United Nations Secretary General António Guterres warns that a “financial crisis” threatens peacekeeping activities because U.N. member states have not paid 25 percent of the $6.7 billion peacekeeping budget. Those dues are crucial because peacekeepers are protecting millions of civilians in more than a dozen war zones and hot spots. The United Nations has nearly 90,000 uniformed personnel deployed, more than any other type of uniformed troops in current conflicts around the globe. Peacekeeping is important, effective and inexpensive, but it remains mired in myths.
Peacekeeping failures tend to grab both popular and scholarly attention. Movies are not made about the successes, but “Black Hawk Down” and “Hotel Rwanda” show what happens when things go wrong; Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut depicted peacekeeping failures in Bosnia. One scholar-diplomat asserts that U.N. peacekeeping “is destined to fail,” and a recent Foreign Affairs piece claims that “peacekeepers too often fail to meet their most basic objectives.”
But the notion that failure is the norm is simply inaccurate.
Although the world experienced some devastating peacekeeping failures in the early-to-mid 1990s, few remember — or even know about — the successful missions since then in Namibia, Cambodia, Mozambique, El Salvador, Croatia, Guatemala, East Timor, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Liberia. Since the end of the Cold War, of the 16 completed, complex missions, the United Nations has implemented its mandates in 12, helping rebuild the basic components of the state. And U.N. peacekeepers aren’t sent to the easy places.
In some policy and scholarly circles, peacekeeping and counterinsurgency are increasingly viewed as synonymous. One scholar suggests that they are “two of a kind.” A former U.N. force commander argued recently that when necessary, peacekeeping “troops should use overwhelming force and be proactive and preemptive.” The African Union describes its mission in Somalia as “an active, regional peacekeeping mission,” even though its main task is to fight al-Shabab insurgents.
But peacekeeping is not counterinsurgency. It differs from other forms of intervention because of its three doctrinal rules: the consent of the warring parties, the promise of impartial treatment of the belligerents and the limited use of force. Peacekeepers don’t take sides, and they don’t fight their way to peace.
Counterinsurgencies — such as U.S. efforts to help governments in Iraq and Afghanistan defeat internal enemies — defy all three peacekeeping principles. Counterinsurgents, by definition, do not deploy with the consent of the insurgents; they side with the government; and they use military force as their main instrument of change. According to some top scholars, counterinsurgency success rates have been declining for the past 100 years. Peacekeeping success rates are far higher than those for counterinsurgency.
A decade ago, the International Crisis Group gushed over China’s growing role in U.N. peacekeeping, calling it “a development that will benefit the international community.” President Barack Obama pressed China to step up its game in peacekeeping and take on more responsibilities at the United Nations.
China’s international pursuit of economic growth and political stability does mesh well with some strategic goals of peacekeeping. But its burgeoning role is problematic. Peacekeepers seek to advance peace by promoting human rights, and many civil wars today are fought precisely because authoritarian leaders have quashed human rights. The increasingly authoritarian government of Xi Jinping, meanwhile, has stifled the basic rights of political dissent, religious expression, free elections, a free press and privacy at home. Abroad, the Chinese government stands accused of enabling the spread of authoritarianism. Human Rights Watch warns of “China’s efforts to subvert the UN human rights system.”
As China has risen, it has removed human rights provisions from U.N. resolutions, eliminated the human rights cell from the U.N. secretary general’s office, prevented U.N. Security Council discussion of human rights abuses in conflict and disproportionately cut human rights observers from peacekeeping missions. Russia, and sometimes the current U.S. administration, have joined China in removing human rights objectives from peacekeeping. But given China’s increasing role on the world stage and in the United Nations, it is positioned to undercut this important dimension of peacekeeping.
In 1994, Republicans in Congress proposed that the United States “withdraw from any significant role in peacekeeping,” as one scholar recounts. George W. Bush campaigned on an anti-U.N. platform and appointed John Bolton to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations after Bolton famously declared: “The secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” At the time, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations was housed on those top floors. There have been legislative efforts, too, to hamstring peacekeeping, such as the Republican-sponsored American Sovereignty Restoration Act, which calls for an end to U.S. participation in peacekeeping operations.
Rhetoric is one thing. Budget numbers are another. During his two terms in office, Bush increased financial support for U.N. peacekeeping more than any previous American president; the agency’s overall peacekeeping budget and troop numbers tripled. His administration realized that peacekeeping was a great tool for sharing burdens. Budget numbers have declined under President Trump, but even in this deeply divided era, bipartisan support remains. For example, regarding the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, Reps. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Tex.), Tom Graves (R-Ga.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill). wrote in Roll Call that “the United Nations and its peacekeeping force . . . play a vital and stabilizing role for the country.” The American Sovereignty Restoration Act, meanwhile, hasn’t made its way out of committee.
Some experts claim that peacekeepers provide security guarantees. Political actors and pundits have suggested that U.N. peacekeepers could end wars in places like Syria and Ukraine. And the Security Council has a tendency to issue peacekeeping mandates whenever it can come to an agreement .
But peacekeepers cannot provide military-based security guarantees, and they cannot end raging wars in places like Syria or Ukraine without a negotiated peace deal. Moreover, many Security Council mandates do not align with the problems they seek to solve. Three in particular stand out. First, as its civil war was ostensibly winding down, Congo received approximately the same number of troops as Sierra Leone, even though it has about 15 times more people and a land mass more than 30 times the size. Probably no peacekeeping mission, no matter how big, could hope to stabilize a country as vast as Congo, but a standard-size peacekeeping mission certainly would not fit the bill. Second, Haiti was never in a civil war; it had long needed development aid and governance reform, but it got a standard civil war stabilization mandate and armed U.N. troops. In Mali, peacekeepers have a mandate that does not match the counterterrorist environment there. As a result, U.N. peacekeepers in Mali are dying in higher numbers than elsewhere.
Peacekeeping is a tool of conflict management, not conflict resolution.