As if collective security was a student, the conflict in Mali has been a test to assess if it is up to the task of properly preventing and managing crises. In this respect, France’s recent intervention suggests that the student did not perform well. It makes it all the more important to examine how collective security operates, and analyse the specifics of the intervention planned by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Reflection on this issue will help us understand the prospect of global and regional collective security as a mechanism of security governance.
Collective security strives to prevent and end armed conflict. It is based on the idea that no aggression against a member state of the collective security regime will be tolerated. When an aggression does occur, the states will, theoretically, gather around the victim and assemble a force of overwhelming power, capable of dealing a swift and definite blow to the aggressor, thus provoking the end of its operations and deterring future evil intentions. Having said that, it should be remarked and understood that the response against the troublemaking actor has to be quick –please note the use of “actor” rather than “state”. Without a rapid reaction, there is no guarantee that the attacked state’s core security concerns –like sovereignty, territorial integrity or military capability- are damaged up to a point of no return. If this were to happen, a collective security regime would not only have failed, but also be seen as unreliable by its members. They might simply decide to leave and go back to schemes of self-help.
When thinking about the Malian case, collective security has a global and a regional perspective based on two different international institutions: the United Nations’ Security Council and ECOWAS. There is little doubt that both of those institutions, as well as international law, are ill-suited to frame and address aggressions originating from internal threats posed by irregular armies, like the one opposing Bamako. This complicates the issue. Among other things, it affects the range of policies available and, most importantly for this analysis, diminishes the sense of urgency the states attribute to the crisis.
After the March 2012 military coup, there has been much political infighting in Mali. The army and officials of the interim civil government, in particular, have held opposing views about the need for external intervention, with the latter supporting it. Finally, during the autumn of 2012, key Malian political figures, including the interim president Dioncounda Traore, asked for the ECOWAS intervention. This was a sensible choice, since the strength of the rebels might be too much for a weakened Malian army, which, in turn, is regarded with suspicion over its commitment to reinstate democratic normalcy.
Since rebels captured the north of Mali in April 2012, ECOWAS pushed for the intervention. The Security Council, with its resolution 2085 (December 20, 2012), gave the green light, but only after delaying its final decision to make ECOWAS present a clear intervention plan. The majority of Malian neighbours are deeply concern about the threat posed by the rebels, and this is a shared worry for Western powers like the UK, France and the US. Bearing in mind all of this, it is a striking fact that the intervention would not have taken place before September 2013. Such a delay is precisely what has caused the partial failure of collective security in the crisis in Mali and what makes the whole edifice of collective security tremble.
As a matter of fact, it is always possible that a policy gets lost in its implementation, and this applies to the case we are studying. Well before the UN resolution authorizing the intervention, there was a widespread agreement about the necessity of intervening. It was one of those strange moments in international politics when almost every relevant actor falls in line, at least around which policy should be chosen. However, back then there were already signs that certain actors might choose to pass the buck at the moment of truth. When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon talked about only conditional backing to ECOWAS and gave no offer of financial support he was being the mouthpiece of many states that might well choose to pass the buck. Therefore, Security Council’s authorization amounts to little more than a seal of approval. For all of its importance, this normative requirement is just an element of collective security, not its essence.
With the UN resolution, the burden of assisting the Malian army to strengthen its position in the south and, eventually, retaking the north, was primarily carried by ECOWAS. Supposedly, other states, like France, would only have a supporting role. So far and in theory, commissioning action to an international organization like ECOWAS is not strange; it has already been done with NATO in other cases. The problem is when the commissioner has to assemble a well-organized and effective force to accomplish its objectives. That is when implementation is a serious issue that can delay the materialization of the policy. ECOWAS is formed by sixteen West African countries, from which Nigeria is by far the most important in military terms. According to reports, the Nigerian army, however, is not properly prepared to face a high-profile operation like the one in northern Mali. Besides, states like Mauritania and Algeria, although not members of ECOWAS, are also relevant to implement the policy. This leads to a long process to decide who adds what –for example, number of troops- to the common endeavor. The result is a dangerous delay in the implementation of the policy.
Even if we assume September had been the beginning of the intervention, since its authorization nine months would have passed. This is time enough for the enemy to plan, organize and try to achieve its objectives or at least maximize its military position to make the intervention more difficult and costly. With each day without action collective security loses its ability to deter present and future threats; each day without action is an advantage for the aggressor. From this rationale we can understand the rebels’ recent push southwards. They could have got to Bamako if their move had not triggered France’s reaction, which was a response to the Malian president plea for help. However, Paris’ intervention fundamentally changes the situation and frames it outside proper collective security. While it is true that ECOWAS will deploy its troops soon to help France and the Malians, this was only because the involvement of a powerful non-regional actor. Similarly, the Security Council and states like the UK and the US have backed Hollande’s France’s decision, but this cannot conceal the fact that this looks more like the not-so-old ways of managing security, instead of collective security.
In the long term, and despite the difficulty of the task, everyone fearful of Mali’s breakaway north becoming a haven for terrorism will benefit from the French intervention and its joint efforts with ECOWAS. However, in the end common gains are the result of Paris’ pursuit of its self-interest. Had France not have had postcolonial interests in Mali, inaction would have led to grim consequences. French geostrategic and economic concerns were the main drive for the country to intervene, not collective security in a broad sense. This does not mean that collective security as a governance mechanism is doomed to fail. It can work, like past ECOWAS low-profile interventions during the nineties have proved. But to face challenges like the one in Mali, regional collective security arrangements must be develop in two different, albeit complementary, ways. Obviously, there is a need to invest in proper structures and tools. Creating an ECOWAS rapid reaction force will be a must if the organization is to guarantee security in the region. However, this will not be easy if it is not coupled with a deeper sense of security community across the region. Without a certain degree of loyalty to security structures based on common values, bargaining games over immediate material costs will likely compromise the policy.
You might also want to read:
“The West and Radical Islamists in Mali”, by Marc Pierini, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
“Mali: War by Default”, by David Zounmenou, All Africa
“French Success in Mali May Herald War of the Shadows”, by Jonathan Marcus, BBC News