On Jan. 25, a draft executive order from the Trump administration appeared to call for steep funding cuts to international organizations — including U.S. support for U.N. peace operations. Two days later, the administration seemed to step back, amid reports that a committee would be set up to review U.S. commitments to international organizations and treaties over the next year.
If the funding cuts outlined in the draft order go into effect, U.N. peace operations are likely to suffer significant operational shortfalls. My research on U.N. peacekeeping examines how its structural properties affect ongoing conflicts.
The United States is the largest funder of U.N. peace operations
The U.N. budget includes mandatory and voluntary contributions. Contributions for peacekeeping, a mandatory feature of U.N. membership, are set by the General Assembly, based on each country’s income level and a complex assessment formula agreed to by member states. States may also make additional voluntary contributions, usually in the form of mission resources.
For the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the United States will provide 28.57 percent of the $7.87 billion peacekeeping budget, as much as the combined total of the next three largest funders — China, Japan and Germany.
The United States does not send a significant number of troops to peace operations, but its financial contributions reflect its status as a permanent Security Council member. Permanent membership charges the United States with responsibility for maintaining international peace and security and grants it a veto over Security Council action.
Once a mission has been approved, U.S. support for the mission through the peacekeeping budget is mandatory. Reducing the United States’ assessed contributions would thus require either getting other countries to agree to increase their contributions or lowering the overall peacekeeping budget for future years by approving fewer missions.
There is a congressional cap on contributions to peace operations already, which sets the U.S. annual contribution at a percentage lower than the U.S. assessed annual contribution — each year, Congress must approve additional funding so the United States can meet its membership obligations.
Here’s why U.N. peacekeeping is important for the United States
Systematically underfunded peace operations will affect conflicts worldwide: U.N. peacekeepers constitute the world’s second-largest deployed military force, surpassed only by the U.S. military. Nonetheless, the United Nations estimates that its peacekeeping budget is less than 0.5 percent of global military expenditures.
Even initially reluctant U.S. presidents have supported peacekeeping. Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations substantially increased U.S. financial contributions to U.N. peacekeeping and consistently voted at the Security Council to expand peace operations. The Obama White House identified a “compelling national security interest in preventing the outbreak, escalation, and spread” of civil conflicts and pointed to U.N. peace operations as the best way to manage these interests.
Peacekeeping operations often operate under suboptimal conditions with voluntary, multilateral troop commitments. Missions tend to be short-staffed and poorly equipped, without unified chains of command or a shared operational language. Missions can have multiple rules of engagement dictated by national capitals.
U.N. peacekeepers have had some notable catastrophes, with massive human costs. But when peacekeepers are deployed, war-ending peace agreements are more likely to be implemented, and warring parties are 20 percent more likely to implement the terms of their agreement with peacekeepers on the ground. Conflicts are more than 50 percent less likely to reignite.
Scholars have found that peacekeeping keeps wars from bleeding across borders. Having more peacekeepers on the ground also seems to correspond with fewer civilians targeted with violence. And peace operations at times have successfully served as transitional authorities, handing power back to local authorities, although this is decreasingly true.
Peacekeeping is at a crossroads
But peacekeeping over the past decade has transformed in ways that make mission success harder to achieve. The Security Council now authorizes only peace enforcement missions — missions that are more frequently deployed to active conflicts before the full cessation of hostilities — which charge peacekeepers with using force to protect civilians under threat of violence and which are increasingly hard to distinguish from war.
Research suggests that these enforcement missions are far less effective than older types of missions, which were usually deployed to oversee agreements and were not authorized to use force to protect civilians. Assessing the successful implementation of civilian protection mandates is extremely difficult. Many of these missions continue to be extended indefinitely, never quite reaching their mandated goals.
By 2017, the United States was poised for active involvement in efforts to reform these civilian protection mandates — the last two years of the Obama administration saw more changes in U.S. policy toward peace operations than the previous 20 years, including a presidential memorandum that pledged to expand U.S. contributions to peacekeeping while driving reforms to U.N. peace operations.
The United States was also an initiator of the Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians, a nonbinding set of state pledges to standardize the rules of engagement and unify the chain of command under a U.N. force. The principles are an effort to reform the civilian protection mandates, under which 97 percent of peacekeepers currently operate, by better matching peace operations’ means to their mandates. While there are significant feasibility questions about these principles, steep cuts in U.S. support for peace operations would probably stall even this effort to reform struggling missions.
Civilian protection mandates are difficult to walk back — the Security Council would now appear to be actively disregarding civilians in any conflict for which it did not issue a civilian protection mandate. But absent reform, the Security Council is likely to simply continue authorizing civilian protection mandates that lack the means to effectively execute their missions.
This may prolong both interventions and suffering in places like Congo, Haiti, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, and may ultimately undermine faith in U.N. peace operations.
So what’s next?
It will likely fall to the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, to negotiate mandates and peace operations. Haley is a more traditionally Republican internationalist who has expressed support for the United Nations and multilateral action, and opposition to slash-and-burn funding cuts. She may find common ground with Secretary General António Guterres in peacekeeping policies that address the root causes of conflict.
It’s less clear whether Haley can leverage the diplomatic creativity and deep expertise at the State Department to compensate for resource shortfalls, should the United States decrease its peacekeeping commitments. Other nations traditionally involved in peace operations may manage to fill the gap if China, Germany and Japan cannot — Canada, for one, has already indicated that it will take new U.S. policy into account when it weighs its promised deployment of troops to African peace operations later in the year.
The United States’ last retreat from peace operations, in the 1990s, brought substantial turmoil to both the authorization of peace operations and their conduct on the ground, followed by reform; this cycle is likely to repeat should Washington withdraw again. With 16 ongoing peace operations and a modal mission mandate that no longer produces lasting peace or clear exit strategies, sharp cuts in U.S. funding to peace operations may ultimately compel alternative directions in peacekeeping reform.
These efforts may lead away from trying to envision more efficient civilian protection. Some scholars believe that reform toward more local input in mandates, local-level conflict resolution or local ownership of peace operations will ultimately produce more long-lasting peace than externally imposed efforts. While this may be the case, peacekeeping will not be quickly transformed, and in the interim, civilians will certainly suffer.