Colloquium on American Interests and the United Nations

Below is the rapporteur's summary of the working group on management and accountability. A list of the working group’s participants in provided at the end of the summary.


Working Group members heard initial presentations from RAND’s James Dobbins and the American Enterprise Institute’s Joshua Muravchik that took quite disparate approaches to the question of the United Nation’s role in international peace and security.

Reviewing the record of U.S. and UN-led peacekeeping interventions, Dobbins concluded that UN peacekeeping (not peace enforcement) has been a highly effective method of preventing the recurrence of conflicts and is generally successful and cost effective. Muravchik agreed that UN peacekeeping can be useful, but cautioned that efforts at the United Nations to constrain the U.S. role as the principal force for deterring conflict could put global stability at risk.

In the discussion that followed, participants agreed that the United Nations has a role to play in peacekeeping that is useful to the United States, but there were circumstances in which the United States would find it necessary to act outside the United Nations to protect its vital interests. Discussion also focused on the norms for the use of force; the appropriate role for UN peacekeepers; and ways in which the United States and other major powers could strengthen the UN’s peacekeeping and stabilization capacity.


James Dobbins, RAND Corporation

Jim Dobbins opened the working group session with a presentation based on two RAND publications, America’s Role in Nation-Building and the recently published The UN’s Role in Nation-Building.  For the United Nations, nation-building is a growth industry, as evidenced by the number, size, and duration of recent operations.  Currently, the United Nations has 18 to 19 such operations in the field.  There was a similar acceleration in U.S.-led operations in the 1990’s, with a new operation being mounted every 30 months.  Though the Bush Administration had said it would not undertake nation-building, it in fact initiated three such new operations in its first three years.

Nation-building is defined as “the use of armed force in the aftermath of a conflict to forestall a resumption of hostilities and promote a transition to democracy.”  In its study of U.S.-led operations, RAND found a high correlation between input and output—-the more forces, money and time invested, the greater security achieved.  RAND had suggested that stabilizing Iraq might require 400,000 troops and up to $18 billion a year for five-ten years.  It also found that the United States needs to undertake a methodical effort to incorporate lessons learned, establish a U.S. doctrine for such operations and build a cadre of experienced professionals to carry them out.  Currently, the United States tends to treat each operation as a brand new initiative, or the last one it intends to mount.

With regard to the United Nations, RAND identified areas of weakness, including the slow arrival of military units and their uneven quality, the even slower deployment of police and civilian administrators and their even more uneven quality, dependence on voluntary funding mechanisms, mismatches between ambitious mandates and limited means, and premature withdrawal.  UN operations achieve greater success when there are agreed outcomes, normally in the form of peace accords, when neighboring states are cooperative, and when major powers are supportive.  In cases of peace enforcement, success is linked to major power participation. 

Comparisons between U.S. and UN-led operations reveal that UN operations tend to be more thinly manned and of shorter duration.  Successful UN operations have been those with the lowest casualty rates for peacekeepers.  Since 9/11, the United States has been less risk-adverse than was previously the case post-Somalia.  Refugee return was a striking success of both United Nations and U.S.-led operations.  The UN achieved a 75 percent refugee return rate on average, with the U.S. rate somewhat lower but still significant.  U.S.-led operations are generally better funded, with the United States able to use its own resources and secure additional funding from allies and the international financial institutions (IFI).  The United Nations is dependent on what others provide.  In terms of economic growth rates produced, U.S.-led operations are better resourced and promote more economic growth.  Even without significant economic assistance packages, UN operations lead to increased growth, as societies shift their energies from conflict to productive activities.

The RAND studies examined eight U.S.-led operations and eight UN-led operations against two key criteria for success—-democracy and peace.  It found that four of the eight countries in which the United States had led interventions still enjoyed conditions of democracy and peace.  For the United Nations, peaceful conditions prevailed in seven of the eight cases reviewed, and democracy in six of the eight.  Part of the difference in results reflected the fact that the United States tended to take on the more difficult operations, e.g., peace enforcement rather than peacekeeping.  In some instances, the United States had taken over after a UN operation had failed.  RAND concluded, however, that the United Nations has done a better job institutionalizing its experiences, developing both doctrine and a cadre of experienced personnel.  The United States has not done so in the past, although is now moving more in this direction.

RAND found that nation-building is indeed cost effective.  Costs of such operations are more than offset by increased economic growth in the country itself and the surrounding region.  In the last 15 years, more civil wars have been ended by negotiation than in the previous two centuries.  Between 1993 and 2003, global deaths from conflict have been reduced five-fold.  Significantly, RAND found that of all forms of post-conflict intervention, peacekeeping is the most likely to prevent a resumption of conflict.  The United Nations currently maintains such operations in 17 countries, with over 70,000 troops at a total cost of $4 billion—-less than one month’s cost of the U.S. operation in Iraq.

In general, UN operations are smaller, shorter, and cheaper, though under-funded and undermanned, in comparison with U.S.-led operations.  They are peacekeeping rather than peace enforcement operations.  The United Nations relies on its impartiality and legitimacy, its “soft power,” to compensate for thin staffing and limited economic assistance.  UN operations enjoy a unity of command, from the Secretary General to his Special Representative on the ground to the Force Commander.

RAND concluded that UN peacekeeping is highly effective in preventing the re-emergence of conflict, not ending it (which requires peace enforcement rather than peacekeeping).  UN operations are generally cost effective and successful.  They face problems due to the lack of resources, the nature of Security Council oversight, and the reluctance of major powers to contribute troops.  The United Nations is the best choice for interventions in permissive environments when fewer than 20,000 troops are required.  In such circumstances, the alternatives are either less competent or much more costly.  However, if forced entry is required or more than 20,000 troops needed, experience shows that a major power is needed to lead the operation.  In such cases, those intervening will not be able to rely on soft power attributes that permit small footprint operations to succeed.  For the United States, that means returning to the doctrine of overwhelming force in sizing U.S.-led operations.  A major constraint on the success of UN-led operations is the absence of major power participation in those operations.  This may mean that United States will have to act when the United Nations fails.

Joshua Muravchik, American Enterprise Institute

Josh Muravchik started his presentation by noting that he would offer opinion rather than the fact-based presentation that had preceded his.  The goal of U.S. foreign policy and indeed of the UN’s founders had been not “peacekeeping” but “keeping the peace,”-that is deterring or responding to threats to global peace and security.  The debate over the relative roles of the United Nations and the United States in that regard remains unresolved.  The United Nations was intended to be the major force in keeping the peace post-World War II.  The absence of large-scale conflict in the past 60 years is not due to the United Nations but rather to the United States and the benign nature of U.S. use of its power.  Despite allegations to the contrary, the United States has not acted unilaterally in this effort but through alliances, just not through the United Nations.

When the United Nations was created, it was intended to have a mechanism to respond when peace was threatened.  This, however, has been “dead from Day One.”  In 60 years, the United Nations has only twice responded to the breach of peace, in Korea and Kuwait, and in both cases, the United Nation’s response was to call on the United States to handle the situation with those allies it could gather. 

Instead of the United Nations fulfilling its role as the main keeper of the peace, it has found a niche in peacekeeping.  This can be useful.  It can facilitate the transition from conflict and prevent new conflict but it does not approach “keeping the peace,” i.e., deterring those with the capability of doing so from destroying the peace.  This distinction was grasped during the 1990’s with the different experiences the United Nations had. 

Muravchik said he could envision a division of labor between the United States and the United Nations as the RAND studies suggested.  The United Nations could fill its niche in peacekeeping, including through more effective participation by the United States.  But it is important to recognize that there is another role—-that of keeping the peace—-that remains unfulfilled.  Whether the United States or others like it or not, that role has to be filled by the United States and its allies, or by no one.

What is most troubling about the United Nations is the effort to use the organization as a constraint on U.S. power, as in Iraq.  But such efforts did not start there.  This tendency was visible in the debate over NATO’s post-Cold War role.  Some in Europe saw the discussion over “out of area or out of business” as an effort to drag Europe into conflicts in areas not of interest to Europe.  Some European countries began to assert the maxim that there should be no use of force without a Security Council mandate.

This same controversy came up again with respect to Iraq.  The balance of power in the world today is unprecedented.  It is not surprising others may be uncomfortable or suspicious, hence the effort to insist on a UN Security Council (UNSC) monopoly on the use of force.  Such tendencies are present in the UN High Level Panel Report and in the Secretary General’s (SYG) own reform proposals.  The SYG is in effect proposing that the UNSC codify the “just war” doctrine as the definition of the circumstances under which the UNSC could authorize the use of force.  This would constitute implicit reaffirmation of the UNSC’s having sole authority in this area.  The problem is that the Security Council does not have the capability to exercise such authority.

The UN Charter was, in effect, a social contract for the world community under which all states would relinquish the right to resort to force in exchange for the creation of a United Nations structure that could protect them.  But that UN structure never came into being.  The United Nations has relied on collective self-defense by the Unites States and its allies rather than any capability of its own.  It is asserting its authority in this area nonetheless, and despite the reality that the United States has been the principal element in “keeping the peace.”  It would be a disaster for the United Nations and world peace if others persist in trying to use the UN Charter to constrain the United States.  The United States will continue to act if it is threatened.  The assertion of UNSC primacy is more likely to impact the willingness of the United States to keep the peace more generally.  Enlargement of the Council would only compound the problem of the UNSC’s being a “paralytic body.”

General Discussion

In the discussion that ensued, there was consensus that despite their very different points of departure, the two presentations offered two points of commonality:

  • The United Nations has a role to play that is helpful to the United States.  To the extent that the United Nations can handle peacekeeping duties with relative success in defined circumstances -- that is a role the United States will not have to play.
  • Circumstances exist under which the United States will act even without a UN imprimatur.  Working group participants may differ on when such U.S. action will prove necessary, but all were agreed on the fundamental principle.

Another issue that arose in the discussion was the question of what norms there should be for the use of force.  Contrast was drawn in the case of Iraq between the White House’s assertion of the need for preemption, with the argument presented by the State Department’s Legal Advisor that cited multiple breaches of UN Security Council Resolutions as the justification for the U.S. use of force.  The question was raised whether there was a linkage or possible trade-off between the greater legitimacy that flows from UN-approved action and a reduction in the need for the use of force in an operation.  The United States might wish to consider whether to accept some degree of constraint on its freedom of action in order to gain the kind of legitimacy that might reduce the degree of force needed.  Enlargement of the Security Council could be a vehicle for increased legitimacy. 

Questions were also raised about conflicts within states, especially those that involve genocide or gross violations of human rights given the UN tradition of respect for national sovereignty.  What is the world’s responsibility in such cases, or in those in which the prospects for a “successful” intervention are not present?

Attention was also paid to the issue of what the United States wants UN blue-helmeted peacekeepers to be able to do.  Participants noted that UN forces are being asked to perform functions in current operations that go beyond the typical parameters of peacekeeping.  This includes protecting civilians from hostile forces and conducting forcible demobilization.  Such roles go beyond those provided for in the Brahimi report on UN peacekeeping.  The United Nations does not currently have doctrine to support such missions.  There are also implications for capacity building assistance to the United Nations if it is to take on such roles.

Another question focused on what the relationship should be between the United States and other major powers and UN peacekeeping, given that such UN operations have demonstrated utility to the United States and its allies.  Participants noted that such countries provide almost no UN peacekeeping troops.  Beyond the question of direct participation in UN operations, participants considered a range of other ways in which UN operations could be improved.  These included:

  • Strengthening the UN’s capacity to conduct mediation and Good Offices missions;
  • Improving the UN’s strategic planning capability;
  • Addressing management issues within UN operations in the field and between the field and headquarters;
  • Emphasizing the importance of conducting a comprehensive assessment of what will be needed to put a country on its feet prior to the deployment of troops;
  • Empowering the Special Representative of the Secretary General;
  • Improving the dialogue between UN peacebuilders and the IFI’s and inclusion of the World Bank on the UN Executive Committee on Peace and Stability;
  • Defining the appropriate role of regional organizations in the spectrum of peacekeeping interventions;
  • Implementing existing peacekeeping reform proposals from the Brahimi report and the Secretary-General's report, No Exit Without Strategy, which was issued in April 2001 (S/2001/394) that identified the key factors for peacekeeping success as the establishment of security and stability, the introduction of good governance and justice, and the jump-starting of economic development (Michael Doyle was involved in drafting this report of the Secretary-General);
  • Developing indicators of success to measure the results of peacekeeping operations and identify the point at which they can be terminated;
  • Providing capacity-building assistance to countries that provide UN peacekeepers and pre-deployment training to make them interoperable;
  • Offering a start-up headquarters for a transitional period to allow faster initial intervention; and
  • Enhancing local acceptance of responsibility for solving the problems that gave rise to the conflict and the development of local administrators. 

Participants in Working Group 2

Moderator: Gary Matthews, U.S. Institute of Peace

Rapporteur: Ann Korky


James Dobbins, RAND Corporation

Joshua Muravchik, American Enterprise Institute


Pauline Baker, The Fund for Peace

Charles G. Boyd, Business Executives for National Security and Senior Advisor, Task Force on the United Nations

Wesley Clark, Wesley K. Clark and Associates and Member, Task Force on the United Nations

Elizabeth Cousens, International Peace Academy

Patrick Cronin, Center for Strategic and International Studies and Expert, Task Force on the United Nations

William Durch, Henry L. Stimson Center

Victoria Holt, Henry L. Stimson Center

Tom Leney, United Nations Foundation

Tet Miyabara, General Accountability Office

Robert Perito, U.S. Institute of Peace

Jim Phillips, Heritage Foundation and Expert, Task Force on the United Nations

Susan Rice, The Brookings Institution

Jim Schear, National Defense University

Eric Schwartz, Council on Foreign Relations and Expert, Task Force on the United Nations

Malcolm Wallop, Member, Task Force on the United Nations