Why the U.S. needs U.N. peacekeeping

Does U.N. peacekeeping matter for geopolitics and international order? While it’s seen as an admirable task, peacekeeping is often thought to reflect the “soft side” of international security—typically relegated to the backburner of strategists.

However, peacekeeping, particularly occurring under the auspices of the United Nations, plays a vital support role in U.S. efforts to uphold the liberal international order. The strategic value of peacekeeping is clear—after all, doesn’t the United States want more tools for burden-sharing on far-flung crises? 

Guarding the perimeter

International peacekeeping is a vital tool for sharing the burden of “guarding the outer perimeter.” The United States will never rely on international peacekeeping for core security tasks. But multilateral tools for maintaining stability and security in regions not vital to core U.S. interests helps avoid the dangers of creeping instability. We have already seen that such instability can easily create large refugee flows, safe havens for terror, or market disruption. At the same time, using international peacekeeping for such tasks reduces the risks of over-committing American blood and treasure on peripheral issues. 

Strategic users of the U.N. peacekeeping tool will appreciate that regional organizations—NATO, the African Union, and coalitions of the willing—can augment U.N. efforts in instances of civil war or humanitarian crisis. Already in the vast majority of cases today, two or more of these entities are involved in producing solutions or tamping down problems. U.S. policymakers, however, often display a tendency to treat these institutions or tools as stand-alone entities; in actuality, they almost always work in concert, albeit an imperfect one.

Yet, while regional actors can buttress the work of the United Nations, they cannot replace the U.N.: It’s a global institution, making its tools global in scope. U.N. peacekeeping is the only mechanism that allows the United States to combine forces from every region in the world to tackle crises wherever they occur. Regional organizations can’t produce Indian troops in central Africa or Brazilian troops in East Timor. For all its weaknesses, the U.N. is the only tool available for genuinely global burden-sharing—a fact all the more salient when rising democracies like South Korea, Indonesia, and Brazil want to do more, not less, on the international stage. (Of course, “global”-ness is also the U.N.’s Achilles heel, for it relies on consent of all members of the Security Council, including China and Russia—and over time the United States is going to have to think through its options if tensions in the Security Council mount, and if more missions are blocked as a consequence.) 

Despite these benefits, public perceptions of peacekeeping are often soured by stories of failures and setbacks. And these criticisms are not without merit: Even the most optimistic literature on U.N. and international peacekeeping suggests that it fails approximately 40 percent of the time. But peacekeeping is a hard duty. Failures are inevitable but that should not obscure the 60 percent of the time when it succeeds, or succeeds in part—either helping to end a war, securing a part of territory, or protecting a portion of a population. Nor should the challenges confronting peacekeeping today dissuade us from pursuing reform rather than rejection. 

Better troops

The most important issue is effectiveness, and here the central determinant is the quality of troops that participate in operations—that is, their capacity to undertake complex stabilization operations. When conflicts are relatively easy or when the state or the rebels in question are of low capacity, then the U.N. can draw troops from whichever nation is willing to help keep the lid on things. 

But, as we confront more resilient actors in tougher settings—especially as intra-state and proxy conflict shifts from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East and North Africa—we’re going to need the capable troops of nations with more advanced militaries. This is particularly true as peacekeepers face the reality that in a growing portion of wars, at least one actor is engaged in terrorist activities, often with a transnational link. 

Effectiveness also means being flexible about how we structure these forces. Focusing exclusively on the traditional “blue helmet” operations—those controlled centrally by the U.N. Secretariat—obscures a powerful alternative, namely U.N.-mandated multi-national forces. These are operations that fly under a U.N. banner but are commanded by an individual state, such as Australian forces operating in East Timor. We should put more emphasis on using this option, and some of its variants.

Cutting the fat

Nobody would call the U.N. efficient. However, we have seen some progress as two dynamic women, Susanna Malcorra and Ameerah Haq, built the U.N.’s Department of Field Support into a more robust tool for undertaking complex field operations. Unfortunately, the U.N.’s arcane rules continue to encumber timely decision-making even here, with a dual-key system with the Department of Management introducing major inefficiencies and unnecessary redundancy. 

The United States could lead a political coalition to build on the new proposals from Ban Ki-Moon’s high-level panel to increase the flexibility and efficiency of the U.N.’s field support tools. This set of ideas already enjoys bipartisan support—former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton had a proposal in a similar spirit for stand-alone management arrangements for U.N. peacekeeping. 

Ending sexual abuse 

The U.N. also must address the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse—an issue that eats away at its legitimacy. Cases of sexual abuse profoundly erode the trust of local populations and the confidence of the international community. While it’s a problem with only a very small number of troops in a minority of operations, the U.N. makes a grave mistake in failing to recognize that this matter reflects a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of U.N. operations. 

Kofi Annan eventually recognized this challenge, and adopted a zero tolerance strategy. Rather belatedly, Ban Ki-moon has done the same. Nonetheless, the United States should remain vigilant in maintaining the oversight to ensure that the secretary-general fulfills the promise of this new policy.

Reengaging American leadership 

Finally, leadership—at headquarters, in the field, and in Washington—is essential. As we approach the end of Ban Ki-moon’s term, the United States should prioritize selecting a secretary-general who’s committed to making U.N. contributions to international security as effective and efficient as possible. By working closely with the incoming secretary-general and the other members of the Security Council, the United States can ensure that the U.N. has a strong roster of talent from which to draw in selecting top officials for managing political, peacekeeping, and humanitarian operations. 

For now, only the United States has a global reach. Therefore, only the United States can build the political coalitions necessary to update these multilateral instruments that benefit global security. A peacekeeping system that is adequately manned, resourced, and supported is an important tool in upholding that security.

This post is adapted from Bruce Jones’ testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on December 9, 2015. The full testimony can be found here