Small Wars Journal

Realism vs. Liberalism in the Development of Counterterrorism Strategy

Definitions of terrorism, despite a lack of universality, center on the political theater meant to coerce or intimidate civilians or noncombatants.  How a state responds to that threat relies on basic assumptions made regarding the threat, capabilities of themselves and their allies, and the willingness of the international community to acquiesce to perceived aggression.  The Obama administration reversed the policies of its predecessor, and established a counterterrorism strategy that appears to exactly mirror the European model.  In a world of economic and security interdependencies it was the better choice.

Creating a counterterrorism strategy for any state is a complex undertaking, filled with hidden opportunities and perilous obligations alike.  How a state manages those opportunities and obligations depends on its definition of the threat, its understanding of the players involved, and its assumptions about capabilities and responses both at home and abroad.  In other words, a state must make a decision to balance the hard facts of realism with the potential of a more liberal foreign policy.

The George W. Bush administration saw terrorism as an existential threat and opted for the realist approach because the international system did more to hamper U.S. efforts at combating a sophisticated actor from outside the state system than it did to prevent the attacks of multiple U.S. targets in the first place.  It resolved to stop our dependence on alliances and international institutions and utilize American power to shape the international system by promoting democracy even if by force via a predominantly unilateral military approach.

 Alternately, the Obama administration opted for a more liberal approach by “harness[ing] every tool of American power . . . with the concerted efforts of allies, partners, and multilateral institutions” (Obama, 2011, p. 2)—a predominantly multilateral combination of hard and soft power.

This paper will argue that due to the pervasiveness and strengths of globalization (read interdependencies) and the rise of nonstate actors as both threat and tool of foreign policy, contemporary counterterrorism strategies are most effective when they subscribe to the liberal principles of collective self-defense.  The argument will proceed by 1) discussing the problems of defining terrorism and the threat it poses, 2) discussing the major elements of a counterterrorism strategy, and 3) discussing the costs and benefits of building an international coalition.  The paper will end, however, by discussing how the use of raw power by the Bush administration may have in fact set up the Obama administration’s strategy for success.

Defining Terrorism and the Threat it Poses

Academics describe the reasons for the lack of a universal definition of terrorism, while policy elites attempt to work out a coherent response to acts that cause fear and revulsion.  The single greatest problem with defining terrorism, however, is its ability to evolve.  Throughout history, terrorism has been used to silence collaborators or compel obedience, all in the name of facilitating nationalist aspirations.  At one instance, it is a tool of state oppression, at another it is a tool of liberation.

Bruce Hoffman, in Inside Terrorism (2005), explains terrorism in terms of its goals.  By its intrinsic nature terrorism is violent, psychological, conducted by a subnational organization, and political (p. 40).  Describing terrorism by its functions enables him to prevent the appearance of taking sides in what is often a heated debate.  Disagreements beyond this functional definition tend to concern themselves simply with whether or not one identifies with the perpetrators or the victims of the act.

The threat posed by contemporary terrorism is complicated first by the fact that it is conducted by a subnational organization, and second by its international characteristics.  Although realists consider the threat from terrorism to be worldwide and existential, many—even allies—require a more liberal approach as they consider terrorism to be regional and manageable, calling for individual responses to causes of radicalism in each state (Meyer, 2009, 648). 

But hidden within the liberal side of the debate is the further complication of prioritizing which states within particular regions provide the best return per unit of counterterrorism effort.  The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point negates the often-held view that failed states are the best environments for terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda.  Failed states like Somalia present “incomprehensible clan conflicts . . . suspicion from the indigenous population . . . logistical constraints . . . [and] the constant risk of Western military interdiction (2010, p. iii), which make setting up a presence within a failed state difficult for terrorist organizations.

Conversely, weak states provide “relative stability and basic infrastructure, sovereignty protections, and little concern over the state’s ability to police its territory” (Combating Terrorism Center, 2010, p. iii), enabling a terrorist organization to take advantage of improved logistics capabilities while simultaneously hiding both from the weak central government and the international community.

When working out a coherent response to the threat posed by terrorism, both sides of the realist-liberal debate in the development of a counterterrorism strategy rely on several assumptions.  Both assume that large segments of the international community will find terrorism to be intolerable, but after that the two sides diverge.  Realists tend to further assume that terrorism is an existential threat (for a revealing discussion of this read Frum & Perle’s An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (2003)), that the military can handle that threat, and that the rest of the world will cooperate due to the unparalleled power of the U.S. economic and military machine. 

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to view terrorism as one of many threats alongside nuclear proliferation, cyber protection, balanced economic growth, climate change, and pandemic disease (Obama, 2010, p. 8), and that the best way to fight terrorists is a multilateral approach aided by the management of international institutions.  Finally, liberals tend to believe that although the military is necessary, intelligence and law enforcement resources are equally indispensable (Obama, 2011, p. 2).

Neither set of assumptions is in and of itself right or wrong.  Some leaders are more internally predisposed in one or the other directions, but what is most important is that each philosophy is judged against the nature of the threat and the reactions to that threat from the international community.  We must look at whether the consensus view is to balance against the threat of terrorism, or to balance against the power of an injured hegemon.  In a world of intense economic and security interdependencies the answer is obvious.

A Balanced Counterterrorism Strategy

Any counterterrorism strategy must begin with a clear and attainable goal.  For instance, the eradication of terrorism as a method is simply not possible.   The elimination of terrorism and terrorist groups requires a massive military response that creates as many or more terrorists than it removes (McChrystal, 2009, p. 2).

A more realistic goal is a reduction in the size of terrorist organizations as well as a concomitant reduction in the ideological appeal of extremist philosophies for solving what have traditionally been intractable problem sets.  As mentioned above, many consider terrorism to be a manageable problem that requires an individual response to each region and state.

Another requirement for a balanced counterterrorism strategy is the successful integration of government agencies across the short- (defensive), mid- (offensive), and long- (proactive) terms.  Both the U.S.’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism (2011) and the E.U.’s European Union counter-terrorism Strategy (2005) manage a values-based approach to countering terrorism in the past, present, and future.  Both are based on a multilateral law enforcement approach—the E.U. views terrorism as “criminal” (Council of the European Union, 2005, p. 6), while the U.S. “is dedicated to upholding the rule of law by maintaining an effective, durable legal framework for CT operations and bringing terrorists to justice” (Obama, 2011, p. 4).  Both strategies have four “pillars”—or “core principles”—that combine national capabilities to respond to attacks with international efforts to separate terrorists from the population they hide amongst.

Countering Radicalization

The E.U., under the pillar of “Prevent”, means to proactively counter radicalization and recruitment to terrorist groups by identifying and countering the methods and conditions that make terrorism appealing (Council of the European Union, 2005, p. 7).  Although combating terrorist recruitment is primarily a local issue, the E.U. can provide important assistance coordinating policies and sharing information (p. 8).  The E.U. plans to attack the ability of radicalized individuals to travel and access training or recruit via the internet.  They also proactively engage with civil society and faith groups in order to counter the more dangerous ideas put forth by extremists (p. 8) in order to prevent their message from being obstructed in ways that cause division (p. 8).  Finally, the E.U. plans to address the classical causes of terrorism such as “poor or autocratic governance; rapid but unmanaged modernization; lack of political or economic prospects and of education opportunities” (p. 9) by promoting “good governance, human rights, democracy as well as education and economic prosperity, and engage in conflict resolution” (p. 9).

Likewise, the U.S., under the core principle of “Adhering to U.S. Core Values” discusses the differentiation of message offered by the terrorists and the U.S.  To solidify the appeal of U.S. values, they are listed as guiding forces: respect for human rights; responsive governance; respect for privacy rights, civil liberties, and civil rights; balancing security and transparency; and upholding the rule of law by maintaining an effective legal framework for CT operations and bringing terrorists to justice (Obama, 2011, p. 5-6).

Both strategies emphasize a proactive multilateral approach aimed at separating the terrorists from their ideological base of support by advancing respect for the individual alongside transparency in the governing process.  But this will not stop all attacks, so both strategies must also be reactive.

Defend Against Attacks

Both strategies call for strengthening collective security arrangements in order to “share the burdens of common security” (Obama, 2011, p. 6).  The U.S. acknowledges structural differentiation and allows for the building of common goals and patterns of cooperation that maintain and uphold human rights and good governance responsibilities (p. 7).  The U.S. also leverages the benefits of multilateral institutions in order to “increase the engagement of our partners, reduce the financial burden on the U.S., and enhance the legitimacy of our CT efforts by advancing our objectives without a unilateral, U.S. label (p. 7).

The E.U. strategy calls for “effective EU collective action” (Council of the European Union, 2005, p. 10) in defending targets, securing borders, as well as protecting infrastructure and crowded places from physical and electronic attack (p. 10-11).

Pursue Terrorists and Their Organizations

Under the pillar of “Pursue,” the E.U. seeks to disrupt planning, recruiting, and financing but in a way that maintains respect for human rights and international law (Council of the European Union, 2005, p. 12).  The E.U. presses the need to share police intelligence in order to deprive the terrorists of bombs, false documents, communications, and the ability to exploit the internet (p. 13).  Finally, the E.U. means to tackle the ability of terrorist organization to finance their operations by ratifying pertinent international treaties and conventions against terrorism and terrorist financing, as well as improving police/judicial cooperation on a global scale (p. 14).

Although the U.S. strategy on this point is more unilateral than the E.U. strategy, it is much more long term.  The U.S. strategy aims to foster a coordinated approach reflecting “the full capabilities and resources of our entire government” (Obama, 2011, p. 7).  But important is also that the U.S. strategy calls for tactical successes that don’t imperil long term strategic interests.  This calls for an awareness of the values listed above.

Respond to Attacks

Both strategies actually use the word “respond” in the European pillar and the U.S. core principle.    It is aimed, in both cases, at dealing with attacks when they occur.  The E.U. calls for responding to a terrorist attack similarly to reacting to a natural disaster in order to alleviate the suffering of victims after the attack using the same structures and institutions (Council of the European Union, 2005, p. 15).  Assistance to victims should also be provided to victims in third countries, coordinated through international institutions such as the United Nations of course (p. 16).

The U.S. strategy also plans for the response to terrorist attacks and assisting victims recover, in order to harden the resolve of the population and persuade terrorists that their plans have little chance to succeed (Obama, 2011, p. 8).  Curiously, the end of this core principle mentions that the U.S. has the strengths to absorb “and recover from any catastrophic event, whether manmade or naturally occurring” (p. 8).  It’s as if both U.S. and European strategies benefitted from the same author. 

Building Counterterrorism Coalitions

As the U.S. and the European Union have counterterrorism strategies that almost perfectly mirror each other, it would seem that building coalitions would be easy.  There are, however, political and practical complications when tying one state’s strategy to another’s.

The primary complications are political, stemming from the absence of a universal definition of terrorism, and a natural differentiation in the perception of the threat.  These were mentioned above, but the difficulty presented by them lies in identifying a mutually agreed upon central front. Under the Bush administration even the American public could not identify whether or not the central front was al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, or Iraq.  When this cannot be identified, how does another state analyze the secondary and tertiary effects of supporting that strategy?  How to overcome the primarily outward focus of the Bush administration’s strategy with the primarily inward focused European strategy was never worked out.

The counterterrorism strategy of the Obama administration, however, takes the view that the U.S. is part of a global community, and therefore any focus upon another state within that system is by definition also inward.   By taking a similar approach, the strategies of both the U.S. and the E.U. will complement rather than compete with each other.  But there are other problems to address.

Even with similar strategies, the two main economic and military powers in the world have a practical problem due to differing capabilities.  According to Gordon and Shapiro (2008) Europe is pretty much forced to enact a law-enforcement approach due to the relative weakness of their military compared to the U.S.  Whereas the U.S. has the ability to maintain about 65% of its military forces in the field, the E.U. can only maintain about 6% (p. 57).

As such, the obvious problem is that of the free rider.  But before dismissing contributions of allies and partners in one area we must remember that the problem at hand is how to best protect a system not just any one particular state.  In addition to the military, contributions are also measured across a spectrum of diplomatic support, intelligence sharing, economic integration, and legal maneuvering.  Although the Europeans contribute significantly less in the military realm, they more than make up for it elsewhere.

The final major practical problem for building coalitions is entropy.  Whether governments suffer political distractions such as the debt crisis in Greece, or a complete reversal of policy due to a change in government such as the changes illustrated by the election of the Obama administration mentioned above, the result is usually domestic confusion and loss of concern.  Counterterrorism, along with all types of foreign policy, is a complex undertaking requiring a nuanced understanding of terms and theories outside of colloquial usages.  It also takes decades to measure in any reasonable way.  It takes constant communication and even education to ensure domestic and international constituencies maintain focus.

Still, the problems brought about by trying to create and maintain an international coalition are overcome by the tremendous benefits bequeathed upon any operation conducted under the auspices of international institutions.  The most important of all international institutions, the United Nations, brings with it burden sharing, cost sharing, as well as near absolute political and legal legitimacy.  Despite the preferential treatment of the U.S. and European powers on the Security Council, working through the United Nations provides credibility and transparency at the highest levels.

But Was Bush the Younger onto Something?

The centerpiece of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism strategy was also the “advancement of freedom and human dignity” (Bush, 2006, p. 9) just as the contemporary strategies espoused by the U.S. and the E.U.  The only difference is that rather than providing it through example he stressed the advancement of democracy (p. 9).

In contrast to the European and later U.S. strategies, Bush’s strategy explicitly denied the connection of poverty and anti-U.S. sentiment with terrorism (Bush, 2006, p. 9).  The values espoused by the later Obama administration (respect for human rights; responsive governance; respect for privacy rights, civil liberties, and civil rights; balancing security and transparency; and upholding the rule of law) are in fact the general hallmarks of democracy itself.  Are these two diametrically opposed administrations actually saying the same thing?

According to the Bush strategy, advancement of democracy provides an outlet for political expression that is sorely lacking in the Middle East.  Oppressive, autocratic regimes (the general rule in the region) are enablers for violent extremism (Windsor, 2010, p. 259).  Democracy increases a government’s accountability to the governed (p. 254), providing an outlet for political frustrations that are more pragmatic than resorting to violent extremism.  As such, despite potential hiccups along the way, democracy will provide all the values and institutions called for in the Obama and European strategies.

But where the Bush strategy went awry was its tying counterterrorism strategy to his National Security Strategy of 2002 and its emphatic support of preventive war in order to enact regime change and force democracy at the end of a gun.  This created concern amongst even our most hardened allies that instead of a “war” against terrorism they were involved in fighting only to maintain U.S. hegemony.

There were benefits to assisting the U.S. effort, since if even the mighty U.S. could be hit with such an attack surely other major powers could as well.  The later attacks in Spain and England underscored this point.  But eventually fatigue set in as U.S. actions appeared more and more unilateral and even U.S. domestic opinion turned against the war.  The Department of Defense was also able to convince the Bush administration to change from a counterterrorism strategy to a much more politically based counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But along the way the Bush administration had also achieved political successes in its war against terrorism by getting the UN Security Council to pass resolutions 1373 combating terrorist financing, and 1566 requiring all UN member states to join the international conventions against terrorism.  When combined with the arguable point that they defeated al-Qaeda and forced its decentralization and diffusion, the Bush strategy was at least helpful.

The True International Context

As the Bush administration began its counterterrorism strategy it assumed the rest of the world would be forced to acquiesce.  For a while that’s exactly what happened.  But very quickly the international community began to push back against such major items as the invasion of Iraq, the conduct of the invasion, and the treatment of combatants.  The central reason for this was the Bush administration’s inability to correctly analyze the international context within which the “War on Terror” took place.

As stated above, the international community was initially willing to assist the U.S. due to the potential for attacks on their homelands because they were also the primary benefactors of the international system.  But as fatigue set in they slowly resorted back to their original orientation of integration and peaceful conflict resolution.

Europe and Asia have been suffering from terrorism longer than the Americans—simple geography is the problem.  Long after giving up their former empires, shared borders and general proximity combined with globalization’s ease of transportation created larger internal vulnerabilities that made Europeans in particular much more sensitive to anguished minority populations resident within their domestic populations.  The U.S., surrounded by oceans, may also have large ethnic minorities resident within its borders, but they are not connected to the same level of transportation infrastructures.  For the U.S., terrorism was almost completely an international phenomenon.  For Europeans and Asia, terrorism is predominantly a domestic concern.

As such, the international community was more than willing to balance against terrorism in general.  But it was only one threat among several.  And when the U.S. showed a willingness to use its massive power in opposition to and in contempt of the desires of ‘old Europe’, it forced the international community to balance against them.  Aggression is only valued in a bandwagoning world, as perceived strength will bring allies to your cause.  But in a balancing world excessive aggression may leave you in the cold.

The Last Word

As the world is presently filled with economic and security interdependencies at both the domestic and international levels, the tendency will be to moderate counterterrorism strategies into a more long-term approach of attempting to fix the core problems that cause people to resort to violent extremism in the first place.  That is not to say the military option is dead.  Military capabilities in the areas of intelligence collection and special interdiction teams such as Delta Force and Seal Team 6 have proven themselves over and again to be valuable contributors to the counterterrorism effort—as Operation Neptune Spear can attest to.

The false assumption that the military can handle the threat of terrorism never bore out.  Democratic societies, with their respect for human rights, are just too full of provocative targets.  The only way to have any chance of protecting them is to join collective security arrangements aimed at preventing the financing and transportation of operatives at important transportation nodes around the world simultaneously.  As such, the European approach, of which the U.S. has joined, offers the best chance at successfully countering not only terrorism, but the myriad of national security threats we all face.


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Combating Terrorism Center, (2010). Al-Qaida’s (mis)adventures in the Horn of Africa. West Point.  Accessed at

Council of the European Union, (2005). The European Union counter-terrorism strategy. Brussels, Belgium.

Gordon, P. & Shapiro, J. (2008). Allies at war: America, Europe, and the crisis over Iraq.  McGraw-Hill.

Hoffman, B. (2005). Inside Terrorism. New York, New York: Columbia University Press.

McChrystal, S. (2009). ISAF Commander’s counterinsurgency guidance. International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan.

Meyer, C. (2009). International terrorism as a force of homogenization? A constructivist approach to understanding cross-national threat perceptions and responses. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 22(4), p. 647-666.

Obama, B. (2010). National security strategy. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Obama, B. (2011). National strategy for counterterrorism. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Windsor, J. (2010). Debating terrorism and counterterrorism: Conflicting perspectives on causes, contexts, and responses S. Gottlieb (Ed.). Washington, DC: CQ Press.

About the Author(s)

Randi L. Buros is a retired Military Intelligence officer with an M.A. in Diplomacy. He currently instructs Terrorism and Counterinsurgency to the MI Basic Officer Leadership Course at Fort Huachuca.