Military Alliances Versus Collective Security

20 december 2017

Rein Muellerson is former president of l’Institut de Droit International, and President of the Academy of Law of Tallinn University, Estonia.

Resume: Having taught international law and politics in the universities of different countries, I have often discussed with my students matters of collective security and collective self-defence, which is sometimes carried out by military alliances.

Having taught international law and politics in the universities of different countries, I have often discussed with my students matters of collective security and collective self-defence, which is sometimes carried out by military alliances. While the formal, or juridical distinctions between these concepts are usually relatively easy to grasp, it is much more difficult to understand their interrelationships and impacts on matters of international peace and security.

  Recently, some hybrid entities have emerged. So, NATO, since the 1990s, trying to justify its survival after the disappearance of its raison d'être (i.e. the presence of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact), became involved in so-called ‘out of area’ operations such as in the ex-Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan and in Libya, leading some experts to consider it a collective security organisation. This notwithstanding the fact that those activities have decreased rather than increased both regional as well as global security. The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), where Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan are parties, also has features both of a collective security and a collective self-defence organisation. However, the absence of something resembling the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5 obligations, and its emphasis on facing global threats such as terrorism, drug trafficking, illegal migration and transnational crime, suggest it to be more characteristic of a collective security organisation. On the African continent both the African Union (AU) and even (or maybe especially) the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS), though having multiple functions, may also perform collective security tasks, though not those relating to collective self-defence. We can see by the experiences of these hybrid bodies that these two functions – collective security and collective self-defence – are strange bed-fellows. One may even say that generally, and with only a few exceptions, collective self-defence organisations or arrangements (military alliances) tend to undermine the purposes of collective security.        

  There are some general features distinguishing collective security organisations from collective self-defence arrangements, be it in the form of international organisations (NATO and the Warsaw Pact) or bi-lateral treaty-arrangements (the 1952 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan). While collective security organisations are inward-looking and inclusive, collective self-defence arrangements are outward-looking and exclusive. The most universal collective security organisation – the UN – is called on to maintain the security of all its member-states, while regional organisations must guarantee the security of its members within the geographical area they cover. Of course, threats to the latter, like terrorism or drug trafficking, often have their origins outside their areas. So, terror threats and drugs enter the CSTO area mainly from Afghanistan. However, apart from when authorised by the UN Security Council, such regional collective security organisations can respond to such threats only within their geographical area. Collective self-defence organisations or arrangements, or military alliances, as they are also known, are exclusive, i.e. they look outward. They need, as if by definition, an enemy to justify their existence, or at least they need to search ‘for dragons to slay in the name of spreading democracy’ (what John Quincy Adams, the American President who could ostensibly boast of having the highest IQ, famously warned almost a century ago). Military alliances, throughout thousands of years of history, have always reflected, and have also contributed to, the confrontational nature of international relations. This comment is not meant to be deontological (moralising), but descriptive - this is how things have been and still are. Sometimes military alliances have indeed been mostly defensive, and as such even necessary, but since the emergence of the idea of collective security, i.e. security for all involved, the presence of military alliances, be they permanent or ad hoc, implies that the world as a whole or a particular region is not ready for collective, i.e. undivided security.  

  The first European collective security system, known as the Concert of Europe, was created at the Vienna Congress of 1815, and guaranteed an almost century long relative peace in Europe, while the formation of military alliances at the turn of the new century – the Central Powers (mainly Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Kingdom of Italy) and the Allies (France, Great Britain, Russia) – had a destabilising effect on European international relations, which in 1914 ended with the bloody conflict that became known as the great war. The deficiencies of the Versailles peace of 1919 contributing to the rise of Nazism in Germany, the shameful Munich deal of 1938 between Hitler and Western leaders as well as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Stalin’s response to Western leaders’ aims of turning Hitler’s aggressiveness East, all led to an even greater military conflict – WWII. The collective security system foreseen in the United Nations Charter and centred around its Security Council never worked as planned because of the start of the Cold War between the war-time allies that soon became formalised in two military alliances – NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The fact that the Cold War did not turn into a hot one was much more due to the balance of power in the form of mutually assured destruction (MAD) than to the effectiveness of the UN Charter and its Security Council, though it would be wrong to deny the UN’s pacifying role in overcoming some situations wrought with military conflicts. Several respected studies made in the 1990s have shown that military alliances had served not to discourage, but actually encourage wars, and some states may become entrapped by their allies in unwanted conflicts.[1] Today we see how some smaller and weaker US allies behave recklessly and provocatively vis-à-vis Russia, policies they would have hardly dared to carry out without feeling, rightly or wrongly (Saakashvili in summer of 2008, when attacking South Ossetia, overestimated his significance of the US), Washington’s backing.       

  In the 1990s, it seemed for a while that the UN based collective security system could be revitalised. The world community’s response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was one of the most encouraging signs in that direction. However, partly by inertia, partly by design, and notwithstanding warnings by many competent and experienced experts (among them Henry Kissinger, George Kennan, Kenneth Waltz), NATO continued its eastward expansion, ultimately reaching, by 1999 (through Polish membership) and then in 2004 (through the accession of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) the borders of Russia. A confrontational approach, based on the idea of liberal expansion and the containment of those who disobey, continues to be the dominant approach in the West. For example, an article by Danish international relations professor Sten Rynning is indicative in that respect.[2] To summarise it: as Russia is not, at least in the foreseeable future, amenable to liberal change, it cannot be included (as France was included after the Napoleonic wars) into a European concert, and must therefore be confronted by both NATO and the European Union. A similarly confrontational approach, spontaneous and almost instinctive, was also expressed by President Obama’s former Security Advisor General James L. Jones during the Second Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate (1–2 November 2015), though in that case it concerned neither China nor Russia but Iran, with whom Washington, together with five other powers, had just signed a nuclear deal.[3] When asked by a participant from the United Arab Emirates how the Gulf countries could increase their security vis-à-vis new challenges (the number one challenge being, in the opinion of those Sunni monarchies, not ISIL terrorists, but Iran and the whole Shi'a world; the US having ceased, in their eyes, to be a reliable ally after concluding a nuclear deal with Iran), General Jones’ immediate response was: you should think of creating something like NATO for the Gulf region. This is an expression of a confrontational mind-set that sees the world in Manichean terms where we, on the right side of history, face them, who are not only different and therefore wrong, but do not even seek to want to become like us. But as Rory Miller warns us about talk of ‘a Saudi-led “Muslim” or “Arab” NATO’: ‘It is just as likely that they will add to existing sectarian divides and further destabilise an already fragile region’.[4]  

  As French economist Hervé Juvin recently observed, the main purpose of NATO and EU enlargements was ‘to separate the European Union from Russia and make impossible the unification of Eurasia, what would be the Anglo-American nightmare’.[5] Arnaud Leclercq, a Swiss/French author and banker, writes that after the withdrawal from Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, ‘Russia expected that the West would recognise her European nature and establish with her relations of partnership while confirming her legitimate interests in maintaining a zone of influence that would correspond to her history and current interests. However, this was not to be the case and soon Russia saw NATO expanding to the East and the Americans increasing their presence in the countries of the 'New Europe’ to the point of starting to build the infamous missile shield in the Old Continent to protect from the most implausible Iranian threat’.[6] ‘In the end, as Robert Sakwa puts it elegantly, concisely and precisely: NATO’s existence became justified ‘by the need to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargements’.[7]

For the UN based collective security system (supported by less formal instruments, like  the G20 to be effective, it is necessary to overcome the confrontational mindset reflected, inter alia, in the practices of military alliances, whatever their names or declared purposes. Universal security should be buttressed by regional collective security systems, not by alliances whereby Sunni states face Shi’a states or where pro-American governments ally against pro-Chinese ‘regimes’. Final comment - when a government is being called a ‘regime’, take note, it may be the first step on the road to its delegitimization, and is usually followed by incremental regime change strategies.    

Valdai International Discussion Club


[1] See, e.g., A. Smith, ‘Alliance Formation and War’, International Studies Quarterly, 1995, No 39 (4), pp. 405-25; G. Snyder, Alliance Politics, Cornell University Press, 1997.

[2] S. Rynning, ‘The false promise of continental concert: Russia, the West and necessary balance of power’, International Affairs, 2015, Vol. 91, No.3, pp. 539–52.

[3] Second Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, 1–2 November 2015, Emirates Palace – Abu Dhabi, Conclusions (in file with the author).

[4] R. Miller, ‘Can Riyadh Dominate the Middle East?’, Foreign Affairs, 23 October, 2017.

[5] H. Juvin, Le Mur de l’Ouest n’est pas tombé (Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, 2015), p. 18.

[6] A. Leclercq, La Russie puissance d’Eurasie : Histoire géopolitique des origines à Poutine (Ellipses, 2012), p. 378.

[7] R. Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (I.B.Tauris, 2015), p. 4.

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