When American politicians want to temper voter’s concerns over U.S. military commitments overseas, many employ perhaps the most worn-out foreign policy cliché: “The United States cannot police the world.” After all, the United States has neither the capacity nor a compelling national interest in putting boots on the ground to resolve every global crisis. But, this begs the question: Who will step forward when boots on the ground are needed?
In many cases, the international community turns to multilateral peacekeepers. Despite U.N. peacekeeping’s track record of relative success and its role in shouldering a burden that might otherwise be borne by the United States and other powerful member states, U.N. peacekeeping faces constant financial pressure and logistical challenges. As the Biden administration begins to put its imprint on U.S. foreign policy, it should demonstrate its commitment to multilateralism by reinvigorating American support for effective peacekeeping and leading other member states in doing the same.
As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) and the largest funder of the Department of Peace Operations (DPO)—which oversees U.N. peacekeeping—the United States plays an important leadership role in authorizing and shaping U.N. missions. With increasingly assertive rivals like Russia and China seeking to erode U.S. leadership, the Biden administration should work to resolve the thorny issues being debated in New York, including whether and how the U.N. should support regionally led peace operations, the role of the U.N. in counterterrorism, and how to mainstream and adequately resource peacebuilding as a core function of U.N. peacekeeping.
Peacekeeping Works, But the Context is Changing
Since the first blue-helmeted U.N. troops were deployed in the Middle East in 1948, the Security Council has authorized 70 peacekeeping missions and deployed more than one-million peacekeepers from 110 nations to help countries navigate the difficult path from conflict to peace. Today, about 95,000 peacekeepers serve in 13 operations worldwide and remain largely committed to the cardinal rules defined at peacekeeping’s inception: impartiality, consent of the host country, and the use of force as a last resort. Over 72 years, U.N. peacekeeping missions have supported political transitions, disarmed hundreds of thousands of combatants, facilitated free and fair elections, and helped new countries—such as Timor Leste—come into being.
While many of the post-World War II international institutions are under increasing strain, U.N. peacekeeping has proven resilient and remains a centerpiece of the U.N. system and a critical conflict management tool—despite inconsistent member state support, logistical and bureaucratic restraints, and multiple cases of sexual abuse and other high-profile scandals. Two of the international community’s most devastating atrocity prevention failures—the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the Serbian army’s 1995 massacre of Muslim civilians in Srebrenica—exposed structural deficiencies within U.N. peacekeeping and their human cost. The United Nations and member states have spent more than two decades working to prevent a repeat of these shameful episodes, with positive results.
Numerous peer-reviewed studies have shown that more peacekeepers in conflict areas correlates with fewer civilian deaths, less violence, and a better chance at lasting peace. The Effective Peace Operations Network’s (EPON) comprehensive reports on the U.N. missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mali—two of its most criticized—present evidence that U.N. peacekeeping had a positive effect on reducing levels of violence and providing some measure of protection to civilians. Another EPON report on an African Union- (AU) led peacekeeping operation in Somalia reached a similar conclusion.
Yet, despite peacekeepers’ best efforts, violence continues or worsens (e.g., in Mali), civilians are still dying, and the prospects for peace look bleak. However, these harsh realities suggest more about the fundamental limitations of U.N. peacekeeping than its overall efficacy. Peacekeeping is a conflict management and mitigation tool, not a solution to the complex underlying drivers of conflict. The United States and other U.N. member states therefore have a responsibility to reinforce peacekeeping missions with robust diplomacy and accountability measures to encourage conflict actors to adhere to their commitments (e.g., cease-fires) and obligations under international humanitarian law.
Navigating Crisis and Controversy
According to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the U.N. faces a cash crisis, with member states accumulating more than $1 billion in unpaid dues (about two-thirds of which is owed by the United States). Since 2017, the United States accumulated over $900 million in total arrears, including approximately $776 million to the peacekeeping budget.
The irony is that compared to the cost of a NATO or U.S. led military operation, U.N. peacekeeping is extremely cost-effective. A 2018 Government Accountability Office review found that it is eight times cheaper to financially support a U.N. mission than to deploy U.S. forces. In total, the U.S. government contributes only 0.03 percent of its annual federal budget to U.N. peacekeeping.
The United States currently pays 28 percent of DPO’s annual budget, and has at times demonstrated leadership in marshalling resources from other member states. In 2014, Vice President Joe Biden co-chaired a peacekeeping summit at which more than 30 countries made concrete commitments to strengthen U.N. peacekeeping. One year later, President Barack Obama and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon co-chaired a follow-on summit of more than 50 countries, garnering pledges to contribute more than 40,000 troops and police, helicopters, field hospitals, and engineering companies.
With proper support, U.N. peacekeeping can be a critical tool in preventing atrocities and supporting peaceful solutions to armed conflict, but even after Rwanda and Srebrenica, U.N. peacekeepers continue to underperform and, worse, abuse the civilians they are sworn to protect. A string of scandals over the past several years have exposed abhorrent sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls, prompting outrage from host governments and member states and blighting the institution of peacekeeping. Additionally, U.N. troops have underperformed in critical situations, such as in eastern Congo in 2012, when peacekeepers defending an important regional capital were overrun by a rebel group without firing a shot. DPO has investigated these shameful incidents and enacted measures to prevent them from recurring. But the onus is ultimately on member states to both ensure that the U.N. stays vigilant and responsive to problems as they arise and, critically, to provide the necessary resources and diplomatic support.
The Biden Administration’s Opportunity
Amid increasing global power competition that has stunted the UNSC’s basic ability to manage international peace and security, Secretary-General Guterres launched the “Action for Peacekeeping” initiative to renew the international commitment to peacekeeping. Guterres’ efforts culminated in 2018 with a multilateral pledge to build collective action to strengthen U.N. peacekeeping operations. The United States endorsed the declaration in 2018; the Biden administration should take several steps to demonstrate American support for Guterres’ effort and advance policies to support more flexible and responsive peacekeeping deployments.
- Pay up: It seems relatively straightforward, but simply paying its dues will go far to repairing frayed U.S. credibility on multilateral issues. Doing so would help to restore U.S. leverage on the Security Council and rebuff criticisms from China and other permanent members about U.S. freeloading, an argument used in favor of reducing the perceived outsized weight of the United States on the Security Council. At the same time, the United States should continue to make the case that, relative to the world’s other major economies, Washington shoulders too much of the burden of multilateral peacekeeping operations. The upcoming review of the U.N.’s assessed contributions is an opportunity to right-size expectations of the United States and move forward with Congress, the U.N., and international partners on the same page.
- Build support for regional organizations like the AU to access U.N. funding for peace operations: Regional organizations, particularly the AU, have shown leadership and willingness to combat extremist and terrorist groups (e.g., in Somalia and the Sahel) and deploy troops to halt ongoing atrocities (e.g., Central African Republic in 2014)—situations for which U.N. peacekeeping is ill-equipped. Yet regional organizations lack the necessary funding and logistical capacity to sustain these deployments and must constantly solicit money and other resources from individual member states, despite the positive progress made by AU reforms and the establishment of the AU’s Peace Fund.
The United States has been generous in cobbling together ad hoc financial and logistical support for regionally led operations, but without consistent funding, regional bodies will struggle to keep forces on the ground paid and adequately equipped (and therefore motivated) to take on well-armed belligerents. The United States could signal support by appointing a senior diplomat to secure buy-in from other UNSC members and the AU for a related Security Council resolution, one that commits to providing sustained financing to support regionally led operations, assuming they meet a set of agreed conditions.
- Equip U.N. peacekeepers to fulfill their mandates in a counterterrorism or counterinsurgency context: While regional organizations and ad hoc regional coalitions like the G5 Sahel have stepped up to take on violent extremists and terrorist organizations, the Security Council has also mandated blue-helmeted troops to conduct offensive military operations against insurgents in the DRC and to work alongside French and regional forces fighting terrorist groups in Mali. Indeed, most new peacekeeping deployments are in active conflict zones, where peacekeepers are themselves frequently targeted by armed groups. Yet the debate between member states around whether and how the U.N. should operate in these contexts is unresolved, leading to ad hoc experiments (e.g., the Force Intervention Brigade within the DRC mission) or reducing blue helmets to cannon fodder (e.g., in Mali and the Central African Republic). The bottom line is that U.N. forces are consistently unable to protect themselves, much less protect civilians or support peacebuilding efforts in active conflict zones. The United States could work with DPO to anticipate when a surge is needed to manage a potentially destabilizing moment (e.g., in the run-up to a contentious election) and plan accordingly.
- Better align and resource political and peacekeeping functions: Despite the deficit between what U.N. peacekeepers have and what they need, DPO is relatively privileged within the U.N. system—assuming member states pay their dues, funding is guaranteed. That is not the case for U.N. Special Political Missions, designed to support peacebuilding and post-conflict recovery, which rely on voluntary contributions. Restoring political stability to societies ravaged by violence is a long and arduous process, and Special Political Missions have played a pivotal role in helping countries like Sierra Leone, Colombia, and Timor-Leste successfully manage these transitions. The United States could use its Security Council Presidency in March 2021 or July 2022 to lead a discussion over how to ensure these missions are adequately and sustainably funded, including through the possible use of assessed contributions.
U.S. leadership was critical to the success of peacekeeping summits in 2014 and 2015, but that support has waned. South Korea will hold a ministerial-level peacekeeping summit in December 2021, and the United States could signal a recommitment to strengthen current and future missions by sending a Cabinet-level official to lead its delegation.