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The Case for UN Peacekeeping

Authors: Micah Zenko, Fellow for Conflict Prevention, and Rebecca Friedman
March 2, 2011
Council on Foreign Relations

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United Nations peacekeepers are under siege. The attacks come not from machete-wielding rebels in Eastern Congo or machine-gun-toting al-Shabaab militants in Somalia, but from the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee. The latest continuing resolution--a stand-in for an official FY2011 budget--tabled by House Republicans proposes to cut U.S. contributions to international peacekeeping by $226.5 million from FY2010 levels and $283.8 million from the White House's FY2011 budget request--figures that amount to more than a 10 percent cut in U.S. peacekeeping dues. In a climate of austerity and cuts, legislators can hardly be blamed for assuming that the peacekeeping budget could absorb the blow because the Obama administration has done an inadequate job of explaining and defending the importance of UN peacekeeping to Congress and the American public.

While UN peacekeeping is in need of overarching reforms, it is too easy to forget the essential role it plays in promoting U.S. foreign policy goals. UN peacekeeping missions underpin stability in Lebanon, Haiti, Somalia, and the Indo-Pakistani border region of Kashmir. UN missions are also critical to solidifying American gains after U.S. troops leave; it is UN peacekeepers who have prevented the resurgence of violence in post-conflict areas like the Sinai desert, Bosnia, and Kosovo. In an era where a dwindling number of allies are willing to contribute to international peace and security, the UN is a reliable partner with the United States in many troubled regions--often willing to work alongside, or in lieu of, U.S. soldiers.

As Washington gears up for a tough budgetary fight, the White House must make the case for UN peacekeeping. At no other time in its sixty-three-year history has UN peacekeeping needed the United States more, nor has the United States ever needed UN peacekeeping so much. And only by shoring up support at home can President Barack Obama establish a platform for more vigorous U.S. leadership at the UN.

Identifying Shortcomings

The UN has entered an unprecedented era of demands and challenges. More troops than ever are deployed in fifteen peacekeeping missions: The number of peacekeepers deployed has risen in the past decade from twenty thousand to nearly one hundred thousand. Yet despite growing demand, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) lacks adequate resources and well-trained personnel to carry out complex, often-unrealistic mandates, and has struggled to work with other UN agencies and regional partners. UN peacekeeping's shortcomings center on the tension between the unrealistic expectations of the UN Security Council when it authorizes peacekeeping and DPKO's insufficient resources to implement them. UNSC mandates typically feature a bloated list of wishful tasks, created without reference to field capacity, and have limited guidelines for prioritization and termination.

DPKO's inability to fulfill peacekeeping mandates reflects capability gaps, particularly in providing high-quality troops, police, and civilian experts. There are no baseline training standards for DPKO troops and police officers. And while training could improve professionalism, DPKO's training budget has suffered cuts, and donor countries demonstrate little interest in funding it through extra-budgetary contributions. Civilian capacity is also insufficient, as the UN struggles to maintain rosters of civilian experts, particularly in the areas of security sector reform, judicial, and prisons management. Poor high-level leadership and inadequate logistical support only compound the aforementioned problems.

Bolstering U.S. Leadership

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and funder of 27 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget, the United States has an enormous, though under-leveraged, influence on peacekeeping. Yet Washington lacks a clearly articulated strategy for peacekeeping. Absent a larger compelling narrative, the United States receives little mileage from its $2.1 billion annual contribution to UN peacekeeping.

Domestically, Congress is the greatest impediment to a more vigorous U.S. commitment. At a time of budgetary constraints, some Republican lawmakers have already demonstrated interest in slashing U.S. contributions to the UN. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, recently stated: "We must shift our foreign aid focus from failed strategies rooted in an archaic post-WWII approach." However, Washington must resist the impulse to be pennywise and dollar foolish--the Obama administration must go on the offensive in arguing for the importance of UN peacekeeping to U.S. national interests, highlighting the critical UN role from Haiti to Somalia.

[T]he Obama administration must go on the offensive in arguing for the importance of UN peacekeeping to U.S. national interests, highlighting the critical UN role from Haiti to Somalia.

Strengthening UN peacekeeping serves important U.S. interests. First, it allows the United States to share the burden for international security with other UN member states, thereby reducing the necessity and likelihood of large, expensive U.S. military commitments. The cost of maintaining all UN peacekeeping missions for a year ($7.83 billion) is approximately the amount the United States pays for one month of fighting in Afghanistan ($7 billion). Second, UN peacekeeping can prevent the outbreak of weak or failed states, which may serve as terrorist havens, foment regional instability, or create conditions for mass atrocities. Third, it creates political space for UN programs that promote development, democratic governance, and the rule of law--as in Timor-Leste and Mozambique. Finally, as a consequence of the UN's basis in international law and universal membership, it has unparalleled international legitimacy.

Plan of Attack

The Obama administration must take four concrete steps to prove the importance of UN peacekeeping, while also pushing for meaningful UN reform.

First, the United States should begin by re-launching the peacekeeping policy review that ended abortively after the Haiti earthquake. The review should focus on replacing ineffective initiatives, reducing inefficiencies, improving metrics for evaluating success, and include stricter accounting of U.S. government expenditures on peacekeeping. The review should recommend how the Obama administration could better leverage its support of UN peacekeeping, both domestically and internationally, so that the United States reaps the most dividends from its contributions--both in terms of public diplomacy and the security gains provided by UN peacekeepers.

Second, the United States should initiate a consultative review of DPKO's capability gaps involving UN officials and representatives from major troop-contributing countries (TCCs) and police-contributing countries (PCCs). The first phase would identify and prioritize UN needs; the second would match those needs with capabilities of the United States, TCCs, PCCs, and major donor countries; the third would generate new countries' commitments to filling remaining peacekeeping gaps. Based on the review, the United States should identify the most important gaps and allocate resources accordingly. Particular attention should be paid to logistics (particularly heavy lift), training (best practices and metrics), lessons learned from stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and intelligence sharing.

Third, the United States should strongly advocate for realistic and clear mandates by the Security Council--during the initial drafting phase, and each time a mandate comes up for renewal. The United States should also support more coherent interventions on the ground, particularly better transitions from heavy military deployments, which are expensive, to lighter civilian-led operations, as well as from peacekeeping to peace-building-focused operations. In addition, the United States should insist on merit-based selection of senior mission leadership (such as special representatives of the secretary-general and their deputies, force commanders, and police commissioners).

Fourth, the United States should increase the number of U.S. military officers in the UN by developing a simplified, accelerated inter-agency process for secondment. Presently, six to nine months of wait and bureaucratic hurdles prevent qualified officers from pursuing UN peacekeeping opportunities. The Obama administration should also encourage more appointment of women in leadership roles, and greater deployment of female police and peacekeepers. The United States has a comparative advantage in filling these roles since women comprise 15 percent of the U.S. armed forces, as compared to 5 percent among UN peacekeepers. Lastly, the Obama administration should push for congressional confirmation of its nominee for U.S. representative to the United Nations for UN Management and Reform, and support the position once filled.

Charting the Way Forward

The United States can affect substantial, positive change in peacekeeping operations. Achieving these objectives will require ongoing dialogue and consultations in New York and Washington. For one, the review of U.S. peacekeeping strategy should include consultation with relevant members of Congress, particularly the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as the Senate and House Appropriations Subcommittees on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.

To enhance transparency, the Obama administration should publicize results of the review with its partners through a white paper, press conferences by U.S. government officials, and other forms of outreach. Similarly, the United States should share with Congress the results of the informal capacity review that takes place at the UN with DPKO, TCCs, and PCCs.

Beyond the informal capacity review, the Obama administration should insist on regular consultation among major stakeholder nations in UN peacekeeping to determine mandate feasibility. As necessary, the United States should also initiate additional informal dialogues with troop contributor states--such as Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan--as when President Obama met with TCCs in December 2009.

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