Middle powers, Great Powers, and incentives in war
Jul 3, 2011

Middle powers, Great Powers, and incentives in war

Many, but certainly not all, US led military campaigns share a common element: a widespread international coalition that supports and participates in the campaigns.  We will see that it is two motivations - the need for legitimacy among the leaders and the need for relevance among the participants - that provide much of the impetus for this phenomenon.

There are several benefits to the leaders of military campaigns - namely the US and to a much lesser extent the UK and France - of having a host of middle powers like Belgium and Canada join along in excessively multilateral campaigns like Libya and Afghanistan. Firstly, there is a cost sharing benefit so that the leaders don't have to pay the full financial and human costs of the campaigns. This also extends the capacity of the campaign allowing for longer and larger scale operations than might have been politically possible were the leaders to go at it alone.

However, perhaps the biggest and most important benefit of multilateral campaigns is legitimacy. Having a large cabal of international partners all participating in the campaign underscores that it is a legitimate campaign with widespread support and as such ought not to be challenged. When the US/UK did not get the widespread support in Iraq they enjoyed in Afghanistan the result was extensive criticism and loss of international prestige.

But what about the middle powers, what benefit is it for them? A country like Canada incurs a significant financial cost, loss of lives, and declining ability to provide for its own defense (due to resources diverted to aggressive international avenues). Most importantly, wars are unpopular and present considerable political risk for a government to take. While there have been times where a hardline war stance (such as Bush in 2004) increases ones chances of political success when the beginning of a war is timed close to the next election, as time goes on military involvement almost always results in a political liability not a political asset (such as the 2008 US election).

The major benefit is the search for international relevance. People like to feel that they a important, that their actions matter, that they are an integral part of the community. Not to be overly Machiavellian, but the same basic motivations manifest themselves at the level of countries and in no way more apparent than when it comes to war. Countries act against what would seem to be their clear self interests but choose instead to risk enormous amounts of financial, human and political capital in exchange for being a cog in the international military machine. But it is that illustrious perception that a country like Canada matters and is a serious and important actor on the world stage that is the real goal - even if, as the wikileaks cables demonstrate, such actions receive more belittling than appreciation.

It is sometimes argued that the real motivation is a charitable one, that Canada joins the Libya and Afghanistan missions out of profound sense of moral obligation. One can of course construct moral justifications for these missions, but it isn't at all contentious that dollar for dollar there is an enormous swath of international charitable actions that can be performed by rich middle powers  with a higher ability to increase the quality of, and save, lives. Yet getting countries to even live up to international commitments to aid they have already agreed on is worse than pulling teeth, let alone on getting meaningful increases to it. Contrast the tepid commitment to international aid with the fervor as each country trips over each other trying to show how committed they were to Libya in the first month or two (unsurprisingly, as that conflict draws on in something of a stalemate, and costs to countries rise accordingly, that early support is waning).

The basic desire for militaristic relevance among the two great powers of France and the UK exists in both countries but manifests itself in a somewhat different way. In the UK, in recent years the establishment of that country has been very willing to follow a path that closely follows the US with the Iraq war being the quintessential example. They remain the most important partner to the US in many missions and gain relevance and importance this way but they don't do it by carving out their own path. One has to go back to perhaps the Falklands war to find a British action that is truly independent of the rest of the world and even this, while solidifying Thatchers popularity domestically, was of little geopolitical significance to countries outside the UK and Argentina.

In contrast, France consistently takes independent actions. It lead the movement against the US/UK to not join in Iraq, is the most active (and calls for the most direct action) in Libya outside of the initial military strikes, which the US truly was the only one with the technological capacity to do, and went at it alone with the intervention in its former colony of the Ivory Coast. So while it often doesn't rise to quite the role that the UK gets in missions, it becomes relevant as an important major power by taking a slightly different course than the US and throwing its geopolitical weight behind that. Not as far, of course, as Russia or China - it is still part of the western geopolitical unit - but far enough to be relevant.

The UK and France straddle that gap between a superpower like the US and the middle powers like Canada and Belgium. They have relevance on the world stage and consistently attempt to utilize and increase that relevance. But they also need legitimacy from both smaller powers and the US. Incidentally, the reason why middle powers don't take the paths that the UK or France take to relevance is simply due to a considerable lack of military capacity. They can only hope to join in as a relevant player in missions with a strong international contingent and can shape those missions to a limited degree. The US can sometimes go at it alone but would far prefer a larger international contingent to back it, the UK and France can only really undergo quite technologically limited missions like the Ivory Coast independently and for the most of the time need the US's backing, and the other European countries simply can't do anything militaristically themselves.

These dueling factors of middle powers seeking relevance and leaders like the US seeking legitimacy in their military actions combine to provide a dangerous pro-war force. Middle powers seek to enter wars and, given the legitimacy the middle powers provide, it is easier for great and superpowers to enter wars. It is not just the objective calculus of considering whether a military action is or is not morally defensible and imperative, but also involves these other factors not relating to any benefit or harm to the belligerents of war.

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