Dining à la Carte: The United States and Multilateral Approaches to Countering Terrorism

Julian Elgaard Brett, forskningsmedarbejder ved DUPI 

 

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11th September 2001, there was a convergence of interest between the U.S and the rest of the world about getting serious about countering international terrorism. To a greater extent than generally realised, there was also quite extensive agreement on how to go about it. The present debate over what to do about Iraq has distorted the picture somewhat. It also presents a serious challenge to the consensus that is otherwise possible. This article takes a look at this convergence – where it is most successful and where it is most challenged – in the context of the United Nations’ efforts to improve global capacity to international counter terrorism. 

For the U.S, the location, scale and cynicism of the attacks a year ago meant that sending a few cruise missiles into the mountains of Afghanistan was not going to be a sufficient response. Despite its overwhelming military and economic superiority, the Administration recognised that it would need to draw upon much broader capacities and that there would be no quick fix. As President George W. Bush put it: “This is the world’s fight. This is civilisation’s fight. This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom”.1 Put in these terms we could have been perhaps forgiven for supposing that the U.S. was about to perform an impressive volte-face and re-embrace multilateralism. While this has manifestly not happened, the period since 11th September 2001 does seem to illustrate the strategic “balance of advantage” considerations that have recently been at play in U.S. policy making. It is particularly obvious in the approach taken by the Bush Administration to the United Nations.   
 
A case of policy convergence
There is a view that small states have a preference for multilateral institutions, such as the UN, because they acquire a degree of influence collectively that is beyond that which they may achieve individually. By contrast, larger states are more likely to take a measured judgement of such mechanisms because their ends may be met through other means and working through a rule based multilateral system may be unduly constraining. According to this perspective, the U.S, as the dominant global power, is generally able to exercise its strength by acting unilaterally (even sometimes going against institutional rules that it otherwise supports) when it rates the outcome of such action to be higher than the potential pitfalls.2  As Waltz has put it “in the quest for security, alliances may have to be made”.3 The dominant power may thus still choose to work within a multilateral framework - and, in certain cases, there may be overwhelming advantages in doing so. The reaction to 11th September provides a good illustration of this perspective.   
 
As is well known, prior to the events of 11th September, the relationship between the UN and its leading member was distinctly uneasy. The most obvious signs of this were the withholding by the U.S. of part of its budgetary contribution, its refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol on global warming, its objection to the proposed International Criminal Court, abandonment of the ABM Treaty, and rejection of the draft Biological and Toxin Weapons verification protocol. Together, these illustrate the U.S “opting out” - and being prepared to endure the opprobrium that ensued.   
 
By contrast, its willingness to work with the UN after 11th September on improving the global capacity to counter terrorism is an example of the U.S “opting in”. This is not so much because the U.S. fundamentally changed its overall policy towards the UN. It did not. But in the case of terrorism, there was a new and overriding interest from the U.S. in doing something about the problem. It was judged that the UN should be a useful contributor. As part of this, the U.S sought to define a role for the organisation that aligned its own need to ensure the broadest possible response to the terrorist attacks with the international consensus that appeared with the shock of the events. This consensus held that the time was now right for a more purposeful and incisive multilateral approach to the whole terrorism issue and that the UN should play the central norm and agenda setting role. For the U.S, therefore, the UN now became one pillar in its much broader “war against terrorism”. The UN, for its part, could usefully draw from the momentum given by the terrorist attacks to re-energise its own approach. The following discussion aims to show how these interests converged and to identify some of the grey zones where the convergence appears most challenged.  
 
The United Nations and terrorism
Terrorism is of direct interest to the UN because it threatens the global order (between states) and the justice (amongst individuals) that the organisation is mandated by its Charter to promote. There are few (with the possible exception of Osama bin Laden) who would disagree that terrorism is an undesirable means to achieve political and/or social change. But there is a range of prescriptions available about what to do about it. The UN’s task is to steer between these and promote a consistent approach that adheres to internationally accepted norms and standards. No other body is able to provide the comprehensive and legitimised framework needed to counter international terrorism on a global scale. As Kofi Annan has put it, “the UN is uniquely positioned to advance the global counter terrorism effort by providing the forum necessary for building a universal coalition [that] can ensure global legitimacy for the long-term response”.4 As this suggests, however, the UN’s approach tends to be procedural rather than operational. In other words, it tries to reduce permissive factors that enable terrorists to operate: for instance, by codifying international law, setting norms and building co-operation and consensus. So far so good. 
 
Unfortunately, UN members have generally displayed a relatively poor ability to live up to the standards espoused in their declarations on the subject. Terrorism is a phenomenon that the vast majority of states have appeared content to condemn “in all its forms and manifestations”. But there is no accepted definition and it is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that there has been broad disagreement over how to tackle it. Moreover, while the understanding about what constitutes a terrorist act may have broadened over the past thirty years, there remain serious gaps between states’ attitudes on the question of whether there exist circumstances in which it is acceptable to employ them.  We might well ask, therefore, whether the UN actually is in reality much use as a forum for taking forward “measures to eliminate international terrorism”? To answer to this, we need to compare the present situation with periods when convergence between the U.S. and the majority of UN members on the issue clearly did not exist.  
 
Munich and afterwards
In September 1972, the kidnapping and eventual deaths of a number of Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympic Games prompted the then Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim, to place the issue of terrorism formally on the UN’s annual agenda. In that incident, the Black September terrorist group kidnapped a number of Israeli athletes in order to draw attention to the cause of Palestinian self-determination. This was shocking but in a way relatively comprehensible because it reflected a distinct regional problem. The General Assembly responded with a comprehensive, although ultimately unworkable, approach that placed emphasis on determining the causes of terrorist violence before addressing the matter of what counter measures to apply. This tactic can be explained by the experiences of many new members of the General Assembly. Where, for example, political violence had been a feature of a national liberation struggle it tended to be a more nuanced issue for those members affected than where it had not been practised or where it was more obviously illegitimate. Such states, therefore, often wished to highlight what was “special” about their particular case (i.e. the circumstances that had led them to resort to violence) – which in turn led to a focus by them on the issue of “cause”.   
 
This feature was particularly strong in the General Assembly during the 1970s and 1980s.5 Its effect was stifling for productive debate and exasperating for those members that wished to take a more active stance on the problem. The U.S. delegate’s provocatively worded intervention during a discussion in the UN’s Adhoc Committee in the mid-1970s sums the situation up. Here, it was noted that progress required the removal from the debate of three principal perspectives. Firstly, that national liberation movements must not be restricted in their fight for self-determination. Secondly, that there could be no effective action against international terrorism until the causes of terrorism were identified and eliminated. And, thirdly, that it was not possible to proceed against individuals who terrorised others without taking action against governments that terrorised individuals through repressive policies.6   
 
There was little convergence of interest on these points between the dominant powers and “the rest”. Unable to proceed, the active response that the U.S. and other western countries demanded was delayed and a piecemeal approach adopted which “salami sliced” the problem into areas where agreement could be reached. While this resulted in twelve legal conventions and protocols on terrorism, the practical effect of them was limited by slow rates of ratification.7 In other respects, the UN sponsored process was effectively moribund. One consequence of this was to push practical initiatives to fora outside of the UN (including the G7/G8 and the EU) where western states held the advantage. By the end of the 1990s, certain of these initiatives (e.g. on terrorist financing) began to filter back into the UN. The most notable products resulting from this synergy were the 1997 Convention on Terrorist Bombings and the 1999 Convention on Terrorist Financing. 
 
After 11th September 
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11th September 2001 had the effect of galvanising this shift towards more pragmatic or targeted solutions. In contrast to the events in Munich thirty years previously, al Qaeda’s hijacking of passenger aircraft and targeting of symbols of western (and more particularly, United States’) economic and military power had more diffuse motives. It also came after a series of attacks on U.S. targets abroad; including the bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. Furthermore, because the U.S. perceived itself as the principal victim, the Administration had an almost overriding interest in using every available means, including the UN, to fight back. President Bush’s prescription to “direct every resource at our command - every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war – to the disruption and to the defeat of the global terror network” clearly demonstrated an approach that meant business. Here, the fight was one that the United States would bring to the terrorists. “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”.8  This response has been essentially pragmatic because it has immediately set about addressing the perpetrators and symptoms of the violence rather than patiently waiting for agreement to be reached on its underlying causes. 
 
The reasons for its relative success (so far) are, of course, varied. The events of 11th September could be seen to threaten equally at individual and state level. The attacks clearly broke international norms, despite the fact that the perpetrators were essentially non-state actors. Even states not normally friendly with the United States could be moved by acts of international terrorism not confined to previous typography or borders. The “new” terrorism, seemingly epitomised by al Qaeda, was perceived as more diffuse, less controllable, more threatening than previous manifestations. This worrying development seemed to contradict the conventional wisdom that terrorists were ‘primarily interested in a lot of people watching rather than a lot of people dead’.9 Furthermore, the scale of the attacks and the cynical disregard for human life, including the lives of the hijackers themselves, also provoked a torrent of “what if” questions. What if, for example, the terrorists had had access to weapons of mass destruction and had been prepared and able to use them?   
 
The point where the U.S. and the UN converged after 11th September was on the judgement that today’s terrorist problems must be seen in a global context and must have strong multilateral preventative dimensions. The 11th September attackers displayed this new internationalism very clearly. Al Qaeda’s membership is located in a variety of countries, is of a variety of nationalities, takes advantage of technological and economic globalisation and carries out operations without regard to state boundaries. Thus, al Qaeda’s actions exemplified the argument that strengths or weaknesses in the structures in one state have consequences in another. Weak financial controls may provide terrorists with access to international sources of funding - just as robust controls may help prevent it. A comprehensive counter terrorism policy must, therefore, take account of inter-linkages that are potentially global and include compatible international and domestic responses. In the aftermath of 11th September, this was one of the key points of international convergence from which both the U.S. and the UN sought to draw. 
 
This led the U.S to look for more from the UN than the minimalist approach that we might have otherwise supposed. The U.S did not need to take the initiative to draft the initial Security Council resolution authorising a military response to the terrorist attacks. Resolution 1368 on 12th September was proposed by France and the United Kingdom and was adopted without a vote. It condemned “in the strongest terms the horrifying terrorist attacks” and reaffirmed the “inherent right of individual and collective self-defence” (through its linkage to article 51). With this, the U.S. now had UN authority to send its forces into Afghanistan in pursuit of the perpetrators of the attacks. This minimum requirement achieved, the U.S then used its energy to push for a comprehensive UN role in building up global capacity that would complement its own. 
 
Security Council resolution 1373, which the U.S. drafted (with input from other permanent members), is arguably the single most important step taken by the organisation in the thirty years that terrorism has been an active part of the UN’s agenda. Unlike the majority of previous UN initiatives in the area, the resolution focuses attention on factors that directly or indirectly facilitate terrorist activity such as weaknesses in legislation, financial asset control, customs, immigration, extradition and law enforcement. The measure set in hand a global “audit” of states’ capacity in these and related areas to discover where the “gaps” might lie and required that states take action to remedy them. Moreover, it also provided an agent (in the form of a special committee of the Security Council - the Counter Terrorism Committee (usually referred to as the CTC)) to push the process forward. The CTC has since developed a leading role (in the full sense of the word), not least because of the leadership offered by its chairman, the United Kingdom’s permanent representative, Sir Jeremy Greenstock. That resolution 1373’s operative paragraphs come under the terms of Chapter VII of the UN Charter (threats to the peace) and are obligatory for member states also makes them exceptional and unusually powerful.10 
 
Two challenges
The good thing about resolution 1373 is that it recognises the basic point about countering terrorism that is that measures need to address the range of terrorism’s forms, motivations and methods and the permissive factors that facilitate their operation. In other words, it represents a relatively holistic approach. What is problematic about it is that this presents huge, perhaps impossible, demands on bureaucracies. This in turn places stress on international cohesion, the availability of resources – and, above all, states’ willingness to take the actions required. This is where concern that current U.S. policies may be threatening the global “coalition” against terrorism becomes pertinent. That the Bush Administration itself recognises the danger here in the context of what to do about Iraq is shown by President Bush’s speech to the UN General Assembly on 12th September 2002 in which he highlighted the role of the Security Council.11 
 
Because capacity building is essentially “technical” rather than political and has the UN in the driving seat, we might expect the negative fall-out from possible U.S. initiatives elsewhere to be limited. Similarly, we might also expect that the U.S/UN convergence will remain intact in this area. So far, there is no sign, for example, that the U.S. sabre-rattling over Iraq has deterred member states from co-operating with the CTC. Indeed, the contrary is probably true. The wish to avoid the U.S. spotlight is prompting states that otherwise might have wavered (such as Yemen and Iran) to take a generally constructive stance. So far, the indications are that the majority of the states are now examining the suitability of their counter terrorism provisions, identifying shortcomings, and beginning to take individual and collective action to resolve them.12 One indicator of this is the increase in the level of ratification of the international legal conventions so far agreed. Before 11th September only two states had ratified all twelve conventions (Botswana and the United Kingdom). Nine months later this had risen to fourteen. The United States completed its own ratification processes in June 2002. The increase in ratification is significant when considering the previously slow rate of ratification and the complex domestic legal framework that needs to be in place in advance. 
 
 It is in weak and non-functional states, where the absence of effective control can offer potential sources of direct or indirect support to terrorists, that the bureaucratic stresses will be most obvious. Tailoring a response to these states is clearly going to need to strike a balance between encouragement and coercion. The EU has already made it clear that assistance can be (and is) provided in areas such as capacity building for law enforcement, strengthening judiciary, border management and combating financial crime. On the other hand, it has also noted that it will not be indifferent if states do not comply with their international obligations.13 The United States has taken to offering states such as Yemen, Georgia, Pakistan and the Philippines military support that they find difficult to refuse. It has also stepped up its “Anti-terrorism Assistance Program”.14 
 
In the present context, the place where consensus is really going to be challenged is where states not willing to co-operate are considered to be directly supportive of terrorists. The U.S. State Department continues to highlight seven states as state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. It notes, however, that their actual practice varies considerably: “Libya and Sudan seem closest to understanding what they must do to get out of the terrorism business (...) Iran, North Korea, and Syria have, in some narrow areas, made limited moves to cooperate with the international community’s campaign against terrorism”.15 The reality is that the situation is heavily nuanced and it is this that makes it difficult for the U.S to pursue a coherent policy. In some cases, the problem is linked to the Israeli/Palestinian issue - which makes it a politically difficult nut to crack without solving the root cause first. Both Iran and Syria, for example, appear to have taken steps to restrict al Qaeda since 11th September but maintained support for Hamas and Hizballah.16 
 
The designation of a state on the U.S. list automatically enacts a range of bilateral restrictions, including: bans on arms sales; controls over dual use items; prohibitions on economic assistance; and financial, diplomatic and trade restrictions.17 Having exhausted these options, the political problem is, of course, the question of what to do next?   
 
The prescription offered from Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and others is that, if the authorities responsible for stopping terrorist activity from being launched from their territory cannot do so, then others will do the job for them.18 Moreover, now that “absolute proof cannot be a pre-condition for action” this is a challenge not only to terrorists and their sponsors but also to the present body of norms on which the UN system operates.19 In this sense, the recent “reprieve” offered over Iraq may prove to be only temporary. There remains a very real prospect of dislocation or de-convergence between the U.S and those who prefer multilateral solutions. The positive responses to President Bush’s carefully targeted General Assembly speech on 12th September illustrate the strength of the latter group. But the U.S. appears distinctly cautious. As a senior U.S. official is reported as saying, in an echo of the frustration that has long plagued U.S. relations with the organisation on the terrorism issue: “The UN is at a crossroads. We have plenty of resolutions about Iraq. Now we have to choose whether the UN exists to pass resolutions or make them stick”.20 
 
Concluding remarks
The U.S. relationship with the UN since 11th September 2001 illustrates the extent to which the predominant power may recognise the strategic advantage in a constructive multilateral partnership on a specific issue. Indeed, it is questionable whether the achievements of the last year would have been possible otherwise. They stand in stark contrast to the severely restricted progress that had hitherto been possible. Nonetheless, the recent convergence has also been relatively tightly defined from the U.S. side and is regarded as a supplement to (rather than a replacement of) bilateral activities. In the case of global capacity building examined here, the U.S. has appeared content for the UN’s new mechanism to exercise leadership where the national and multilateral agendas have been closely aligned. Even so, its relative success so far does not appear to have affected the U.S’ more general dislike of multilateral institutionalism – which appears particularly pronounced where the latter offers an alternative prescription to the one preferred on a national basis.  It is in such cases that convergence is truly tested. 
 
The danger is that precipitate U.S. reactions that are seen to ignore or sideline other states’ interests will disrupt the positive convergence that has developed elsewhere. For multilateral organisations, the maintenance of consensus amongst their membership is important. The UN needs to carry its membership with it or it will lose its legitimacy. The big question remaining is whether the U.S. is really able to go it alone? If the answer here is “no”, it will be because the scale of the overall counter terrorism task has persuaded the U.S. to make use of the legitimacy that the UN can offer by seeking the backing of Security Council resolutions.  
 
 
Noter
1 George W. Bush, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People”, 20th September 2001. www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/print/20010920-8.html 
 
2  See W. Michael Reisman, “The United States and International Institutions”, Survival, Winter 1999.
 
3  Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, Random House, New York, 1979. p166.
 
4  Kofi Annan, “Fighting Terrorism on a Global Front”, New York Times, 21st September 2001. 
 
5  UNGA resolutions on terrorism during this period generally had the title “measures to prevent international terrorism which endangers or takes innocent human lives or jeopardizes fundamental freedoms and study of the underlying causes of those forms of terrorism and acts of violence which lie in misery, frustration, grievance and despair and which cause some people to sacrifice human lives, including their own in an attempt to effect radical change”. UNGA Res 42/159 dated 7th December 1987.
 
6  Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on International Terrorism. A/32/37 1977.
 
7 The twelve international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism are: the Convention on Offences and certain other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft (1963); the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft (1970); the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation (1971); Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence at Airports Serving International Civil Aviation (1988); Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons, including Diplomatic Agents (1973); Convention against the taking of Hostages (1979); Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (1980); Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime navigation (1988); Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf (1988); Convention on the marking of Plastic Explosives for the Purpose of Detection (1991); International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (1997); International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (1999).
 
8 George W. Bush, Address to Joint Session of Congress on 20th September 2001
 
9 Brian Michael Jenkins’ widely quoted remark on terrorists’ rationality. See “WMD Terrorism: An Exchange”. Survival, vol.40, no.4. Winter 1998-99. 
 
10 In this sense, the resolution has parallels with action normally associated with UN sanctions’ regimes where Chapter VII authority is combined with a technical oversight committee mandated to monitor and guide compliance.
 
11 President Bush’s remarks to the United Nations General Assembly, 12th September 2002. www.stae.gov/p/nea/rls/13434.htm 
 
12 As at 27th June 2002, the CTC had received 160 reports from member states and four others. The CTC had completed reviews of 127 of these. See UN Document S/PV.4561 dated 27th June 2002.
 
13  Security Council record S/PV.4453 dated 18th January 2002.
 
14 US State Department, Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001 notes that 35,000 foreign officials from 152 countries have been trained over the past 17 years. Page ixiii.
 
15  Ibid. p63.
 
16  Ibid. p63.
 
17  Ibid. p64.
 
18 Thomas E. Ricks and Vernon Loeb, “U.S plans first strike on terror”, The Washington Post, 11th June 2002. 
 
19  Remarks by Donald Rumsfeld at the Defence Ministers meeting of the North Atlantic Council on 6th June 2002. 
 
20  “Bush to warn UN: Act on Iraq or U.S will”, New York Times, 12th September 2002. 
 
 
 
 
 

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