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Understanding Policy: Collective Action in Libya

Editor's Note: This brief series on Collective Action demonstrates how public policy can be analyzed through the lens of Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action. Each piece looks at a specific humanitarian crisis and how the logic applies for that case. For a brief summary on the theory, see Understanding Policy: Collective Action. 


By Jake Schurmeier 

Mancur Olson’s theory of collective action and the formation of group preferences provide critical insight into the 2011 UN humanitarian intervention in Libya and the establishing of a no-fly zone.  The conclusion of this piece is that that the outcomes of collective action produce sub-optimal results, as evidenced by Libya in 2011.  This is because individual members necessarily do not gain the full benefit of their expenditure due to the nature of public goods, regardless of the group’s size (Olson, 1965).

During 2011, the UN established a no-fly zone over Libya in accordance with United Nations protocol set out in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 (United Nations, 2014).  Successful passage of the Security Council occurred because Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s de facto ruler, had isolated himself from nearly the entire UN assembly. Initially, the required impetus for collective action included the entire international community in the United Nations because the Arab community and select Western countries did not have the political will to pursue the Libyan plan without international support.  Neither China nor Russia, who provided a counter balance in Libya’s favor, had special interests in Libya (Stewart, 2014) or desired to resist UN intervention. Despite this, proponents of a no-fly zone then pared down the size of the group significantly, to include only members of NATO, other Western allied countries and a few select Arab States making collective action far more feasible through institutional mechanisms.

However, prior to the passage of the Security Council resolution or the implementation of the no-fly zone, the possible intervention in Libya required policy entrepreneurs to overcome the United States’ hesitance to take leadership. In light of the concurrent Arab Spring and the legacies of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States was hesitant to involve itself once again in the Middle East without international cooperation and leadership. The United Kingdom, France and a collection of Arab states lobbied the international community on behalf of Libya’s rebelling groups and took leading roles in the provision of the no-fly zone (BBC, 2014) . Inspiring their leadership were direct concerns about the spillover effects of Libyan instability in the Mediterranean and Arab world.  This tangible stake that more geographically proximate countries possessed in the conflict served as a selective incentive motivating the coalition in support of a no-fly zone to coalesce and marginalize the impact of powerful opposition such as Russia and China.

The above points set the stage for humanitarian invention in Libya ideologically.  The organizing principals and inducements necessary to implement a collective action utilized the UN as a whole, and more specifically, NATO as the principal collective actor in mitigating the costs of organization and providing selective incentives to individual members to ensure sustained members contribution. The established security apparatus within NATO already provided the requisite military capabilities and coordination to realize the no-fly zone quickly and effectively with few additional costs. Moreover, the UN Security Council treaty contained coercive mechanisms that required many of the members to contribute, while costs were minimized for the group as a whole due to the proximity of Libya to most individual members and established NATO bases of operation (Stewart). Finally, the unequal distribution of power and the technological feasibility of NATO embodied in the United States furthered the likelihood of humanitarian intervention in Libya.

It beggars belief to argue that the resulting no-fly zone was an optimal outcome. Many states desired a more decisive intervention on behalf of the rebel forces in Libya, but a no-fly zone became the only feasible solution. Collective action is inherently constrained by the disproportionate burden of costs that leaves every rational actor to expend resources only until their perceived marginal benefit is expended. The Libyan example provides a clear example of collective action problems in the face of humanitarian crises, with its swift and successful resolution being a rare outcome. The presence of an organizing apparatus in NATO, political will combined with clear interests and leadership by non-U.S. actors ensured that the humanitarian crisis in Libya would not trace its natural course without collective action.


Jake Schurmeier is a 1st-year Robertson Fellow at UCSD's School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. He is pursuing a concentration in international economics and Latin America. In particular, he's interested in the intersection of financial markets and development outcomes.


We at JIPS encourage open discourse and free expression but do not endorse any particular stance that may be reflected in the contributions on this website  The views expressed in the JIPS blog are solely those of the contributors.


Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action, Harvard University Press, 1965.

United Nations, "Resolution 1973 (2011)." Last modified March 17, 2011. Accessed April 1, 2014.

Stewart, Patrick. "How Qaddafi's Fall Vindicated Obama and RtoP." Foreign Affairs, August 26, 2011. (accessed April 2, 2014).

BBC, "Libya: President Obama gives Gaddafi ultimatum." Last modified March 19, 2011. Accessed April 2, 2014.

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