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Ad hoc coalitions are increasingly charged to tackle international crises

How does this impact on international organisations?

Malian soldiers, part of the G5 Sahel joint military force, patrolling in central Mali. 

Foto: Daphne Benoit/AFP/NTB

Norway is a vocal supporter of binding international cooperation and the multilateral system, enabling us to strengthen our ability to address common challenges and safeguard national and global interests, according to the Norwegian government.

So, what happens when international crises arise?

“Norway keeps saying that we must defend and strengthen an international rules-based order and multilateral cooperation, but when we need to solve urgent international crises, we tend to prefer tools that can be set up on short notice and which are more flexible,” says John Karlsrud, research professor at NUPI.

Karlsrud is project manager for the research project Ad hoc crisis response and international organisations (ADHOCISM), investigating how ad hoc crisis responses impact international organisations. And ad hoc coalitions, or AHCs, are increasingly becoming the preferred tool for crisis response:

Battling COVID-19, Norway announced that it would support the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) with $2.2 billion and the vaccine alliance Gavi with $1 billion. The pandemic support for the World Health Organization, though, was not quite in the billions: The Norwegian government announced only $5 million to WHO in the same period (2020).

Although Norway has spent significant amounts over several years to help the African Union build the peacekeeping African Standby Force, the Norwegian government supported the ad hoc coalition Group of Five Sahel (G5 Sahel) to fight terrorism in Mali.

Why are ad hoc coalitions preferred? And why should we care? Both will be addressed, but first …

What exactly are ad hoc coalitions?

Much academic attention has been given to multilateral organisations that exist over time and are relatively easy to observe. They have been analysed according to, for instance, the degree of formality and membership composition, tasks and achievements. These characteristics, however, are not necessarily very useful for understanding and comparing ad hoc coalitions.

While ad hoc coalitions have become increasingly common, they have been understudied, partly because they are often short-lived and informal. In addition, there has been no common understanding of what characterises an AHC.

The ADHOCISM research team are working to change that. In a recent article in the renowned journal International Affairs, the researchers define ad hoc coalitions based on three characteristics:

  • They are created on short notice.
  • They are task specific.
  • They are intended to be temporary.

An AHC thus arises when a loose group of states and/or other actors join to solve a specific challenge. Ad hoc coalitions have a task-specific mandates, they are established at short notice and for a limited period of time.

Although not a new phenomenon, the amount of active AHCs sharply increased throughout the 1990s, peaking in the years after the 9-11 terrorist attack. Since the ‘90s, there has been a noticeable increase of active AHCs in Africa, while the Americas have consistently seen the least number of AHCs.

Why are AHCs preferred?

Member states repeatedly establish AHCs in situations where international organisations might be expected to play a central role. Why are states rather creating ever new AHCs?

“The international system feels unwieldy, so states with common interests seek together in smaller and more manageable forums. It is easier to get things done when the states have real self-interest and more control of the process,” says Karlsrud, and adds:

“AHCs are much more flexible, they do not have to deal with the consensus requirements and the bureaucracy of the international organisations. So states and donors can more easily manage the ad hoc coalitions. They are less formal and can thus go more under the radar.”

How then does it serve a small nation like Norway to undermine the multilateral system and its inclusive international organisations?

“The fact that we solve cases outside of international frameworks probably weakens the power of small states over time. I'm afraid we shoot ourselves in the foot,” says Karlsrud.

Less insight and control

AHCs have been created to deal with a wide range of crises, including epidemics, famines and natural disasters. However, the more visible AHCs are likely to be found in peace and security operations. In this domain, crises are often characterised by a need for action at short notice, which may be hard to combine with the bureaucracy of the international organisations. Thus, it may seem like the age of major UN peace and security operations is over.

“The pessimist in me says that in 10-15 years, the UN's role here will be small support operations, such as logistics and funding, for AHC operations,” says Karlsrud.

How is that an issue?

“The world's joint institutions lose control over, and insight into, how the operations take place. With less control, the AHCs can strike harder down on their opponents. The countries participating in the Norwegian-backed G5 Sahel have killed more civilians than the terrorists they are fighting. Then, are they more efficient? Or are they creating just as many new terrorists?”

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