`Coalition of the willing' is world's best weapon

April 21, 2002|By Lincoln P. Bloomfield

COHASSET, Mass. - Debate about American foreign policy has been discreetly muffled since Sept. 11.

But the argument between unilateral and multilateral action has reappeared as a subtext of the response to global terrorism.

Of course, in the real world, policy is a mix of the two, depending on the circumstances.

What is new is the notion of "coalitions" as a flexible version of the old multilateralism.

President Bush praised our allies on March 11 as "a mighty coalition of civilized nations." Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier described the states that joined the United States in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan as a "coalition of the willing."

That label entered the vocabulary when a "coalition of the willing" kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

The military reality in 1991, as now, was that only a few countries were up to the kicking, so it was mainly a U.S. effort.

But the political reality - as now - required supportive allies and a legitimizing U.N. umbrella.

The same formula worked in Afghanistan and is fast becoming conventional wisdom.

World leaders, pundits and editorial writers today use "coalitions of the willing" as shorthand for military action blessed by the U.N. Security Council but carried out by a pick-up team of member countries with the will and the wherewithal under the lead of the United States.

But how do coalitions of the willing fit into the rest of the international security architecture?

Under the U.N. Charter, collective security to deal with threats to peace was supposed to be managed jointly by the five great powers. The Cold War killed that prospect, and the realities of power still make it a non-starter.

A more ad hoc approach to enforcement was already in place when in 1971 The New York Times carried my suggestion of a "coalition of the law-abiding."

The so-called U.N. police action in Korea in 1950 was in fact a coalition of the willing in the sense that 16 countries under U.S. command acted on a U.N. mandate to beat back aggression.

Such ad-hockery is not mentioned in the U.N. Charter. But if the U.S. Constitution is a living instrument that adapts to changing reality, so is the U.N. Charter.

That document said nothing about peacekeeping, which was invented in the middle of the night in October 1956, when Egypt was attacked by Britain, France and Israel.

For conflict prevention and maintaining cease-fires, U.N. peacekeeping missions became a useful, if controversial, halfway house between combat and diplomatic hand-wringing.

Another innovation was the "multinational force," devised in Lebanon in 1982 and applied in the 1990s in the Balkans .

The International Security Assistance Force now in Afghanistan is a mix of the two, featuring a Security Council mandate and British (soon Turkish) leadership.

In the same spirit, coalitions of the willing represent the best available formula for dealing with some of the world's most daunting challenges - rooting out global outlaws such as al-Qaida, restoring a violated peace, aborting proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Coalitions of the willing are not only an idea whose time has come but also a felicitous phrase, and historians might wonder where the phrase originated. They will have trouble, since retired NATO Ambassador Harlan Cleveland has told Bartlett's that it was me. But I told a congressional committee that it was Harlan Cleveland.

No DNA test is available and, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, you can achieve anything so long as you don't mind who gets credit for it. The best solution is to drop the quotation marks, go for the Eisenhower maxim and muster coalitions of the willing for crucial enforcement actions the wider community endorses but can't carry out by itself.

Lincoln P. Bloomfield, professor of political science, emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, served at the State Department during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations and at the National Security Council during the Carter administration.

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