Peace operations continue to be one of the most visible areas of activity of the United Nations, one which the international organization can have a critical impact. Consider, for instance, that peacekeeping operations are growing. In October 2004, the surge in peacekeeping activity raised the number of peacekeepers to 54,200. The number of civilian police also increased to 5,900 and the civilian staff to 11,600. By the fall of 2005, the 18 operations around the world employed 83,000 troops, police, and civilian personnel – a more-or-less fivefold increase in the field personnel since 2000. By the fall of 2006, the deployment number had reached an all-time high of 93,000 men and women.

At the same time, peacekeeping operations are becoming more complex and comprehensive. In particular, with many of their tasks increasingly focusing on peacebuilding in post-conflict transitions, peace operations are now linked to longer-term development approaches, which call for integrated programs both within and outside the UN system. The UN Peacebuilding Commission was created to meet these new needs by strategically coordinating the actions of the different actors involved in peacekeeping.

Although peacekeeping operations are growing in size and complexity, they have not experienced an equivalent increase in political and financial support from member countries. The leading Western powers remain reluctant to take a leading role in expanding UN operations. The current U.S. ambivalence toward the UN is perhaps the most crippling factor. And unfortunately, that ambivalence is not likely to undergo a fundamental shift any time soon.

Uphill Battle

Despite the expansion of operations, the peacekeeping picture is not an entirely rosy one. The challenges are multifold. They entail the limited resources that peacekeeping mobilizes, the way it functions (or not), and how it is being called upon by member states. In fact, peacekeeping is so much of an uphill battle that its capacity to address the security and humanitarian crises associated with failed or failing states is questionable.

In recent years Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the current under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, has repeatedly said that issues of resources and modus operandi are critical for peacekeeping and yet so difficult to address in a satisfactory manner. Indeed, getting the right capabilities, including troops, specialized components, and other personnel, on the ground to implement the mandates, making them available not simply over the duration of the missions but also in the early, crucial phase of deployment, can mean the difference between success and failure. But all too often such capabilities are not found, let alone on time. For instance, the UN/African Union “hybrid” mission for Darfur (UNAMID) has been badly hurt by the refusal of militarily capable nations to provide the two dozens helicopters required, at the least, for operations in Darfur. No NATO country has offered even one helicopter. Equally if not more challenging are the organizing of these capabilities in the field and the integrating and rationalizing of the joint efforts of the UN system and the rest of the international community to assist the consolidation of a sustainable peace by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

This state of affairs derives from operational difficulties specific to UN peacekeeping, such as the challenge of solving the discrepancy between the financing of different activities for today’s complex operations. For example, certain activities are traditionally covered by assessed contributions, while reconstruction or development activity must rely on voluntary contributions. Integrating and rationalizing peacekeeping activities is also hampered by the lack of systematically accumulated knowledge of lessons learned. Although the UN has been doing peacekeeping, including conflict prevention, for more than 50 years, its ad hoc approach tends to deprive it of time-tested templates on how to proceed to secure success.

But it is the attitude of member states toward peacekeeping that is perhaps the biggest obstacle. First, member states tend to ask the UN to handle security and humanitarian crises that they do not want to tackle themselves. In this regard, UN peacekeeping appears sometimes to be a dumping ground for the most enduring problems. Second, while member states are quick to hand over problems to the UN, they resist giving appropriate resources to address them. Beyond the adoption of resolutions in the Security Council, they are often unwilling to offer sufficient political, financial, logistical, or military support. Against this background, and considering that the crises on which UN peacekeeping operations focus are usually part and parcel of intractable conflicts, it is no surprise that they have mixed results.

The attitude of the permanent members of the Security Council occupies a prime of place in this context. And, more specifically, as Russia and China are still in the back seat when it comes to UN peace operations – although in recent years China has increased its contribution to UN peacekeeping and became in 2006 the 13th-largest contributor of UN peacekeepers – this concerns first and foremost the three Western permanent members of the Council. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States, United Kingdom, and France have been the most active in peacekeeping. But they have measured their involvement against a narrowly understood national interest. As a result, their support has been at best tentative and at worst crippled by a reluctance to take much risk.

In this ambiguous commitment of leading Western powers to UN peace operations, the United States has a central role. Indeed, if there is one country that wrestles with the challenge of balancing obligations that the national and international realms entail, it is America.

American Ambivalence

In the 1990s, the United States, without a doubt, had a positive impact on the search for solutions to humanitarian crises. In most instances with international involvement, America’s role proved to be essential. Although never as decisive as in more traditional types of conflict such as Operation Desert Storm, U.S. participation was decisive enough at least to get the international community engaged in the crises. This was particularly true for Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. In Bosnia, it took America’s commitment to a solution to the conflict, in the spring of 1995, for the war to end. In Kosovo, the U.S. decision to launch a NATO air campaign was central to international involvement there, and it paved the way for the subsequent UN operation. As for East Timor, the political pressure exercised by the American government on Djakarta and the logistical support given to Australian forces were key for the deployment of international forces on the island.

There is however a less inspiring side to this story that concerns American shortcomings and their negative effects on UN peace operations. In this story, the United States oscillated between reluctant leadership and outright refusal to get involved. Rwanda is of course one of the most dramatic examples of how American refusal to get involved in humanitarian crises can have negative consequences. In spring 1994, a few months after the Somalia fiasco and at a time when the Clinton administration was issuing restrictive guidelines on UN peacekeeping, the Rwandan tragedy had little chance of attracting the attention of the White House. This was particularly the case given that the United States had no geopolitical interests strong enough to warrant intervention.

Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton administration was willing to factor in the emerging complexities of the post-Cold war era and extend the realm of concerns beyond a traditionally defined national interest. Nevertheless it was unwilling to do so more than marginally.

Later, under the Republican administration, the U.S. approach got worst. Radicalizing attitudes that had already existed in American foreign policy toward the UN, its policies and values, President Bush made a unilateral and security-driven conception of international affairs the hallmark of his foreign policy at the outset of his presidency. September 11 and the decision to invade Iraq only further systematized this conception. Consequently, the current administration never viewed UN peacekeeping as a valuable tool in itself. If it dovetailed with America’s agenda and interest, as partly happened in Afghanistan, cooperation between the UN and the United States was a possibility. Beyond this, the U.S. government was willing to allocate only the minimal amount of resources to UN peacekeeping.

Paying the Costs

Seven years into Bush’s presidency, its handling of international security crises has proved to be far from a success, to say the least. Moreover, failed states and the ethnic tensions often associated with them continue to sprout around the globe. By the mid-2000s, although the number of total of conflicts has declined, the number of internal conflicts has increased to represent 95% of all conflicts worldwide.

Thus the international community now stands at an ominous crossroads. Unless the international community and its principal powers – the United States to begin with – are to ignore failing and failed states altogether, inevitably they will have to address conflicts and humanitarian crises stemming from them.

As such, neither the United States nor the international community will be able to escape the need for peace operations. Financially costly they may be, but not nearly as costly as unsuccessful unilateral interventions. For instance, the estimated total cost of peacekeeping operations from July 1 2007 to June 30 2008 is $7 billion. In comparison, the estimated war-related spending for Iraq has risen from $53 billion in 2003 to $133 billion in 2007. And these financial costs don’t take into account the political costs of such unilateral interventions to the international legitimacy of the United States and other relevant actors, whether states or international organizations. Peace operations are therefore a necessity and a resource that should be used. And now is the time to assess how they can be best effective. Now is the time, also, to examine what it would take for member states and the UN to truly make peace operations part of a comprehensive portfolio of measures, from conflict prevention to post-building reconstruction.

Beyond the specifics of how America can contribute operationally to the success of peacekeeping, the U.S. government can meet its international responsibilities only by fundamentally altering its foreign policy. To take UN peace operations seriously and consequently invest strategically in them, the United States needs to become aware, at the general level of international affairs, of the necessity to link more closely power and legitimacy as well as solidarity and security. In turn, this entails several fundamental changes in the ways American foreign policy is conceptualized and implemented. They include: finding a better balance between national and international interests; coming to terms with the foreign policy implications of U.S. democratic values; exercising leadership within multilateral constraints; and overcoming the parochial characteristics of American foreign policy.

Prospects Dim

What are the chances for these changes to happen as well as for peacekeeping to become a better tool of conflict management in the near future? The chances are, admittedly, rather slim, for three fundamental reasons.

First, the foreign policy of the Bush administration since 2001 departs in practically every respect from the directions advocated here, and this will not change until the end of 2008. Furthermore, it is uncertain that American foreign policy will evolve even beyond the current administration. After all, the Bush administration foreign policy has not been a revolution but rather a radical version of enduring strains in American foreign policy and its conception of the country’s place in the world.

Second, there is no serious desire among member states to discuss how to trigger change, followed by real action. This applies to peacekeeping. As such, the gap between rhetoric and reality remains a major issue, unlikely to be solved any time soon at the global level. The mere fact that UN reform is a constant item on the multilateral agenda shows how little progress is being done in this area. Third, and finally, it is difficult to see how the UN secretariat, short of benefiting from a very strong financial and political commitment from member states, can address and redress on its own the systemic shortcomings of peacekeeping operations.

More than 15 years after the end of the Cold War, international life is still crippled by conflicts. Peacekeeping operations have expanded to meet some of these challenges. While some of the shortcomings of peacekeeping can be placed on the UN’s shoulders, the main problem lies with the strongest member states. In this perspective, only when the United States decides to recognize international constraints and play by the global rules will the multilateral management of conflict improve. It will be interesting to see if the new U.S. administration scheduled to take charge in Washington in January 2009 will be lucid enough to acknowledge this state of affairs and introduce the necessary changes.

Jean-Marc Coicaud heads the UN University Office at the United Nations in New York. He is the author of Beyond the National Interest: The Future of UN Peacekeeping and Multilateralism in an Era of U.S. Primacy (Washington, D.C., USIP Press, 20007) among other publications. He has held a variety of positions, with the French diplomatic service, the European Parliament, various universities, and the UN, in Europe, the United States, and Asia. Formerly part of the speechwriting team of UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, he is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus ( He can be reached at:

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