Uncertainty and Possibility in UN Peacekeeping

By Stephen E. Moncrief

United Nations peacekeeping has entered a period of uncertainty. Currently, there are over 94,000 personnel serving across 13 operations, and some of these missions have been active for decades. Yet the future of UN peacekeeping is not immediately clear. After peacekeeping missions proliferated in the 1990s and 2000s, the enterprise has undergone a notable contraction. Several UN missions have closed or downsized in the last few years, and the UN is initiating fewer new missions (see figure below).

Source: https://peacekeeping.un.org/sites/default/files/unpeacekeeping-operationlist_3_1_0.pdf

The American retreat from multilateralism, growing skepticism of the UN’s general efficacy, and the widespread harms generated by Covid-19 are all frustrating the UN’s efforts to achieve its organizational goals. Against this gloomy backdrop, the future of peacekeeping is a major topic among researchers and practitioners. With the United States responsible for a substantial portion of the UN’s peacekeeping budget, now is an excellent time to think systematically about the successes, limitations, and potential contributions of UN peacekeeping to the goal of world peace.

Several factors conspire to generate an unduly negative public perception of peacekeeping. As peacekeeping scholars have pointed out, the failures of civilian protection receive substantially more media attention than the successes. In the last few years, relatively effective missions in coastal West Africa have closed, which may draw more attention to ongoing missions working under exceptionally difficult circumstances, such as MINUSMA in Mali. Further, although rhetoric encouraging intervenors to address the “root causes” of conflict is common, this is an unrealistic standard with a shaky conceptual foundation.

The reality is UN peacekeeping has accomplished a great deal in its history, warranting optimism about its future. Academic research has firmly established that UN peacekeeping is effective, even accounting for the tendency of peacekeepers to go to particularly difficult places. For example, a UN peacekeeping presence is associated with declines in battlefield deaths during civil war, the mitigation of communal conflicts, and even the curtailment of conflict-related sexual violence. However, if peacekeeping expands again in the coming years and enters a new era, we should stay mindful of what international peace operations can reasonably be expected to achieve in their host countries.

It is often lamented that the UN is expected to do too much with too little, and this is a valid concern. But besides expanding the resources available to the UN, this problem can also be addressed by examining which aspects of UN peacekeeping are effective, or at least promising. The UN should focus on protecting civilians and building trust between warring parties, rather than drifting toward ambitions that are grander, but more vaguely defined.

For example, my current research is skeptical of the UN’s tendency to include goals like “the extension of State authority” in its peacekeeping mandates. This approach not only conflates state capacity with peace, but it may also incentivize resistance from domestic figures who distrust the central state or whose political power could be eroded by state expansion. If the state is viewed by many in the population as indifferent or predatory, the challenge is even greater.

Further, recent changes in the nature of civil war could make external statebuilding even more difficult. The end of the Cold War changed how civil wars were fought, moving some states and rebels closer to combat parity and generating less decisive outcomes. The immediate post-Cold War era also witnessed the rise of negotiated settlements (rather than battlefield victory) as a way to end civil wars, although this norm has begun to change in recent years. If UN peacekeeping missions wade into contexts where a war’s outcome is less certain and the state is unusually weak, then statebuilding commitments entangle peacekeepers in a number of thorny political, logistical, and perceptual problems. This is not to say that peacekeeping cannot be effective in these contexts, but external political commitments to one side should be evaluated very carefully.

While the future of UN peacekeeping is not obvious, it is easy to imagine the eventual need for more peacekeeping in much of the world. Several grinding civil wars in the Middle East have created profound humanitarian crises, and there is growing insurgent violence in some West African states, such as Burkina Faso. The perception that we are in a new era of conflict could also encourage the UN to expand its peacekeeping repertoire, perhaps addressing criminal violence and instability in urban centers. Of course, the question of whether lessons from peacekeeping in rural civil wars can be adapted for other contexts merits thoughtful reflection. Inappropriate assumptions and framings by intervenors can obscure the nature of violence, and undermine efforts to address it.

Whatever the future holds, now is the time to think about the strengths and limitations of UN peacekeeping, the lessons of the last 20 to 30 years, and the degree to which these lessons might carry forward into new circumstances. The UN recently commemorated its seventy-fifth anniversary, and reaffirmed its commitment to multilateralism in the areas of peace and conflict prevention. Leadership at the UN yields considerable strategic benefits for the United States. Depending on the outcome of the November elections, Washington may once again appreciate how international cooperation can advance its foreign policy objectives and how UN peacekeeping can help build a less violent world.

Stephen E. Moncrief is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies.

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