There are 14 UN peace operations underway around the world, employing almost 100,000 soldiers, policemen and civilians at an annual cost of nearly $7 billion. Since it began its first peacekeeping efforts in 1948, the UN has launched over 70 such missions. Peacekeeping, and the wars it is supposed to help end, have evolved over that time. The earliest efforts concerned wars between countries over territory and were operations with straightforward goals. As peacekeeping became applied to civil wars, the objectives became complex and much more difficult. The most recent missions have had to deal with violent extremism, and that has made it impossible for the peacekeepers to succeed. The result is that peacekeeping today makes little contribution to peace and the peacekeepers have become ineffective and increasingly victims of the conflicts with which they have been asked to deal. To put it somewhat metaphorically, peacekeeping is a bandage and not a cure. It can help stop the bleeding, but it cannot heal the wound. To explain why that is the case requires tracing the changes in warfare and describing what the peacekeepers are asked to do as opposed to what they are capable of doing.
Just as the carnage of World War I prompted the creation of the League of Nations, the unparalleled savagery of World War II gave rise to the birth of the United Nations. To put the human cost of that war in context, on average, every day during the six years of that conflict, 10 times as many people died than were killed in the terrorist attacks on 9/11. To try to prevent such carnage from happening again, the UN was established. The creation of the UN did not completely prevent territorial conflicts, as demonstrated by the wars between India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, Israel and its Arab neighbors, Eritrea and Ethiopia, and more recently Russia and Ukraine. But wars between nation-states over territory have become rare. The UN may have helped make them increasingly infrequent, but a case can be made that it was also due to an obscure and hopelessly idealistic treaty that was signed in 1928: the Kellogg Briand Pact.
The purpose of the pact was simple and straightforward; it contained only three articles and a total of 270 words. It condemned war, required nations to renounce its use and obligated them to resolve disputes peacefully. Critics of the idea that the pact had any real significance point out that, a little over a decade later, every one of the 63 nations that signed it, with the lone exception of Ireland, was involved in World War II. While that is certainly true, there are those who argue that the treaty nonetheless had a profound impact. A detailed study by a group at Yale determined that for more than a century before the pact was signed, there was, on average, a territorial conquest every 10 months — a total of 114,088 square miles seized per year. Since World War II, the average has dropped to only one every four years and a mere 5,772 square miles per year.1
Whether territorial conquests were becoming less frequent because of the pact or due to the change in international norms that accompanied the birth of the UN, it was this type of conflict that prompted UN peacekeeping. The organization was only three years old when it dispatched peacekeepers to Kashmir and the Middle East. Remarkably, over 70 years later, those two operations continue today with no end in sight. Of the 14 missions currently underway, the six that are the oldest all deal with territorial disputes and can be described as classical peacekeeping operations. Together these disputes have been in existence for over three centuries, yet there is no prospect that any of them will soon be concluded. In fact, in only one of them is there any serious current attempt to resolve the border problem or even any real effort to normalize relations between the countries involved.
UNTSO in Jerusalem, UNDOF in Syria and UNFIL in Lebanon all deal with Israel’s disputes with its Arab neighbors. Israeli politicians across the ideological spectrum have made clear they have no intention of ever returning the Golan Heights to Syrian control, and since Syria is not going to surrender its claim to the area, the peacekeepers may never be able to leave. Just what contribution to peace UNDOF is making is highly questionable. Its forces were withdrawn from the Syrian side of the de facto border in September 2014 because of the civil war and have yet to resume normal operations. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has become a significant part of the government and a powerful military force, thanks to the support of Iran and Syria. It will not permit any reconciliation with Israel and is digging tunnels and stockpiling rockets to be used in the next outbreak of war between the two countries. The thousands of UNIFIL peacekeepers are powerless to limit Hezbollah’s activities, since the Lebanese authorities are unable and unwilling to do so. As for UNTSO, the justification for its existence is that it provides military observers to the two other missions, but that hardly justifies maintaining its presence in the palatial building it occupies in Jerusalem.
In a December 2018 speech on the Trump administration’s policy toward Africa, National Security Adviser John Bolton noted that the United States had demanded that the mandate for MINURSO, the peacekeeping operation in the Western Sahara, be renewed only for six months instead of the usual twelve. He asserted that this signals the U.S. insistence on a "more effective mandate tied to substantive political progress." That conflict was supposed to be brought to an end by a referendum where the people of the Western Sahara could choose to be independent or part of Morocco.
The Moroccan government will not permit a referendum they might lose, however, and the independence movement, the Polisario Front, will not agree to one they will not win. Those positions are fundamental to the identities of both sides and are seemingly inflexible.2 Since France backs Morocco with the same degree of support that the United States routinely provides Israel, this dispute is not on a path toward resolution. Shutting down the peacekeeping operation would therefore be blocked by the French as quickly as the United States would move to prevent any of the operations on Israel’s borders from being closed down.
UNFICYP in Cyprus will continue as long as the politicians in the northern part of the island want to be leaders in their own rump nation rather than provincial officials representing a small minority in a unified country. As long as they have the backing of Turkey, they will get their wish and the peacekeeping effort will not be completed. The increasingly autocratic president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visited Cyprus shortly after he was sworn in for another term in July 2018. During the visit, he stated, "We will never allow the Turkish Cypriots to become minorities in a Greek Cypriot state. Cyprus is our national cause. Our goal is to find a just and lasting solution on Cyprus."3 Since Greek Cypriots outnumber Turkish Cypriots by two or three to one, it is not clear what kind of solution Erdogan would be willing to accept. And if he does not sign off on it, there is no chance for any solution or for an end to the peacekeeping operation.
When it comes to classical peacekeeping, therefore, the six missions currently in operation are making little contribution to peace. At the same time, they show no likelihood of being terminated, despite U.S. pressure to bring some of them to an end. UN peacekeepers have had some success in the next kind of conflict they have had to face, however. As the number of wars over territory waned, the UN began to deal with civil wars over political power. They posed much more complex challenges for peacekeepers, and the results have been mixed. The abrupt decolonization of a number of countries following World War II led to the internal conflicts over political power as the faction that inherited the post-colonial reins of government was opposed by insurgent groups trying to take that power for themselves. The proxy wars between the superpowers in some of the newly independent nations created additional opportunities for civil wars.
During World War II, both sides deliberately targeted civilian populations, and the majority of the deaths from the war were noncombatants. That practice became unacceptable; in subsequent territorial wars, the combatants generally tried to avoid civilian casualties or at least pretended they did. In civil wars, control of a civilian population is looked at as a source of political power, however. Since that was what the war was being fought over, killing the civilians of the other side, or at least forcing them to flee their homes, became a tactic commonly used by both governments and rebel groups. The victims of these conflicts were therefore far more likely to be civilians than in the past. About 50 percent of war-related deaths from the eighteenth century up to 1970 were civilians. In the 1970s, this figure rose to 73 percent and, by 1990, had climbed to nearly 90 percent.4 As the number of conflicts and the proportion of civilian casualties have grown, so has the cost of dealing with the humanitarian disasters they have created.
Civil wars usually pit poorly disciplined rebel forces against poorly trained armies of the government. In these wars, both sides are equipped extensively, and often exclusively, with light weapons. Because of the targeting of civilians, these wars create humanitarian catastrophes. As the knowledge of these disasters is spread by the media, the international community comes under pressure to do something to end the suffering. The "something" was often peacekeeping. As a result, beginning in the late 1980s, the number, size, scope and cost of multidimensional peacekeeping missions all increased dramatically.
Three factors accounted for this growth. First, the end of the Cold War brought an end to the superpower confrontation that so often rendered the UN unable to act. The decade from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s saw no new PKOs initiated because of this rivalry.5 However, in the post-Cold War period, with cooperation having replaced competition, the United States, Russia and the other Security Council members began making greater use of the UN to deal with these wars. As a result, between 1988 and 1992, 13 PKOs were begun. This was as many as had been undertaken in the UN’s previous 40 years of existence. Second, there was a change in the type and frequency of armed conflicts. The decolonization and independence of so many countries since the end of World War II resulted in a surge in civil wars, as political elites struggled for dominance. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War only added to the number of trouble spots. The third factor in the growing popularity of peacekeeping arose out of humanitarian concerns. As the international community struggled to deal with the suffering caused by the growing number of intrastate conflicts, policy makers saw peacekeeping as an alternative to the choice between doing nothing and intervening militarily.6 The pressure to do something was due in no small part to the speed at which information about these wars crossed national boundaries. The spread of the global electronic village and the "CNN effect" brought this suffering to the attention of people throughout the world as it happened.7 The public response to such scenes made it harder for policy makers to ignore these problems, even if their root causes and solutions were little understood and not easily addressed.
The international response to humanitarian disasters was also encouraged by the growth in the number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that could assist traditional UN and other governmental entities in dealing with such situations. The UN-affiliated Union of International Associations currently recognizes over 14,500 different international NGOs. Not only the number of NGOs, but their influence, has steadily risen. They became not only a more important source of administrative and logistical capabilities in cases of great humanitarian need, but an increasingly effective lobby for a response when such a need arose. Since the humanitarian needs usually sprang up much more quickly than a stable ceasefire between the warring parties, peacekeepers were often given the task of creating and maintaining the conditions in which the NGOs could do their work.
Thus, in the immediate post-Cold War period, peacekeeping became more possible, more necessary and more desired. The statistics demonstrate the effect of these three factors on the growth of peacekeeping. In 1987, the UN had five PKOs underway with a combined personnel count of some 10,000 soldiers and an annual budget of $233 million. The number of peacekeepers rose rapidly to nearly 70,000 in 1993 and 1994, but then fell precipitously to around 14,000 in 1997. It then rose again dramatically.8 By 2018, there were 14 missions employing 104,000 people, of whom 90,000 were in uniform. And the total annual cost had risen to $6.8 billion.9 The decidedly mixed track record of these peacekeeping efforts brought about the steep decline in 1994 only to see the turnaround four years later. There were successes to point to, such as Namibia, Cambodia, El Salvador and Mozambique. These successes, however, were overshadowed by the failures, especially in Angola, Somalia and, initially, in Bosnia. As with most news stories, it was the failures, rather than the successes, that attracted the most media attention and international concern.
Few could understand why, in Somalia, American soldiers had been sent to aid humanitarian efforts but were taking casualties. And it was also impossible to explain why the most powerful army in the world could not tame a gaggle of warlords. In Bosnia, equally incomprehensible were the scenes of peacekeepers unable to protect themselves and apparently unwilling or unable to stop the gross abuse of civilians. The lack of any meaningful peacekeeping response to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was due to the experiences in Somalia and Bosnia. Two years later, Rwanda again provided a clear demonstration of international reluctance to become involved in peacekeeping missions, even in the face of widespread suffering. In November 1996, President Clinton decided to send U.S. troops to Zaire as part of a Canadian-led multinational effort to help deliver aid to Rwandan refugees there. This mission was explicitly described as being restricted in scope to providing aid and limited in time to a duration of only four months.
The launching of even this limited effort required the prospect of nearly a million people in imminent risk of starvation and intense pressure on President Clinton from Canada, France and the UN secretary general. Clinton consented, but only after long hours of heated discussions within his administration. His decision was made easier by the fact that he had just won his campaign for reelection some nine days before the announcement of the troop deployment. When the Clinton administration announced the decision to send American troops to Zaire, it emphasized the limited nature of the commitment. White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry pointed out that the international force was not tasked with disarming any militias, nor would it police, or even enter, refugee camps. At the same time, he said the force would follow "very robust rules of engagement.’’ Defense Secretary William J. Perry said the American decision to take part was contingent on securing commitments by Zaire and Rwanda not to interfere with the mission. He noted that contact would also have to be made with rebel forces in the area, and he added, "Our assumption is that we would have their acquiescence and cooperation."10 When the operation finally did begin, changes in the situation on the ground had taken place. It was cut back to 300 Canadian troops and a handful of military liaison officers from other countries, and it lasted only a few weeks.11 This case nonetheless demonstrated that it was not possible to ignore these civil wars and their effects.
While the UN’s multidimensional peacekeeping missions have had mixed results, they are, at least for the moment, largely a thing of the past. Of the 14 current missions, only two are multidimensional. Actually, it would be more accurate to call them unidimensional, as their objectives have been drastically reduced over the years. Now they are just small operations limited to attempting to professionalize the police in Haiti and Kosovo.
The dramatic recovery in the use of peacekeeping after 1997 was further evidence of the fact that, once peacekeeping failures faded a bit, it once again became an instrument for intervention by the international community. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the conflicts in which the international community chose to intervene took another turn, one that is proving deadly for peacekeepers. In the post-9/11 world, autocrats everywhere quickly learned that all they had to do was say the magic words: radical Islamic terrorism. It was a phrase President Obama declined to use — to avoid giving the impression that all Muslims were terrorists — but it nonetheless had the desired effect from the autocrats’ point of view.12 The United States would provide military aid without worrying too much about human-rights violations or the state of democracy in their countries.
Unfortunately, peacekeeping seems to have become caught up in the fight against terrorism without giving much regard to who or what is being defended. Of the 14 ongoing operations, the six oldest involve classical peacekeeping, the next two are the remnants of multidimensional missions, and the six launched most recently all involve the protection of civilians and the stabilization of situations in the face of violent extremism. These are the operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire), Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan.
Including stabilization in the peacekeeper’s mandate means they are tasked with helping the government extend its control over its own territory. Having UN peacekeepers do this is, in effect, extending the so-called war on terrorism. However, when it comes to terrorism, there is little that can be done by peacekeepers. In fact, there is no real role for peacekeeping whatsoever.
The terrorists are indistinguishable from noncombatants, and they will use any weapon available for their objective: to kill innocent people and call attention to their cause. In addition, phrases like the "war on terror" or "war on terrorism" are as misleading as they are ridiculous. Terror is an all-consuming fear, and terrorism is a tactic. There are no final victories over fear or tactics. Both will continue to be used as long as there are people willing to employ those methods.
It is not only hard to defeat terrorists, it is also hard to define who they are. The government in power will tend to label any armed opposition as terrorists, and unarmed opponents as well. One way to make a distinction between insurgents and terrorists is whether they attempt to take and hold territory. If they do, they can be considered insurgents. If not, the label of terrorist is more appropriate, assuming they are killing innocent people simply to make a political point. The line between terrorists and insurgents is somewhat indistinct and can be easily crossed, depending on the military strength of the group. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had such success against an Iraqi army that would not stand and fight that it decided to establish a caliphate. It thus passed from being a group of terrorists to an insurgency. Once the Iraqi forces regrouped — with significant support, thanks to American firepower and Kurdish forces — ISIL was routed and driven from the territory it held. It was forced to essentially revert to being a terrorist organization.
Definitions aside, without peace there is no chance for peacekeeping to succeed. If terrorists are active, the peacekeepers will become just another target. In response, they are likely to go into a self-protective mode that limits their ability to take any action at all. Yet sending in the peacekeepers is still the "something" that the international community often feels it must do, especially when no powerful nation has the interest to undertake a major effort and the willingness to put its own troops at risk.
Today there appears to be no shortage of conflicts calling out for something to be done. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, at a meeting on peacemaking in mid-2018, asserted that the number of "violent situations" had tripled since 2007 and that "low-intensity conflicts" had increased by 60 percent in that period.13 Clearly, the UN is not going to meet the challenge posed by these conflicts if the response to do something is mainly the dispatch of peacekeepers.
For every new peacekeeping operation, the UN has to beg countries to furnish the soldiers necessary to staff it. As the types of conflict have evolved from territorial wars to civil wars and now to combatting violent extremism, the enthusiasm for rich countries to put their troops at risk in peacekeeping has virtually disappeared. The countries with the most capable armies have refused to provide a significant number of troops, thus offloading peacekeeping largely to poorly trained and equipped soldiers from Third World armies. If the United States cannot prevail against violent extremists in Afghanistan after 17 years of trying, there is no chance that the available peacekeepers can do so in Africa.
At the risk of being tautological, peacekeepers have little chance of success if there is no peace to keep. They are not warfighters and asking them to play that role only ensures they will fail. Peacekeeping has become a way for rich countries to send the soldiers of poor countries to deal with conflicts the rich countries do not care about. It provides the rich countries a way to claim they have done something about a humanitarian disaster — and provides the opportunity to shift the blame for the result to the UN and the peacekeepers.
1 Oona Hathaway, "Outlawing War? It Actually Worked," New York Times, September 2, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/02/opinion/sunday/outlawing-war-kellogg….
2 Nicholas Niarchos, "Is One of Africa’s Oldest Conflicts Finally Nearing Its End," New Yorker, December 28, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/is-one-of-africas-oldest-confl….
3 Kubra Chohan and Kar Nilay Onum, "Turkish President Erdogan: Cyprus Is Our National Cause," Anadolu Agency, October 7, 2018, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/politics/turkish-president-erdogan-cyprus-is-o….
4 A. Fetherston, Towards a Theory of United Nations Peacekeeping (St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 21.
5 W. Durch, The Evolution of UN Peacekeeping (St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 9.
6 M. Albright, Testimony before the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Senate Appropriations Committee, Washington, March 8, 1995.
7 D. Pearce, Wary Partners: Diplomats and the Media (Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, 1995).
8 Max Roser, "Our World in Data," accessed December 29, 2018, https://ourworldindata.org/peacekeeping.
9 "United Nations Peacekeeping," accessed December 29, 2018 https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/data.
10 Allison Mitchell, "Clinton Offers U.S. Troops to Help Refugees in Zaire," New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/1996/11/14/world/clinton-offers-us-troops-to-he….
11 T. Lippman, "U.S. May Send Up to 5,000 Troops to Africa," Washington Post, November 14, 1996.
12 Daniella Diaz, "Why I Won’t Say Islamic Terrorism," CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2016/09/28/politics/obama-radical-islamic-terrorism…, accessed December 27, 2018.
13 Jan Olsen, "UN Chief: Highest Number of Conflicts Globally in 30 Years," Associated Press, https://apnews.com/a05aa6eda4a44e5ab546490cfa687bea.