The Legacy of Srebrenica, America’s Generals, and Multilateral Humanitarian Intervention


This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica. Between July 9 and July 20, 1995, Serb forces killed almost 8,000 Muslims in this Bosnian town while UN peacekeepers stood idly by. The United States, unable to persuade its western European allies to support coercive airstrikes, had hitherto refused to intervene decisively in the conflict tearing apart the Balkans. That changed after Srebrenica, which was the worst atrocity committed in Europe since World War II. As George Packer wrote in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina turned many liberals into interventionist hawks. The main lesson these liberals took away from Bosnia was that the United States should never again “hide behind dithering allies or a weak U.N.” and instead take decisive action to fight ethnic cleansing and genocide, acting unilaterally where necessary. Why, then, has the United States continued to crave multilateral approval from the United Nations or NATO for humanitarian military interventions?

Since the war in Bosnia, the United States has intervened for humanitarian purposes in Kosovo (1999), Liberia (2003), and Libya (2011). In each case, prior to intervention, U.S. policymakers worked hard to secure multilateral approval from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) or NATO’s North Atlantic Council (NAC). When the United States abandoned plans for humanitarian intervention in other cases, such as Darfur (2005–2006) and Syria (2013), the lack of multilateral backing played an important part in the decision. This behavior is puzzling since the United States, as the world’s most powerful country, ostensibly has the capabilities to carry out such interventions without international permission.

Why Seek Multilateral Approval?

Until recently, there were two dominant explanations for why the United States seeks multilateral approval for humanitarian interventions.

One argument, dating back to the 1990s, was that American leaders have internalized — or at any rate feel bound by — new norms of legitimate behavior. Martha Finnemore, for instance, a leading scholar of multilateralism, claimed that “intervention norms now place strict requirements on the ways humanitarian intervention can be carried out. Humanitarian intervention … must be organized under multilateral, preferably UN, auspices or with explicit multilateral consent.” Other scholars argued that the United States seeks multilateral approval strategically. The goal, as the political scientist Alexander Thompson put it in an influential book, is to reassure third-party states about U.S. intentions, ultimately to avert costly international retaliation in the form of “negative issue linkage, [where] the coercer finds its relations with other states suffering in other issue areas.”

These explanations, however, have been found wanting. A new study based on extensive interviews with U.S. policymakers demonstrates that they are not motivated by concerns about reduced cooperation with the United States on other issues when they seek UN or NATO approval. Instead, policymakers seek multilateral approval and the resulting legitimacy in order to facilitate sustained military and financial burden-sharing on the intervention at hand, ultimately to maintain congressional support at home. But any explanation of Washington’s efforts to secure multilateral approval that considers the United States as a unitary actor is incomplete: It does not take into account that policymakers vary in terms of their attachment to multilateralism and, consequently, their willingness to accept costly constraints on U.S. freedom of action for the sake of multilateral legitimation.

Civilian Interventionist Hawks vs. Reluctant Military Leaders

As I argue in a recent article published in Security Studies, U.S. interventionist hawks, including liberals deeply influenced by the experience of multilateral deadlock over Bosnia, are often willing to bypass multilateral bodies to ensure swift military action. Interventionist hawks usually downplay the potential pitfalls and operational costs of military action, which makes the burden-sharing benefits of multilateral approval less appealing in their eyes. These hawks tend to carry significant weight among U.S. civilian leaders, because they are deeply committed to their cause, have common morality on their side, and can appeal to America’s sense of exceptionalism and unique responsibility. And yet, the United States did not abandon multilateralism as a strategy for humanitarian intervention after Bosnia.

I show in my Security Studies article that America’s top-ranking generals and admirals play a critical role in restraining interventionist civilian hawks and steering U.S. policy on humanitarian intervention toward multilateralism. Senior military officers are consistently more skeptical than civilian policymakers about deploying U.S. forces abroad for human rights-related purposes. They also understand better than most civilian policymakers that good intentions are not sufficient for effective policy and even well-meaning interventions can result in costly quagmires. For those reasons, senior uniformed leaders can be expected to acquiesce in humanitarian interventions only if they believe that, first, the risk to American forces will be minimized (e.g., by relying exclusively on airpower during the active combat phase) and, second, U.S. forces will not carry the main burden — especially for “post-combat” stabilization missions in which success is notoriously elusive.

To influence U.S. policymaking on humanitarian intervention, senior military officers can rely on their informational advantage during intramural debates, as well as on press leaks, public statements, and threats of resignation. The military’s high standing in American society further magnifies its leverage: According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 72 percent of Americans have either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military, while only 33 percent have similar confidence in the presidency and a record-low 8 percent in Congress.

As long as top-level uniformed leaders express strong reservations, emphasizing the likely operational costs of intervention, and civilian authorities are divided over whether to intervene (which is likely absent clear threats to U.S. national security), the military can tilt the bureaucratic balance of power toward nonintervention. The military can thus veto the (unilateral) use of force for humanitarian purposes. In such circumstances, even heavyweight interventionist policymakers are likely to come to recognize the need for UNSC or NAC approval — if only as a means of addressing the military’s concerns about burden-sharing. Securing multilateral approval beforehand also provides a potential exit ramp for American forces by facilitating the establishment of follow-on UN or NATO stabilization missions led by other countries, which is likely to further mollify the military.

Kosovo: A Case Study in Multilateral Intervention

The conflict in Kosovo began not long after the Dayton Accords settled the Bosnian war. As in Bosnia, Serb forces threatened a local Muslim population. Although the humanitarian situation worsened dramatically in early 1998, Washington’s European allies remained hesitant to intervene militarily. As I show in my Security Studies article, by April of that year, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her hawkish collaborators at the State Department, determined to prevent another Srebrenica, began to advocate a U.S. unilateral intervention. Top-level military officers led by the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, pushed back against those proposals, emphasizing that Washington might “get stuck” with an open-ended and potentially very costly stabilization mission.

President Bill Clinton and his national security adviser, Samuel Berger, understood that overt opposition from the military could have disastrous implications in terms of public and congressional support for the administration’s Kosovo policy. Albright and her fellow advocates of intervention therefore had to mollify the military by answering its concerns in order to persuade the president to authorize the use of force. Securing NATO’s endorsement and more specific burden-sharing commitments from the Atlantic alliance became a central component of the interventionists’ bureaucratic battle with the Pentagon. As Ambassador Alejandro Wolff, Albright’s former executive assistant, explained to me in an interview, “to the extent that the secretary could reject the Pentagon’s argument [about the likely costs of intervention], that certainly helped us in the interagency debate.” Morton Halperin, the State Department’s director of policy planning at the time, was more explicit: “We wanted this as a shared burden,” he told me, “and we wanted the U.S. forces to get out as quickly as possible. Getting NATO on board and knowing that NATO forces were going to go in later made it easier to sell the policy to the US government — and particularly to the Joint Chiefs.”

The Kosovo experience, where securing multilateral approval reduced civil-military disagreements in Washington and facilitated a presidential decision to intervene, has become a model for the future. This is especially true for Democratic administrations, where the aforementioned liberal hawks often hold important policy posts and push for humanitarian interventions about which the generals have significant reservations.

Libya, Syria, and Beyond

Civilian policymakers, especially war veterans and others who are not gung-ho about intervention, may of course independently value the approval of multilateral bodies such as the UNSC and NATO’s NAC. The secretary of defense, in particular, usually shares and indeed magnifies the military’s concerns, emphasizing the need for multilateral approval as a means to facilitate burden-sharing. In the lead-up to the 2011 Libya intervention, for instance, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared that he viewed “a UN Security Council resolution and explicit regional participation” as necessary conditions for U.S. military action.

President Barack Obama himself appears to share many of the military’s concerns, viewing evidence of solid multilateral support and the availability of an exit strategy as all but essential for humanitarian intervention. For Obama, the lessons of Iraq, where a hawkish administration suppressed military dissent in the run-up to the invasion, inflated the threat to American interests, and downplayed the likely costs of intervention, are at least as important as the lessons of Srebrenica. Hence in the summer of 2013, when liberal hawks clamored for U.S. humanitarian intervention in Syria after a chemical weapons attack killed hundreds of people near the Syrian capital of Damascus, Obama agreed with JCS chairman Martin Dempsey that the United States should intervene only by acting “in concert with our allies and partners, to share the burden.”

While the military’s role may not always be decisive in steering U.S. policy on humanitarian intervention toward multilateralism, the military can strengthen the hand of cautious civilian leaders who are themselves skeptical of armed intervention. It is therefore fair to conclude that America’s senior generals (perhaps counterintuitively) are the ultimate bulwark against U.S. unilateral humanitarian intervention. If one accepts the central premise of Just War Theory that military intervention of any type should be a last resort, the generals’ restraining role should be welcomed, as it facilitates deep deliberation on such consequential issues and reduces the risk of ill-thought out and ultimately unsuccessful interventions.

Stefano Recchia is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in International Relations at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Reassuring the Reluctant Warriors: U.S. Civil-Military Relations and Multilateral Intervention (Cornell University Press, 2015).