Coalitions, institutions and big tents: the new strategic reality of armed intervention



    1. Professor of International Relations and Head of the Center for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.
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    • The outline of this article was presented at a Chatham House conference on ‘European defence and security 2012: commitments, capabilities and cash’, 23–24 Jan. 2012. The author is grateful for comments provided by conference participants, to various individuals at NATO headquarters in Brussels who agreed to be interviewed on background and reflect on the arguments presented here, and to Jens Ringsmose, Bugge Thorbjørn Daniel, Michael Cohen and the anonymous reviewers for constructive criticism. The research was generously supported by grant no. 11–119055 from the Danish Social Science Research Council.


Armed interventions of the past decades demonstrate that strategic leadership can give way to lofty campaign plans, conflicting strategic narratives and concern with tactical, as opposed to strategic, issues. The intervention debate rightfully emphasizes the need for both leadership and institution-building to rectify this situation, but then breaks down into discord: some critics argue that stronger leadership by big nations is necessary, others that this type of leadership wrecks the collective institutions that are needed in a new age of multilateralism and interdependence. This article argues instead that strategic leadership grows out of the effort to connect the three distinct political arenas that have come to dominate armed interventions: coalitions, institutions and big tent diplomacy. Strategic leadership is not about choosing between coalitions or institutions; it is about building bridges among these political arenas. The article embeds this argument within the strategic literature and demonstrates how it emerges from an engagement with modern armed interventions. It engages in two in-depth assessments of NATO's experiences in Afghanistan and Libya and then undertakes a more general discussion of the steps that can be taken to encourage strategic leadership.