The year that just passed might very well be the most equivocal in some time. International institutions performed quite ably in several cases, helping to mitigate crises and facilitate political change. They also did quite poorly at preventing crisis and facilitating political change. In reviewing 2011, I want to highlight a few key bits of international infrastructure and the mixed impact they had. Specifically, the United Nations, NATO and the European Union did both more and less than we might have expected.
The United Nations played a funky role during the Libyan crisis, giving NATO the legitimacy it was looking for, even as NATO (thanks to France) pushed the mandate beyond the expectations of those voting for it. Much lesson learning occurred, so that Russia and probably China would not vote the same way again if given the opportunity. They have clearly seen votes on Syria as just that opportunity, showing that they will not approve another carte blanche even if NATO is not so interested. The UN is very heavily committed in Congo, Darfur and South Sudan, but those conflicts got much less press this year, and I only realized how big these mission were when I had to teach about them.
NATO had a mixed year. The Alliance can count the Libyan effort as a big success, but Afghanistan and member state defence cuts raise questions about future resolve and capability. The effort in the skies over and in the seas near Libya was very, very reminiscent of the Kosovo campaign: it took much longer than expected, there was much division within NATO about whether to continue the operation, some countries bore a far heavier burden, and there was great reluctance to put troops on the ground. The aftermath of the air campaign left behind more questions than answers. At least in Kosovo, the questionable Kosovo Liberation Army had sufficient unity that NATO and the UN were able to deal with one problematic organization, unlike the threat of civil war among many that they had to contend with in the Libyan campaign. Still, NATO achieved regime change, which may or may not have been its explicit goal but was certainly necessary for protecting the population.
NATO’s year in Afghanistan was also decidedly mixed. A stalwart, Canada, left Kandahar in 2011 and only came back to Kabul in a heavily caveated “behind the wire” mission. Statistics about greater control and less violence seemed incredible in the face of high-profile assassinations in southern Afghanistan and spectacular attacks in Kabul. It was also the beginning of transition, of handing over cities and provinces to Afghan leadership and moving NATO forces into the background. Significant questions still exist about how this is going, but the process is inevitable as the Dutch and the Canadians are not the only countries eager to leave. Even if casualties happen, the continued budget strain on Allied militaries would be reason enough to leave.
There’s the rub. Fiscal crises throughout the advanced democracies pose a greater constraint on future NATO operations than regrets over Afghanistan. With severe budget cuts even in the traditionally expeditionary countries of Great Britain and France, it is not clear that NATO will have much capability in a few years for even a relatively limited mission like Libya.
The European Union fared worse. Despite Europe's proximity to North Africa, it was little more than a bystander to the Arab Spring, including the Libyan version. Indeed, reactions to the protests seemed more motivated by xenophobia than anything else. France and Italy wanted to revise Schengen border processes to limit the flow of refugees, ultimately raising one of the most severe challenges to the EU response to the Arab Spring. A borderless Europe is central to the identity of the EU, but it was its common currency, the euro -arguably a bit less central than the issue of members' national borders - that was the subject of much wranglin, domestic politics ultimately trumping the institution's best interests. The end of 2011 will not see the end of the euro crisis, but perhaps some resolution will appear in 2012. Or perhaps not.
Unexpectedly, the Arab League turned out to be the only international organization that improved its reputation over the course of 2011. It gave the UN and then NATO essential legitimacy to use force against Libya, even if the extent of the effort went beyond what was initially expected. The Arab League, which has long been a club of countries with little interest in any political change, eventually even sanctioned Syria. Relatively modest efforts, though nonetheless revolutionary.
What lessons can we draw from how international institutions reacted to various internal conflicts, especially those spawned by the Arab Spring? First, as always, domestic politics (that dreaded political will) trumps most other interests. Politicians must react to domestic constraints, to public opinion, to the demands of the opposition. While President Obama had a freer hand in foreign policy than in domestic policy, freer is not free. Other leaders found their hands tied by caveats imposed by legislatures, or over-reacted to potential domestic resistance (Merkel). This reality is not new, but perhaps more severe in a time of budget crises and polarized political systems.
The second lesson is that even great powers have limited influence. The threat of force and other sanctions may not cause politicians in troubled states to bend, as their incentives mostly come from within. Assad of Syria is going to resist the international community because doing otherwise would mean the end of his rule. Qaddafi fought to the bitter end perhaps because surrender would have meant being subject to another international institution, the International Criminal Court. There has been much frustration that NATO has fallen short in Afghanistan, but the reality is that there is only so much even the most powerful military alliance can do. President Karzai has his own concerns, so he will not risk his position to fight corruption enough to build good governance and rule of law. Without these key pillars, US and its allies cannot sustain their military efforts.
So, the big lesson of 2011 is humility. International institutions and powerful countries can make a difference, and often do play an important role in shaping outcomes. But they cannot simply impose their will, due to the power of domestic political incentives in intervening and host states. Recognising the limits of institutions wouldn't be a bad way to begin 2012.
Stephen M. Saideman is Canada Research Chair of International Security and Ethnic Conflict at McGill University and author of The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict (2001); and For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (2008 with R. William Ayres). He writes Xenophile, CI's monthly analysis of nationalism and the use of force.