Bottom-up arms control – Coalitions of the willing

Peace & Security22 Mar 2007Ko Colijn

Coalitions of the willing have been accused of undermining multilateralism. But if they work from the bottom up, they can actually strengthen global governance. Witness the efforts to ban landmines and, most recently, cluster munitions.

One of the main criticisms directed at the Bush administration has been its preference for ‘coalitions of the willing’ over multilateralism. But there are ‘good’ coalitions too. Remember the coalition of the willing that laid the basis for the 1997 treaty banning landmines.1 What began as an initiative of a few like-minded countries and NGOs is now supported by 155 states parties.2 In pursuit of the landmine ban, Canada and Norway invented their own negotiating forum, outside the structure of the United Nations, which they then took to the UN as a fait accompli.3

History seems to be repeating itself, as another coalition of the willing is taking the lead in the realm of disarmament. This time it has grown out of frustration with the inability of the UN Committee on Disarmament (CD) to reach agreement on a ban on cluster munitions.

In this case, again led by Norway, 46 countries reached political agreement on the so-called Oslo Declaration on Cluster Munitions on 22 February 2007. The Oslo conference ‘surpassed our expectations’, said Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre. The participating countries committed themselves to concluding, by the end of 2008, ‘a legally binding international instrument that will prohibit the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians’.4 However, the Oslo conference was not attended by the United States, Russia and China, all permanent members of the UN Security Council. No surprise that they, joined by other significant states like Japan and Poland, did not sign the declaration.

Ad hoc coalitions

Both of these can be described as bottom-up arms control initiatives. They both originated from grassroots pressure groups supported by ad hoc coalitions of states that, on their own, have little impact on international security politics.

For all their weaknesses in terms of traditional power, these initiatives have been based on strong feelings of moral legitimacy and shared disgust of the object they want to see outlawed. After giving the UN a fair chance, the countries that launched the cluster munitions movement rejected the ‘royal diplomacy’ of seeking the broadest possible multilateral platform. They left the Committee on Disarmament in Geneva, thereby giving up some ‘input legitimacy’, to use the term coined by Fritz Scharpf.5 This represents, in the field of international relations, the purest and most respected procedure for achieving a goal – through international democratic institutions, in this case the Committee on Disarmament. Instead, the coalition opted to maximize its ‘output legitimacy’. Defending the urgency of a ban on this category of inhumane weapons, they chose the moral high ground and, to justify their ad hoc coalition, results over procedure. Moreover, ten years of experience with the landmine ban justified their optimism about the growth potential of the initiative. Indeed, what started out as a small coalition gradually became a multilateral effort – there are now 150+ signatories to the Convention banning landmines – putting the non-signatory states increasingly on the defensive.


One may wonder why US-led coalitions of the willing are criticized as further proof of the hegemonic politics the Bush administration has pursued from the very beginning. Take the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI),6 announced by President Bush in May 2003. This eleven-nation alliance aimed to pursue the interdiction of ships and aircraft suspected of transporting weapons of mass destruction to hostile states and terrorists. At the time, this goal could hardly be described as ‘lacking in morality’, and even less so after the seizure of nuclear contraband on a ship destined for a secret weapons programme in Libya in 2004. Although the initiative initially raised some legal concerns as to its compatibility with the internationally recognized principle of free movement of shipping on the high seas, the difficulties in gaining support were procedural as well as political.7 The Bush administration invited countries to participate on a selective basis and made no secret of its leadership role. The PSI was a top-down, rather than a bottom-up, coalition of the willing.

It is tempting to conclude that coalitions of the willing are not ‘bad’ instruments per se. They do not undermine the multilateral ideal. They might even, in the long run, strengthen multilateralism by extending its scope – as was the case with the landmines. Based on this very small but interesting sample of cases in the field of security, the ‘rightfulness’ of ad hoc coalitions seems to depend not on their output legitimacy – because they all have results – but rather on their bottom-up character and the transparency of recruitment.


  • John Van Oudenaren (2003) What is ‘multilateral’? An abused term in the international relations debate. Policy Review 117, Hoover Institution, February/March.
  • Fritz Scharpf (1999) Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic? Oxford University Press.


    1. 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction.
    2. International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, States Parties as of 21 February 2007
    3. John Van Oudenaren (2003) What is ‘Multilateral’? An abused term in the international relations debate . Policy Review 117, Hoover Institution, February/March.
    4. Oslo Declaration on Cluster Munitions, 22–23 February 2007.
    5. Fritz Scharpf (1999) Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic? Oxford University Press.
    6. US Department of State (2005) Proliferation Security Initiative: Fact Sheet . Bureau of International Security and Non-Proliferation.
    7. Marjorie Ann Browne (2005) The UN Law of the Sea Convention and the United States: Developments since October 2003 . CRS Report for Congress, Code RS21890, Library of Congress, updated June 3, 2005.