For a long time, both scholars and practitioners of international relations, security and defence have been searching for centres of power (poles) in the international system in order to assess if the world is unipolar, bipolar o multipolar. Polarity relates to the distribution of power within a system, the capacity to attract members to it and the ability to retain them. Traditionally, polarity has been based on great powers: coalitions balancing Great Britain and France in the 19th century or collective defence organisations after the Second World War led by US (NATO), the former Soviet Union (the Warsaw Pact) or the Permanent Five (the United Nations). Mid- and small-sized powers have had no other choice but to join such coalitions or organisations and, once within them, to submit to the leadership of those who are hegemonic, be they benevolent or harsh.
Intergovernmental organisations cannot operate on their own, beyond what the leading powers are willing to let them do. The spiralling internationalisation of the 19th century and the tragedy of the First World War gave momentum to the belief that the Society of Nations could put an end to the hegemony of great powers as regards international security, in the same way that globalisation, a century later, created the expectation that multilateral security organisations could take over steering international order and security. Despite both good intentions and extraordinary efforts, the former failed to prevent the Second World War while the latter was unable to cope with the major post-Cold War crises.
Once the likelihood of interstate conflicts had decreased, multilateral organisations such as the UN, NATO and the EU began to address the issue of peacekeeping. After several successful initial operations, these multilateral institutions gained momentum and attracted the cooperation of third countries. This again gave rise to the illusion that international security institutions were set to replace the great powers and their power politics with international bodies and multilateralism.
However, evidence on the ground began to give the lie to these expectations. As the number of missions mounted and their scope escalated from peacekeeping to nation-building, crisis management became increasingly complex and expensive. Collective security organisations realised that they were ill prepared to manage complex crises whose nature was not essentially military. As NATO has experienced in Afghanistan, military operations gain time for the accomplishment of governance and development strategies, but boots on the ground do not guarantee, by themselves, either state building or security-sector reforms. This is a bitter lesson that multinational coalitions have also learnt. A clear example is Iraq, where the tactical and operational success of the military commanders was not followed by either the political or economic success of the civilian leaders. Thus, the mission was not as ‘accomplished’ as the US President, George Bush, liked to believe.
Step by step, the so-called ‘wars of choice’ have evolved towards becoming true armed conflicts where combat has increased in intensity and lethality, causing more casualties than the cultural mood of the West’s population and leaders are prepared to stomach. As the length, remoteness and expense of military intervention have increased, national donors have become reluctant to commit more resources to what seem never-ending missions. As a result, multilateral decision-making processes have become steadily blocked. The 2003 European Security Strategy denounced the risk of stalemate and advocated an ‘effective multilateralism’ –a revival of the US ‘assertive multilateralism’ of the 1990s–, so that international organisations, regimes and treaties could become effective in confronting threats to international peace and security.
Since then, mission fatigue, operational stress, political costs and social rejection –not to mention shrinking military budgets as a result of the economic crisis– have constrained the capacity of multilateral institutions to effectively manage major security crises. Intervention in Libya and the lack of it in Syria have confirmed the extraordinary magnitude of all these structural shortfalls and have probably marked a turning point in the polarity of great powers and international institutions. Polarity diminishes when hegemonic leaders behave arrogantly, when mid- and small-sized countries become ‘security consumers’ or when all of them give priority to their particular interests rather than to common goals. Polarity also fades away when ordinary members break the ranks and refuse to contribute to or support the leading powers’ efforts (the more symmetric interdependence is within the system, the less attractive polarity is).
As in the international economy, traditional institutions can only control the new complex and globalised environment while new transnational actors and interactions gain influence within the system. Globalisation has raised both the number of transnational and translocal actors able to influence international security and the way in which their influence is applied. Security problems are no longer framed within a limited set of national or intergovernmental poles. They are better faced through networks of actors (nodes) working in the different dimensions (modes) and intertwined in any crisis. In order to balance legitimacy and effectiveness, such networks must deconstruct existing capabilities and procedures in order to build ad hoc responses. This was the rationale behind the ‘comprehensive approach’ concept that was developed in the laboratory of the Multinational Experiment Series to cope with the shortcomings of multilateral crisis management at the end of the 20th century.
The ‘comprehensive approach’ is about networking between interested actors (nodes) –national, multinational, transnational, individual or a mixture– to provide a response to the various dimensions of a crisis (modes) through a joint procedure for planning and achieving synergies and economies of scale (flows). Within this approach and when crises emerge, active nodes –those trying to forge a collective response– seek able and willing nodes in order to set up a multinodal-multimodal network of crisis management. Every potential node is invited to join the network and consulted about the mode of contribution it prefers. The latter decide whether to join the network or not but, nevertheless, flows bypass reluctant or hesitant nodes in order to sustain their fluidity. Unlike multilateral actors, multinodal nodes do not share the same interests, norms and values. Thus, multimodality must be based on pragmatism: ambitions must match resources when the opposite is impossible and international law is not the only source of legitimation because effectiveness or social support also count in international security. Finally, as multinodality operates in a communicational environment, frameworks must create their own narratives in order to sustain internal cohesion and gain external support through the appropriate narrative.
As seen in the Syrian civil war, neither great powers nor the UN, NATO, the EU or regional multilateral organisations have been able to cope with the crisis. Instead, the US, France and the UK, on the one hand, and Russia and Iran, on the other, have arranged their own networks, grouping all the responsive nodes to the modalities of solution they have proposed: political reforms, economic sanctions, regime change, non-intervention, responsibility to protect or diplomatic mediation, among others. States and institutions still play a relevant role as nodes but they now share leadership with transnational and translocal nodes such as activists, militants, nongovernmental organisations, proxies, religious movements or ethnic clans, amongst many others. Parties and networks have developed their own narratives and the new infowar gadgets manipulate mass and social media so that their perspectives about what is going on in the civil war are based more on perceptions than on evidence.
In 2009 the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, justified the need for a new foreign policy approach, moving ‘from a multi-polar world and toward a multi-partner world’ in order to cope with the new world challenges. In 2011 the US National Military Strategy acknowledged the shift towards a ‘multi-nodal’ world characterised by changing, interest-driven coalitions based on diplomatic, military and economic power. Globalisation increases the number of transnational security actors and interactions and thus diminishes the communality of interests, norms and values that international regimes, organisations and treaties are used to. Pragmatism, flexibility and effectiveness replace normativism, formalism and legitimacy as the founding principles of international security. Changes from multipolarity towards multimodality are challenging traditional mindsets, theories and mentalities but it is time to see international security for what it is rather than for what one would like it to be.