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Limited Liability Multilateralism: IOs and U.S. Humanitarian Military Intervention

Stefano Recchia
Columbia University
Stefano Recchia
Columbia University
Open Panel

Abstract

Why does the U.S. seek the endorsement of standing international organizations (IOs), such as the UN or NATO, before launching humanitarian military interventions abroad? I challenge existing hypotheses, which are based on U.S. leaders'' putative internalization of new international legitimacy norms or concerns about soft balancing, and develop a new theory based on Washington bureaucratic politics. Research has found that U.S. military leaders are reluctant to intervene for humanitarian and other idealist reasons when no traditional strategic interests are at stake. If force is nevertheless used under such circumstances, the military want to keep any deployment of American troops abroad as short as possible. Consistent with these findings, I show that in the face of U.S. domestic political pressure to intervene for humanitarian purposes, American military leaders are among the staunchest and most effective advocates in Washington of IO-based multilateralism for the use of force. The endorsement of relevant IOs, obtained before the initiation of offensive military action, is particularly attractive to commanders in the armed forces, because it locks in the cooperation of international allies and partners in the long run and thereby limits Washington’s liability for post-combat peacekeeping and stabilization. The hypothesis that pragmatic U.S. military leaders, more than self-proclaimed liberal internationalists at the State Department, are the main advocates of IO-based multilateralism for the use of force is somewhat counterintuitive. To test this and other hypotheses, I compare Washington decision making during the lead-up to four humanitarian military interventions carried out by three different U.S. administrations over roughly a decade: Somalia 1992, Haiti 1994, Kosovo 1999, and Liberia 2003. I derive the data for my analysis from about fifty semi-structured interviews with current and former senior U.S. government officials, executive branch documents, records of congressional hearings, memoirs, and contemporaneous newspaper reports.