Red China’s new blue helmets

There is something pleasurable about watching powerful men and women give detailed speeches on a topic that they know very little about. On Monday afternoon, President Obama convened a summit on strengthening United Nations (U.N.) peace operations in the margins of the annual General Assembly meeting in New York. Leaders including China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narendra Modi turned up to pledge new military forces for the U.N.’s overstretched operations in trouble spots such as South Sudan.

It soon became clear that while President Obama takes U.N. missions seriously, quite a lot of his global counterparts have never given them much thought.


The Obama administration has set out its reasons for valuing the blue helmets in a new presidential memorandum, released to coincide with the summit. “There are currently dozens of fragile and conflict-affected states,” the paper notes, and threats ranging from transnational terrorism to pandemic disease are likely to plunge more of them into crisis in the future. The United States cannot handle all of these flash points alone.

U.N. operations, the paper underlines, are “among the primary international tools that we use to address conflict-related crises.” Kicking off the summit, President Obama adopted a hardheaded tone, eschewing idealistic rhetoric about the U.N.’s timeless virtues. “This is not something that we do for others,” he argued, “it is something that we do collectively because our collective security depends on it.” 

Many of the fifty-odd leaders and foreign ministers who spoke after him were less disciplined. A lot meandered back to the origins of the U.N. and the love of peace. 

The president of Uruguay, an early speaker, spent a significant amount of time emphasizing how important it was that he should be concise. He then pledged a canine unit to the U.N. (perhaps, to match their human handlers’ blue berets, these multilateral mutts will wear blue collars?). President Francois Hollande of France, normally a solid performer at the U.N., seemed lost and explained that Paris has a program to teach African peacekeepers French to assist them in warzones like Mali.

Spotlight on Xi

But the pledges mounted up: In total, the governments involved pledged 40,000 new personnel. This is no mean feat, given that the U.N. already has 100,000 troops and police officers in the field. If many leaders buried themselves in their talking points, a few grasped President Obama’s realist message. Britain’s David Cameron pithily explained that he planned to send up to 300 British personnel to South Sudan as part of the broader effort to stem terrorism and mass migration on Europe’s southern flank.

Obama’s own pledge was somewhat smaller: The United States will double the number of its military officers on U.N. missions from about 40 to 80. This is not in itself a formula for world peace. Rather more significantly, the president promised to offer U.N. forces additional engineering and logistical support, which are genuine priorities.

Yet the man of the moment was Xi Jinping. The Chinese president imposed himself on the summit with an offer of military help for the U.N. that, at least on paper, dwarfed all the others. Beijing, he explained, would set up an 8,000-strong “standby force” to support peacekeeping operations, in addition to deploying helicopters, police and other assets. If this comes to pass, it will be a step-change in China’s engagement in UN operations. Beijing has long deployed non-combat forces under U.N. command, but only sent its first full infantry battalion to South Sudan this year.

[T]he man of the moment was Xi Jinping.

The sheer scale of this offer galvanized his fellow leaders. President Obama, who spent almost two hours at the event, respectfully listening to his more verbose counterparts while sipping a hot beverage, thanked Xi profusely as he left the stage.

He had good reason to be thankful. In his main speech to the General Assembly on Monday morning, the president had dwelled on the need for shared efforts to uphold international order. His main target was obviously Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who did not come to the peacekeeping confab. Obama twitted China over its behavior in the South China Sea. Nonetheless, Xi’s offer to boost peace operations is exactly the type of commitment that Obama claims other leaders should make, but only rarely do so.

Seeing is believing

The Chinese pledge may yet prove illusory. Xi did not clarify how the “standby force” would work, and on what conditions it would deploy to help the United Nations. It may be a phantom strategic reserve, rather like the European Union’s notorious “Battle Groups,” rapid-reaction forces that are meant to aid the U.N. but never go into action.

Barack Obama may just have succeeded in coaxing Xi Jinping into taking greater responsibility for a most disorderly world.

It is also interesting to speculate how the United States, and especially Congress, would react if China was genuinely willing to deploy thousands of People’s Liberation Army troops to a conflict zone such as Mali, let alone Syria or Libya. It is easy to see Republicans accusing Obama of inviting Beijing to expand its empire via the United Nations.

But as the president’s directive on peace operations makes clear, his administration feels that it is time for other countries to take on the risks of dealing with broken states after Afghanistan and Iraq. If China wants to send its soldiers into ugly fights in Africa or the Middle East, good luck to it. Barack Obama may just have succeeded in coaxing Xi Jinping into taking greater responsibility for a most disorderly world.