International Organizations and Peace Enforcement Operations: The Politics of International Legitimacy

  • Published

International Organizations and Peace Enforcement Operations: The Politics of International Legitimacy by Katharina P. Coleman. Cambridge University Press, 2007, 374 pp.

Through the examination of five contemporary peace enforcement operations involving an array of states (Kosovo, East Timor, Liberia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Lesotho), Coleman explores the politics of international legitimacy in conducting peace enforcement operations. Three types of international institutions initiated the peace enforcement operations analyzed: the United Nations, NATO, and two African subregional organizations—the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The central thesis of the book is that states initiate peace enforcement operations through international organizations primarily because of their concern with the legitimacy of their intervention. “Because peace enforcement operations are dramatic, expensive, controversial, and relatively rare events, they inevitably attract the attention of other governments and of the world’s media. They are thus the kinds of state activities in which legitimacy concerns are most likely to arise” (p. 38). Through sound research and analysis, Coleman persuasively advances the academic and professional literature on why states—more precisely, lead states—decide to operate within the framework of a particular international organization.

The UN is the only international organization legally authorized to sanction peace enforcement operations, yet eight of 18 contemporary peace enforcement operations and four of the five presented in this book have been initiated by smaller regional organizations. No condemnation of a peace enforcement operation has ever been brought forward by any international body, even when international law was technically broken. Therefore, legitimacy must trump international law in validating the use of regional organizations in conflict management. Although states typically do construct a legal case for their interventions, the author’s research suggests that states pursuing peace enforcement operations generally have stronger international legitimacy concerns than international legal concerns. A state that intervenes in another country without the mandate of an international organization will face adverse consequences for acting illegitimately by the international community of states.

Governments preparing peace enforcement operations face at least four potentially crucial legitimacy audiences: (1) their own domestic public opinion, (2) the public opinion within the country of concern, (3) the immediate neighbors of the country of concern, and (4) the international community. In all five of the aforementioned cases, the fact that the peace enforcement operation launched under the authority of an international organization improved the perception of legitimacy in the eyes of the key audiences.

Coleman found that because lead states have other political, economic, and strategic goals in gaining legitimacy before conducting a peace enforcement operation, intervening states value the legitimacy generated by the mandate of an international organization as an end itself, masking essentially self-interested endeavors. Acquiescence by member states to lead states’ self-interests in conducting peace enforcement operations was made more palatable by the lack of burden-sharing obligations. In all five interventions studied, no significant burden sharing took place in any of the operations, implying that troop contributions are typically token forces designed to enhance the legitimacy of an intervention rather than to produce a significant impact. As such, lead states were willing to incur significant costs to obtain and operate under the auspices of an international organization. The lead states consistently provided the vast majority of the troops and equipment. They also incurred approximately three-fourths of the costs associated with the operations. The author further notes that international organizations offer no direct burden-sharing advantage that could not be achieved through an ad hoc coalition of the willing and often impose costs associated with multinational decision making.

Coleman suggests that international organizations are uniquely positioned to represent member states, identify their prevailing rules, and apply them in their sphere of influence with international legitimacy. To enhance their future credibility and effectiveness in peace enforcement operations, international organizations will need to ensure relative independence from major states by broadly representing all member states. Finally, they must increase their collective military capabilities or risk losing their ability to generate legitimacy for peace enforcement operations—and likely, their future relevance as an intervening organization.

Coleman’s conclusions will appear to American realists as a bit naive, idealistic, even utopian, and excessively critical of American foreign policy. This aside, the book offers an insightful and substantive perspective on international relations theory, emerging behavioral politics, and international political posturing related to peace enforcement operations. Most significantly, the author adds clarity to the imposing challenges of regionalism in the conduct of peace enforcement operations in light of international law and legitimacy. If for no other reason, the detailed case studies of peace enforcement operations make the book a valuable read for anyone interested in the geopolitical dynamics and evolution of contemporary peace enforcement operations.

David A. Anderson, PhD

US Army Command and General Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."