder during the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnia-Herzegovina, they immediately split into factions along the lines suggested above. One faction, the so-called "Fundies" or fundamentalists, continued to resist even considering military action. They had no other answer but to stick to their naïve tabooing of armed intervention, while grave crimes ensued across Bosnia. The other faction, the so-called "Realos" or realists (pragmatists), called for international punitive action, eventually acquiescing to most of what NATO prescribed: a very substantial and traditional military response.1 Driven by moralistic and humanitarian concerns, but unable to imagine a differentiated use of military instruments, the Realos could see no alternative to embracing a type of action and a role for NATO that they previously had opposed strongly. Caught on the horns of this dilemma, left and liberal political forces in many western countries have, one way or the other, handed the initiative on security issues over to conservative leaders in the politico-military establishment.

3. Who's Got the Longest?

There is no doubt that the post-cold war trend of development in many Western militaries is toward increased "power projection" and intervention capabilities, despite some substantial reductions in overall defence spending. And this development has gone forward essentially unhampered by political opposition. Reviewing the case of the UK, a British defence analyst close to New Labour observes that,

"[Our]expeditionary capability, which aspires to be nationally autonomous, would be a balanced force for operations of choice ... This nationally autonomous force would have strategic significance. Operational autonomy is ... useful if coalition partners are various and variable ... All indications are that the Strategic Defence Review will formalise ... an expeditionary strategic concept with a primary emphasis on flexibility and strategic mobility ... Things might have been otherwise. A safe island nation might have opted for a comparatively cheap concept that emphasised territorial autonomy, or minimal defence. Or national autonomy could have been sacrificed in favour of a menu of contributions to NATO or European forces. Or the moral consciousness of a fairly wealthy, unthreatened nation could have been discharged through ground forces specialising purely in peacekeeping ... But it has not been so.

"Issues of the direct defence of the UK have not been central to the Review. The fundamental questions have gone beyond matters purely of defence and security. They are: 'What future role does the UK wish to play globally and in Europe?'; 'Will a relationship with the US continue to be a means to influence power events?'; and 'What instruments of national power need to be developed to fulfil this role?'. Of these instruments military capability is a strong and widely respected suit for the UK. A final and crucial question is therefore. 'How much military force is enough to command international respect and in what form will this military force be most influential?" (M. Codner 1998: 3 - 4.)

And, indeed, the Strategic Defence Review (SDR), conducted by the Labour Government, did formalise an expeditionary strategic concept (Centre for Defence Studies 1998: 5 - 7

Statements similar to Codner's could be cited from other countries, NATO and non-NATO, although most (especially the official sources) are less frank about nationalist motives (Naumann 1995). All in all, one gets the strong impression that the current build-up of intervention forces is a matter of international status competition. Paraphrasing the British source's "crucial question": it is all about who has got the longest reach or who can project more power over greater distances.

4. Supply Creates Demand

The international competition in developing expeditionary forces has produced several large formations. Nations have done this not so much by organising and equipping new units, but rather through the restructuring and re-assignment of already existing elements that previously had served purposes of national or collective defence.

Soon after NATO began to establish its Allied Commander Europe Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) in 1991, a veritable run developed among NATO member states to join and get a respectable share of command positions. As early as mid-1992 the ARRC table of organisation comprised 8 divisions plus several independent brigades. This constitutes a truly enormous ground force corps. Although at first only a blueprint organisation, it soon became a reality (IISS 1992). Most of the constituent formations of the ARRC are not fully integrated into joint corps structures, however. The contributing nations have retained important prerogatives with respect to their use.

The ARRC counts well over 150.000 soldiers. Nonetheless, it is far from being the West's only major intervention force. In 1992 a Franco-German agreement was reached to jointly form the "Euro-Corps" (IISS 1992). It became operational in 1995. Since then Spanish and Belgian force elements were added, which finally resulted in an active strength of well over 50.000 soldiers.

The United States armed forces participate in NATO's ARRC, of course. Apart from this, the U.S.A. maintains by far the largest national intervention potential in the world: air, maritime, assault landing, and land forces combined. There are, for instance, the U.S. Marines with over 170.000 uniformed personnel in peacetime. The Marine Corps was reduced by only 15 percent after the cold war's end. Currently, its amphibious capability is being thoroughly modernised and today it can simultaneously support 40.000 troops in amphibious operations; more can function simply as regular infantry.

The US Army's "rapid reaction" component is the 18th Airborne Corps, with 90.000 active-component troops constituting four divisions -- one each of airborne, helicopter assault, mountain, and mechanised infantry -- plus a "light" armored cavalry regiment and various corps level units. Substantial US air- and sealift modernisation programs are underway with the aim of supporting a US Army capability to deploy up to five divisions anywhere in the world within 75 days. The intervention assets of the US military also include the 45.000 special operations troops drawn from the army, air force, and navy who relate to the US Special Operations Command. And, keep in mind, that most of the above mentioned troops and units are in addition to the 215.000 US troops usually stationed overseas.

The US Air Force has recently adopted an "Aerospace Expeditionary Force" concept with the aim of being able to keep a rotating total of more than 200 fighters and bombers continuously deployed in operations -- not counting the more than 200 permanently stationed overseas. Complementing these are the more than 200 navy and marine fighters that are constantly kept ready to go. Of course, many more USAF, navy, and marine combat aircraft could be surged into action as needed. (The services' active-component fighters and bombers alone total approximately 1800 aircraft.)

A vital part of the US intervention capacity is a standing infrastructure of five geographic "war fighting" commands, which together virtually cover the earth. Some of these -- the Atlantic, Pacific, and European commands -- have large formations permanently assigned; others do not. Among the latter is the U.S. Central Command, which has been in charge of operations in the Gulf region and has the competence of drawing on forces subordinate to other area commands in case of crisis or escalation (IISS 1998). It may be of interest that the U.S. Central Command was originally conceived by Samuel P. Huntington.

An important force sizing criteria for the United States is the putative capacity to deal with several major contingencies simultaneously, with one or two reaching Gulf War II dimensions. As such a situation is not likely to occur, some analysts have expressed a concern that the "over-supply" of intervention forces could lead to an unwarranted "militarisation" of conflict resolution efforts.

If, as the British and US examples suggest, most of the resources for international security are devoted to military instruments, and not to non-military strategies, the build-up of intervention forces can become a self-fulfilling process (prophecy): without enough investment in prevention there will be no real alternative to the use of brute force!

5. Problems with Proper Timing

The formation of large-scale intervention contingents has been indicative not so much of a growing sense of international responsibility, but rather of the continuation of national profiles and interests. This suggests that joint action by a group of nations, or by a military pact such as NATO, is not easy to achieve. Very much depends on whether or not an accord can be reached and sustained at least for a period of time, and even the best developed institutional mechanisms currently available for fashioning such accords seem clumsy.

The difficulty in forging cooperation is due not only to the fact that nations may have different calculi of interests and power with respect to an intervention site, but that they also usually operate under different domestic constraints -- for instance, the sentiments of their respective publics. Indeed, domestic public opinion seems to be of growing relevance in making decisions about intervention. Taking into account both factors, while trying to build an international consensus, can turn out to be a time-consuming business. The public, for instance, may be willing to send "own" soldiers into a conflict situation only after atrocities there have reached a high threshold; or, publics may remain reluctant until they have been convinced that there are low-risk options for intervention forces.

Besides these problems, which concern the difficulty of forming intervention regimes, there are also other complications inherent in crisis situations. Take, for example, the case of Kosovo. The media, in Europe at least, and numerous political analysts have pointed to the danger of violent escalation there ever since the early 1990s (Pichler 1998, Libal 1998). Nonetheless, the international community did little or nothing for years - mainly for two reasons:

  • Kosovo is a part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), which makes intervention without authorisation by the UN Security Council (required by international law) a tricky political business.
  • In order to facilitate the negotiations leading to the Dayton accord for Bosnia-Herzegovina -- which were a close run, touch-and-go affair -- the involved actors agreed clandestinely to table the Kosovo question, least it impede reaching an agreement on Bosnia.

Whatever their source, delays in addressing a crisis allow processes of conflict escalation to spiral upward unhampered. And, as the situation gets worse, the option of a modest, well-tempered application of outside military force comes to appear less and less feasible. In the end, a massive counterstrike may seem the only option. This can be taken as yet another type of self-fulfilling process (or prophecy).

6. Focus on Punitive Action

When outside intervention to end an already well-developed conflict takes the form of a massive strike, such action almost automatically has the character of punishment, rather than denial. Massive strikes to stop the exchange of fire normally cannot be directed against zones where the conflicting parties are closely intermingled because such an operation would lack any discriminatory effect: the "good" guys would get hit as well as the "bad". Instead, the strikes are directed at the military (and sometimes also the political and civilian industrial) infrastructure of the party identified as the aggressor. But often such strikes against an aggressor's "back yard" are perceived by the people in the target area, themselves often victims of domestic oppression, as counter-civilian retaliation or even as an attempt at merciless subjugation.

By this path the putative agents of international law and human rights can come to seem implicated in a form of "no limits" warfare. Of course, in a case like the Kosovo conflict, meaningful distinctions can be drawn between large-scale "ethnic cleansing", on the one side, and responding attacks against (partly) civilian assets, on the other. (Although both are formally illegal.) The intractable problem, however, is that once the outside intervention begins causing the death of hundreds of civilians an important threshold is crossed, the highest moral ground is lost, and a new dynamic is set in motion. People can draw distinctions but -- human nature and the love of family and friends being what it is -- many will not. And so the cycle of vengeful violence is given new impetus.

With reference to the recent history of the Near East, and to other conflict-prone areas, it has been argued that punitive or retaliatory military action is likely to evoke the desire for revenge. The development of affairs in Bosnia-Herzegovina gives evidence to this hypothesis: With the NATO air strikes of 1995 the armed clashes on the ground soon came to an end (although they were not actually over until Croat troops had driven Serb forces and civilians out of the Krajina region). Quite a few observers have considered the NATO strikes to be what prompted the peace process. Others disagree with substantial arguments. According to these voices the strikes were merely coincidental or, at least, not the main reason for the cease-fire (Mutz 1996).

They believe it was more important that the conflicting parties had already achieved most of their goals of ethnic disentanglement and that they had largely exhausted their human and material resources. Also important in this view is the fact that the Clinton administration reversed its previous position in early 1995, showing itself ready to accept the new status quo -- in other words: the results of ethnic cleansing to date (Zumach 1997).

Seen against this background the NATO air strikes take on a different connotation. Since they were almost exclusively directed against the military infrastructure of the Serbs, it is plausible to assume that they would have the effect of deepening Serbian resentments, rather than creating the conditions for a stable peace. Such negative reactions were further substantiated when - after the insertion of IFOR (Implementation Force) and SFOR (Stabilisation Force) to safeguard the Dayton accord - the Serbs gained the impression that the West, especially the United States, gave preferential treatment to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the Croates and Muslims). Currently, at least in the German contingent of the international force, there is a feeling that the peacekeepers are regarded as an occupation army and that hostilities will soon break out again once foreign troops are withdrawn.2

In summary, there is good reason to believe that punitive action can contribute to the development of conditions that demand "more of the same": a second massive strike, then a third, and so on. At best, punishment can momentarily stop hostilities; but it is unlikely to produce a stable peace. In this way, the reliance on military punishment by means of intervention forces is likely to give armed conflict a longer lease of life. This outcome, the product of myopic policies, would neatly preserve a central axiom of "realism": the belief that war cannot be "disinvented".

7. False Promises of High Technology

Punitive strikes, which we have identified as problematic, are more likely to occur if the military culture of the intervening countries is centering on high technology and the promises of its aficionados. The potential of high-technology applications appears to be greatest with respect to long-range, precision-guided fire using air-launched (stand-off) or ground-/sea-based missiles. For this reason high technology lends itself more to the improvement of strike capabilities, than to the optimisation of military performance in other areas (Knight et al. 1992). Currently, investments in high-technology equipment are mainly driven by three considerations:

  • First, military strategists hope to minimise the collateral damage caused by punitive strikes in order to assuage public opinion and avoid challenges to the legitimacy of such strikes.
  • Second, since modern societies are "casualty averse" (especially with respect to their own youngsters sent abroad), there is increased reliance on machines that promise to do the job from safer, standoff distances.
  • Third, high-tech aficionados have successfully induced military hierarchies to believe that cutting- edge technologies make possible a quantum leap in cost-effectiveness.

All these hopes are questionable, however. High-tech applications tend to be over-complex and, thus, susceptible to "Murphy's Law". High rates of mission capability are maintained only by Herculean maintenance efforts. Moreover, these systems, like all others, are vulnerable to counter-measures -- but their high cost and long development cycles impede any quick adaptation to such counter-measures. Although the precision-guided weapons used in Gulf War II were given the highest ratings by Pentagon officials and were made to look good by militarily censored TV reports, their actual performance fell far short of initial claims and their cost-effectiveness proved quite low (GAO 1996). In some cases -- for instance, the efforts to interdict Iraqi SCUD missiles and to find their launchers -- their performance was abysmal.

As for the limitation of collateral damage by high-tech means: one would have to be short-sighted and narrow-minded to conclude that the picture is good. On the one hand, by Second World War standards, the rate of immediate civilian casualties per target destroyed was very low in the Gulf War and recent Kosovo conflict. On the other hand, in absolute terms, thousands of civilians were directly killed by coalition attacks in the Gulf War; hundreds (and perhaps many more) were killed in the recent strikes on Serbia. These are not insignificant numbers, especially for small countries and short wars. Although unintentional, the civilian death toll was entirely predictable given the targeting of "dual-use", political, and industrial structures in built-up areas. And this casts a shadow on the legitimacy of the operation and reflects badly on its authorising agency.

Much more significant are the indirect and intermediate effects of such bombings, unfolding in the days and months following the attack, which in the case of Iraq involved a genuine humanitarian disaster. After the Gulf War, a team of investigators from the Harvard School of Public Health estimated 70,000-90,000 postwar civilian deaths principally due to the lack of electricity for water purification and sewage treatment. Even one-tenth this number would be significant.

Also pertinent to the issue of damage limitation and cost-effectiveness is the question, What was gained by these attacks? In the case of the Gulf War, the official US Gulf War Air Power Survey found that the campaign against "strategic" (meaning "non-battlefield") targets did not have a compelling operational impact on the battlefield. It remains to be seen whether or not the air strikes conducted in early 1999 against Saddam Hussein's regime and his arms production facilities deserve a better marking. But it already can be said that - however developed the military efficiency (defined in narrow terms) of the 1999 strikes - the political outcome has been meagre at best.

In the case of the recent Kosovo conflict, many have said that "air power won the war". A much higher percentage of the air strikes were of the so-called "strategic" sort than in the Gulf War and many more of the munitions were of the precision type -- 35 percent versus eight percent in the Gulf War. But proclaiming the victory of high-tech air power ignores several relevant points: First, the United States did not achieve its goal of victory within four days or anything approaching it -- and this shortfall imposed a high political cost. Second, rather than bringing immediate relief to the Kosovars, the over-reliance on long-range strategic attack left them at the mercy of enraged Serbian forces for 10 long weeks. Third, factors other than long-range strikes probably played as great a role in ending the conflict -- if not a greater role. Among these factors were the Kosovar ground offensive late in the war and the mounting prospect of a NATO ground campaign, the role eventually afforded the Russians in mediating and enforcing the final accord, and the easing of some of the peace terms originally put forward at Rambouillet.

A great deal of attention has focused on the fact that so few allied troops and assets were lost (a "stealthy" F-117 among them) in the Kosovo conflict. But to focus on this in isolation from the broader issues outlined above distorts beyond recognition the meaning of the terms "damage limitation", "victory", and "cost-effective". If we pay proper attention to operational effects, ultimate aims, and long-term consequences, the promises of high-tech and strategic air power advocates ring hollow. And we are reminded that in attempting to conduct truly adequate military interventions there is no substitute for human beings (inter)acting "on the spot" (Grin 1998). High-tech strikes, per se, cannot oust a bloodthirsty dictator, keep warring factions apart, or stave ethnic cleansers.

8. Expeditionary Missions and their Nature

Having criticised essential aspects of the current practice let us now consider a better, more effective concept of military intervention. There are a variety of important tasks that armed interventions (above the level of traditional blue-beret missions) might undertake on behalf of the international community

  • Military back-up for economic sanctions, arms embargoes etc.,
  • preventive, stabilising deployment of troops to a country (territory) under acute threat, 3
  • evacuation of foreigners from a country torn by civil war,
  • creating and defending a demilitarised zone to keep warring factions apart,
  • protection of humanitarian convoys,
  • defence of sanctuaries declared by the world community,
  • punitive action to end escalatory processes,
  • offensive retaking of territory seized by an aggressor, and
  • occupation of territory to keep conflicting parties under control.

With respect to this catalogue of typical military missions three interesting observations can be made:

  • First, most types of missions have to do with control and protection - functions which cannot be regarded as punitive or offensive, per se. (And, as developments during the last decade show, international control and protection missions have occurred more often than punitive operations or acts of reconquest.)
  • Second, if the functions of control and protection can be performed in an optimal manner, enhancing political stability, the demand for punitive action or reconquest is greatly reduced.
  • Third, the requirements for stability would be met best if the necessary military measures are well-timed, immediately effective, and aimed at minimising provocation.

9. Defensive Support as a Key Concept

A new concept of interventionary action that is attuned to the aforementioned points is "defensive support". It derives from that school of thought known as "alternative," "non-offensive," or "confidence-building" defence.

As a mission concept "defensive support" covers both protective and control functions. Its principal design insight is to structure expeditionary forces in a way that would "decouple defensive from offensive mobility". This means, on the one hand, giving troops a high degree of strategic mobility to allow for the speedy allocation of defensive combat power to "the right spot" at "the right time". On the other hand, "defensive support" prescribes organising, equipping, and training these troops for holding ground and for patrol and escort missions, tangentially ruling out the capability to move offensively under heavy fire.

Typically, defensive support would require light, mechanised infantry formations (with organic air transport) riding on wheeled armoured carriers and being equipped with monitoring and counter-mobility gear (probably backed up by some artillery capable of firing advanced ammunition). Details concerning such a structure are available from a rich collection of recent alternative defence literature (see for an overview: Møller/Wiberg 1994!), and from some innovative armies (such as the Finnish forces) whose leadership well understands that adequate crisis response demands modern, well-tailored contingents with a strong human element rather than high-tech gadgetry (European Security and Finnish Defense 1997: 95 - 96).

Critics of alternative defence often have asserted that the school of thought fails to comprehend the mobility requirements of the new military era. More generally, it has been argued that the high degree of mobility necessary for intervention forces precludes the possibility of their being "defensive". However, a detailed analysis shows that there are different kinds of mobility, serving different ends force allocation, offensive, or defensive action -- and that the competencies associated with each of these do not necessarily have to be combined (Unterseher 1993). In other words, even with long-range intervention forces, it is possible to structurally limit offensive capabilities.

The key innovation is to combine strategic mobility, which ensures optimal force allocation, with a tactically defensive mode of force structuring and deployment. This is entirely consonant with the fundamental rationale of non-offensive or confidence-building defence. Its central principle, with roots in ancient Chinese military philosophy (MO TZU 1964), is that a posture geared to directly deny aggressive aims has a much better chance of contributing to de-escalation and war avoidance than does a posture that aims to deter or defend by posing the threat of retaliatory punishment. (Møller/Wiberg 1994).

Recent empirico-analytical studies of historical cases have produced evidence that the outbreak of armed conflict is more likely when at least one party believes that victory is both possible and relatively easy. In other words, the war temptation is greatest when an offensive strategy or option seems to be feasible and to promise success in a relatively short time at an acceptable cost in blood and treasure (Mearsheimer 1983, Van Evera 1998).

In this light, the best strategy for defusing crises and avoiding war would usually consist of measures that make territorial conquest more difficult -- time- and resource-consuming. By contrast, in most cases, threats of retaliation are not equally promising because they can provoke preemptive moves a not unlikely response if one assumes that potential aggressors believe in the feasibility of the offensive.

10. Political and Institutional Requirements

If an act of military intervention is to have a stabilising effect one important precondition is that it receives a mantle of "international legitimacy" based on overwhelming support in the world community. Without this, even good-hearted interventions are likely to precipitate a cycle of unilateral or unipolar interventions and counter-interventions, with individual nations or groups of nations simply posing their interests in universal terms. Moreover, the failure to develop a true and resilient international consensus supportive of an interventionary act is likely to make success on the ground more difficult and costly. This is because one or more of the parties to the local dispute may hold out hope of gaining some significant outside support.

A second important prerequisite to effective intervention, as we have learned, is prompt action -- timeliness. However, these two preconditions taken together can pose something of a dilemma. The broadening of the support base requires time, especially if it involves the integration of disparate national contingents and operational concepts: the more participants involved, the less likely that they will be able to act in concert in due time.

The need for legitimacy raises other difficulties as well. The legitimacy of interventionary acts has hinged on the approval or authorisation of the United Nations Security Council. Indeed, such authorisation is required by international law, especially in those cases where the intervention concerns a conflict inside the borders of a sovereign state. However, positive action by the Security Council has often been neutralised by the excessive use of the veto power given to its permanent members. This may eventually change: The admission of more permanent members to the Security Council may also involve some modification of traditional veto privileges. Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali recently expressed his concern, however, that the already long-overdue admission of new permanent members, along with a reformulation and differentiation of veto rights, might take more than a decade (Boutros-Ghali 1999: 130). In his view, before key countries of the northern hemisphere (especially the U.S.A.) would be ready to really share power with representatives of other regions, there has to be much more progress in the process of globalisation -- the development of ever tighter cultural, social and economic networks -- and the feeling of worldwide interdependence has to intensify considerably. But Boutros-Ghali contends that in the long-term there is no viable alternative for the world community: greater cooperation, a necessity, requires a broader sharing of responsibility and authority.

And there is one more problem. If we assume that the UN will someday be capable of better (and more legitimate) decision-making, there still remains the question of capability: does the world community have adequate means of implementation at its disposal? Currently, the United Nations is totally dependent on the goodwill of the member states which - particularly in cases were an armed intervention involves substantial risks - costs precious time.

Quite a few countries have earmarked selected "stand-by" armed formations (or elements thereof) for military missions authorised and commanded by the United Nations. In most cases, however, the governments involved have linked their commitment to restrictive conditions. In spite of this, the designation of national forces for international use represents a step in the right direction.4 But there is a better solution yet: the development of a UN legion

11. Plea for the Creation of a UN Legion

Several analysts have proposed that a free standing "UN Legion" could be allocated more flexibly to potential crisis spots and tailored more adequately to the world community's needs than could a force consisting of different national elements operating under different political constraints (Conetta, Knight 1995, 1998).

Conetta and Knight formulated their proposal for the creation of a UN Legion in the context of a debate among experts (mainly in the United States) whose concern was to provide the United Nations with more adequate means of military intervention (Urquhart 1993, Lewis 1995). And they have been particularly inspired by a systematic presentation of the problems involved by Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Boutros-Ghali 1992 They point to the fact that it was the malfunctioning of the UN stand-by system during the Rwanda crisis that induced the Netherlands to consider the possibility of setting up a standing UN fire brigade. In this context their quotation from a speech, which Hans van Mierlo, then Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, gave to the UN General Assembly in September 1994, is of particular interest (Conetta, Knight 1998: 20). The Minister reflected on a UN official's assessment that a single mechanised brigade deployed to Rwanda during the crisis might have averted the tragedy there:

"If the deployment of a brigade could have prevented the indiscriminate slaughter of many hundreds of thousands, what then prevented us from doing so? Let us face it: the reason was that under the circumstances no government was prepared to risk the lives of its citizens ... If member states are not in a position to provide the necessary personnel, will it then not become unavoidable for us to consider the establishment of a full-time, professional, at all times available and rapidly deployable UN Brigade for this purpose: a UN Legion at the disposal of the Security Council?"

With the demand thus stated the future UN Legion could take on a profile as follows (Conetta, Knight 1998: 24 - 30):

11.1 Profile of a standing UN force
The Legion would comprise 15.000 internationally recruited soldiers and civilians (contract basis).

Force structure
Main organisational elements are:

  • 2 brigade headquarters,
  • 2 motorised infantry battalions,
  • 2 light mechanised infantry battalions,
  • 1 light mechanised cavalry regiment (battalion size),
  • 1 light armoured cavalry regiment (37 light tanks),
  • 2 armed scout helicopter companies (18 machines each),
  • 6 field artillery batteries (eight 155 mm tubes each),
  • 2 air defense companies (12 mounted air defense systems each),
  • 2 strong combat engineer companies,
  • 2 signal companies,
  • 2 field intelligence companies,
  • 2 MP companies,
  • 2 civil affairs companies,
  • 2 field logistics bases.

Having two types of infantry and cavalry allows for a relatively precise tailoring of deployment packages. Most demanding would be missions aiming to protect large humanitarian sanctuaries or to separate (and disarm) warring factions. Such a mission could require the deployment of a reinforced brigade numbering up to 5.000 soldiers. This is about as many troops as the proposed legion could keep out in the field at any one time. Among the assets of such a reinforced brigade would be 18 light tanks, 16 - 24 155-mm field pieces, 32 medium-heavy mortars, 12 mobile air defence systems, 18 armed scout helicopters, and approximately 200 other combat vehicles or armoured transporters.

A brigade-sized deployment package of normal dimensions (3.300 - 3.500 persons) could be transported from its home base to a site 5.000 miles away within twelve days. This would require less than 500 C-141 sorties (and a fleet of only 36 C-141s or its equivalents). A lead element of such a force, a reinforced light mechanised infantry battalion, could be "on the spot" within only three or four days.

Cost estimates
The initial capital expenditures for equipping the proposed force (including base construction or renovation) would amount to approximately 1,6 billion US dollars. And the long-term average annual budget for the UN legion has been estimated to be 745 million US dollars. Incremental costs associated with field operations might add another 590 million US dollars per year (1995/1996 price level). It should be noted that the estimate of these incremental expenses is for one year of full utilisation. The costs of strategic lift are included (rental basis), on the assumption of two separate deployments (in each case 50 - 60 percent of the force is transported by air).

11.2 Avoiding a peculiar kind of legionary's disease
The profile of the proposed UN Legion shows us a force that is somewhat dominated by infantry. And there are additional elements - such as engineers, MP, and those for civil affairs - which also place particular emphasis on human actors and their performance. This emphasis is totally adequate because the envisaged force does not just have to be tactically and technically efficient, but also has to engage in numerous human interactions in order to have a truly stabilising, confidence-building effect in the crisis region. Think, for instance, of soldiers who - having suppressed hostile sniper action by their own high-precision counterfire - are ordered to disarm the village were the shots had come from! In such cases very much depends on the UN soldiers social skills, on their ability to stand firm and to avoid provocation.

Such virtues could erode or might not fully flourish, however, if the members of the UN standing force develop an esprit de corps with a decidedly elitist touch. Of course, the UN legionnaires would quite likely constitute an elite. The question is: Will this quality be unduly emphasised or not? In this regard, the history of the French Foreign Legion teaches an interesting lesson (Cadiou 1986):

In order to overcome the divisive tendencies inherent in the Foreign Legion's multi-cultural recruitment base, and to generate (as well as to maintain) the high degree of group cohesion necessary for combat effectiveness, a veritable cult of being "special" and "superior" was developed. This often led to very serious problems of interaction with the indigenous civilian population in the regions of deployment. At present the Foreign Legion seems to pose less of a human-relations problem than was the case during the period between 1830 (the Legion's founding date) and the Algerian war. The reasons for improvement may be better political control and a greater degree of professionalisation.

One good thing about the concept of a UN Legion is that human relations problems can more easily be made a topic of international public concern and a subject of concerted measures aiming to minimise inappropriate behaviour. It would be far more different to address similar problems in the context of a peace mission comprising various national contingents from individual UN member states. It is well known, although seldom discussed in the political area, that not all soldiers participating in UN peace operations have behaved as appropriately as, for instance, the ones from Scandinavia.

What to do in order to achieve the best results concerning the human potential of a UN Legion should be subject to further study. For now, the following short list of measures may provide a sense of direction:

  • careful screening of applicants,
  • firm politico-military control,
  • introduction of an ombudsman system,
  • professionalisation partly linked to civilian education,
  • establishment of obligatory language courses,
  • exercises in multi-cultural understanding,
  • thorough information on potential deployment regions.

11.3 General assessment
Provided that the human-relations problems inherent in the creation of a UN Legion can be dealt with in a satisfactory manner, the concept is quite promising. It envisages a relatively light force that lends itself optimally to quick allocation and flexible adaptation to different environments. Its costs are by no means outrageous. Note, for instance, that at as of June 30, 1997, the arrears in payments of contributions to the UN peacekeeping budget amounted to 1,7 billion dollars, of which the US owed 58 % (IISS 1997 - 1998: 275). As noted previously, the estimated initial capital expenditures for a UN Legion would be of the same order of magnitude.

A special assessment of the Legion's fighting value shows that it has considerable bite as long as it stays on the defensive. Wherever needed it can mount a denial-type posture of respectable firepower stemming from a mix of direct- and indirect-fire weapons (in which high-precision artillery and mortars would play a key role).

A UN Legion could help overcome both the "casualty aversion" of modern societies and the status-seeking impulses associated with the building-up of nationally autonomous intervention forces. To the world community, notoriously lacking in resources, this option could be sold on grounds that a timely, non-escalatory insertion of adequately structured forces would promise success in peace operations at relatively low cost in blood and treasure.

12. Drawing Conclusions from the Kosovo Experience

When, after 11 weeks of strategic bombardment, the government in Belgrade accepted the deployment of internationally composed troops to the Kosovo, numerous representatives of NATO and its member countries declared that a variety of lessons had been learned. Among these putative lessons were the following propositions:

  • When the international community is forced to confront a rogue state, diplomacy can be successful only as long as it is backed by a credible military threat and, if necessary, the application of overwhelming military force.
  • Threatening to punish or actually punishing a state guilty of serious violations of international law or human rights can effectively correct its behaviour and promote the cause of long-term stability and peaceful conflict resolution.
  • Air strikes with precision-guided weapons are an ideal instrument for carrying out such a punishment - as they raise the cost for the opposing leadership and its oppression machine, while at the same time minimising collateral damage and saving the lives of one's own soldiers.
  • If there is an imminent escalation of atrocities in a crisis region and the UN Security Council is acting too slowly, NATO has a moral obligation to act on its own and should launch such strikes without UN authorisation.

Contrary to this official story, a common dissenting view sees the strategic bombardment of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as illegal and ineffective with regard to key humanitarian goals, having failed to stop ethnic cleansing and instead contributing to its intensification.

The critical view also contends that, despite claims of minimal collateral damage, the destruction of Serbia's infrastructure (power plants, water purification facilities, lines of communication etc.) was grave. So radical, indeed, that thousands of people are going to suffer or die in the future (due to malnutrition, degraded medical care etc). And this outcome will lead to intensified feelings of unjust treatment and deprivation, which likely will feed strong revanchist attitudes. Finally, critics of the NATO operation argue that, despite all its military might, NATO was unable on its own to end the hostilities. Instead, relevant non-NATO powers -- such as Russia, Finland, and the UN Security Council -- had to be brought in to facilitate a modus vivendi.

The latter fact leads to the conclusion that the United States and other NATO countries should play a more constructive role in the UN, with the aim of improving that body's competency to act in a timely fashion, so that NATO need not have to act on its own in times of crisis.

But even if these issues related to legitimation can be solved satisfactorily, there still remains the problem of devising a truly adequate means for intervening against aggression and the gross violation of human rights. NATO's air campaign, driven by high-tech enthusiasm and the casualty aversion typical of modern societies, clearly aggravated the situation and is, on moral grounds, unjustifiable. But what would have been a better solution? Here is a tentative answer:

An effective strategy would have been to move ground forces into the Kosovo as soon as possible after accelerated ethnic cleansing had been observed and verified. Given limited goals and an appropriately-sized contingent of forces, this should have been a swift operation closely supported by tactical air power. Rather than seeking to punish the Serbs, its mission should have been to create and defensively hold humanitarian corridors and sanctuaries for refugees around the (5 of so) major towns of the Kosovo. Such a move would have thwarted all plans for a campaign of systematic ethnic cleansing and totally altered the power equation. On balance it would have saved many thousand lives.

NATO possesses, in considerable redundancy, all the military means necessary to conduct such a relief operation. It refrained from doing so, however, because some leaders feared that there would have been casualties in numbers not acceptable to the publics of most member countries. Of course, the casualty issue is related to the fact that in NATO circles the idea of a "ground operation" in the Kosovo was taken to mean an "all-out offensive" perhaps not even stopping at the borders of Kosovo. The alternative option of limited, although resolute, defensive operations is beyond the bounds of standard NATO thinking even though such operations inherently promise to minimalise casualties.

In summary, a close review of what did and did not happen in the Kosovo operation reaffirms the key role of truly inclusive institutions in interventions that are supposed to represent the world community and international law. Legitimation, which is important not only morally but also operationally, depends on such institutions having the central role. Moreover, the Kosovo experience affirms the need for a different approach to interventions if such interventions are to effectively serve the goal of a stable peace. We have argued that the development of capabilities along the lines of "defensive support" fit the bill. Finally, we have shown how these two trends of thought converge in the proposal for a UN Legion.

As for NATO: the Kosovo experience confirms that this institution, born and bred of the cold war, presently lacks both the legitimation basis and the doctrinal inclination to effectively serve in the role of the world's cop. And this may rekindle the organisation's recent identity crisis, calling into question its raison d'être in a post-cold war world.


1. In Austria there are notable exceptions among leading members of the Greens. Some voices advocate the integration of Austrian troops into an international intervention force under UN command mainly for purposes of military stabilisation (Wabl 1998 .)

2. Expert interview with a German MOD official representing a task force of military psychologists in charge of monitoring behaviour and attitudes of troops stationed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bonn, June 21, 1998.

3. In a formal sense the Americans posted to Macedonia between March 1995 and early 1999 are blue-beret personnel authorised by the United Nations. It is common understanding, however, that their preventive power rests on the military might of the U.S.A.

4. On the expansion of the so-called UN Stand-by system see: IISS 1997 - 1998: 274 - 275! By June 2, 1997, 66 countries were willing to participate in the system, but only 8 had formalised their commitment. In the guidelines for response times it is envisaged that the bulk of a crisis reaction force should be "on the spot" within 30 days.


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Citation: Lutz Unterseher, Interventionism Reconsidered: Reconciling Military Action With Political Stability, Project on Defense Alternatives Guest Publication. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, September 1999.

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