The French government last week called on West African leaders to “pick up the baton” and support military operations against Islamic insurgents in Mali. France has already deployed more than 2,000 soldiers and is currently conducting air and ground operations authorized by a United Nations Security Council resolution. Other governments, including Chad, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo, Benin, Ghana, and Guinea have committed to sending soldiers, and Britain, Denmark, and Belgium are providing material support. The United States has offered to provide communications support, but has declined so far to commit soldiers or air support.
It is clear that France has already moved beyond the original UN-backed strategy, which called for Western governments to provide training and material in support of an African-led military intervention. Rather, French forces appear to be taking the lead in operations, with other governments in the region responding more slowly.
The politics of military coalitions are always interesting. Basic behavioral economics suggest that there is little incentive for a government to pay for something it can get for free. In game theory, this is referred to as the free-rider dilemma. In global politics, more powerful countries (often the hegemon) pay a disproportionate cost. The United States, for example, has borne the lion’s share of the costs associated with interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But recent developments in Libya and Mali suggest a slightly different strategy at play. In both cases, the United States appeared willing to let others—France in the case of Mali, and the European Union in the case of Libya—take the leading role.
Does this represent a shift in American military thinking? Likely, the answer is no. While the Obama administration expresses a stronger commitment to multilateralism than the Bush administration did, it has already shown a willingness to undertake unilateral action when it perceives the national interest is at stake. The ongoing drone strikes in Pakistan are case in point.
However, where it sees the US national interest is less at play, the Obama administration appears far more willing to let other states pursue policies that align with US interests abroad.