By guest blogger Arthur Stein

In the war in Iraq, known in official US documents as Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), the US has carried the bulk of the military effort. More than 130,000 US soldiers have been in Iraq throughout the period since the early days of the war. The United Kingdom has contributed fewer than 10,000 soldiers. No other country contributed more than 5,000 soldiers, and only South Korea, Italy, Poland, Netherlands, Spain, and Ukraine provided more than 1000. Romania, Japan, Denmark, Bulgaria contributed between 500 and 1000; Georgia, Australia, El Salvador, Azerbaijan, Mongolia, Albania, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Norway, Dominican Republic, Thailand, Hungary, Portugal, and Singapore provided between 100 and 500; and Czech Republic, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Macedonia, Kazakhstan, Philippines, New Zealand, Moldova, and Tonga contributed fewer than 100. Moreover, the contributions of a number of these countries were specifically limited to non-combat roles. Among others, Japan contributed only medics engineers, the Czech republic provided police trainers, Slovakia military engineers, and Portugal contributed military policemen.

The US has carried almost all of the burden and could easily have undertaken the operation without any support (setting aside the issue of access provided by neighboring countries). The assistance provided by most of the coalition is so marginal that it is largely symbolic.

Nevertheless, the White House trumpeted the Coalition waging the effort. It issued a press release with a list of 49 countries publicly committed to the Coalition ( At the end of the press release, four features of the coalition were emphasized. The first two were standard measures of power: the combined population and combined GDP of Coalition countries. But the document also listed two features unrelated to issues of power: 1) “Every major race, religion, ethnicity in the world is represented,” and 2) “The Coalition includes nations from every continent on the globe.”

A set of questions arise from the combination of a White House emphasis that a coalition was waging the war and the marginal character of that contribution. Why did the US seek others’ support and why did they offer it? Given that contributions were not coerced, what was being exchanged?

The press release emphasizes two aspects of a coalition. First, it constitutes an agglomeration of resources and capabilities. Second, it was broadly representative, by race, religion, ethnicity, and region. Given how little the other nations provided by way of capability it would seem that it was their representativeness that the US sought.

States undertaking collective efforts can provide capability and legitimacy. The US sought a coalition to wage the Gulf War not for its capability but for the legitimacy it would extend to the US-dominated operation.

Similarly, the opposition to the US military effort by France, Germany, and Russia was significant not because of any capability they extended to Iraq but because their opposition undercut the legitimacy of US actions.

When we talk about multilateralism then we mean more than a set of states combining their capabilities to achieve some objective. We also have in mind the legitimacy that comes from states acting in concert because their objectives are not particularistic national interests but common interests.

This raises a number of issues about multilateral concerted action. How many states are needed to achieve the legitimacy that multilateralism is intended to provide? Conversely, how much opposition and by how many and whom undercuts the legitimacy of multilateral efforts? Moreover, does multilateralism require more than merely a signal of commitment? The US obtained many signatories in the second Iraq War and even small and medium contributions and yet was seen as acting unilaterally? Why was that?

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