Peacekeeping in crisis: exactly how bad is it?

by | Jul 21, 2008

The fact that I think UN (and quite a lot of non-UN) peacekeeping is in crisis will not come as news to regular readers.  Indeed, a rapid search of my contributions to this blog over the last seven or eight months reveals that I’m not just the Boy who Cried Wolf about the future of UN ops, but the Boy who cried “Wolf!  W-w-wolf!! Really Big Wolf!!  Actually, it might be a Bear…”.  And so on ad nauseam

Earlier this year, I tried to step back and define what this time of troubles consists of, beyond the flow of bad news from Chad, Congo, Darfur, Kosovo, etc., etc.  The results of my musings were published today in that multi-million-selling glossy International Peacekeeping, under the subtle title “Peacekeeping in Crisis: 2006-08”.   For those who don’t want to spend their summer beach-time ploughing through 7,000 words of this stuff, here’s my argument in three parts:

  • Yes, this is a real crisis.  There is a school that argues that the UN is just being whiny.  It has managed to field 100,000 peacekeepers worldwide, far beyond its own predictions – and half its problems result from its own bureaucratic inflexibility, not real threats on the ground.  This is wrong.  The UN does have many internal flaws, but it is being asked to go to too many places at once, including places where peacekeeping stands no chance…
  • …like Darfur.  I argue, contrary to some optimists (including myself in an earlier, happier incarnation), that Darfur presents the UN with a systemic crisis.  Sudan’s success in blocking the deployment of a serious UN force for two years (and counting) has shown that its pretty easy to bring the UN to a halt, if you have sufficient political will and few morals.  I pick up on David and Alex’s concept of “intentional systems disruption”, which involves bringing down a complex system by exploiting its most vulnerable points – in the case of Darfur, those vulnerabilities have been (i) the UN’s political reliance on winning  consent for its operations, which Sudan has denied and (ii) its shortage of specialized assets like helicopters.  My hunch (shared by a lot of UN officials) is that Darfur is a textbook for how to block a UN operation that will be used elsewhere, weakening the whole system’s credibility…
  • …and yep, we see the UN’s vulnerabilities being exploited from the Congo to Afghanistan.  Getting all theoretical, I talk about a paradigmatic crisis for the UN: the idea of large-scale, multi-dimensional UN missions overseeing countries stumbling out of conflict may have run out of road.  That’s not only because nasty governments know how disrupt UN ops, but because the UN model for building liberal, democratic and Western-oriented regimes doesn’t make so much sense in a world defined by a fit of Western self-doubt.

Does that mean it’s all over for the UN?  No.  But, as the article concludes in a slightly bathetic fashion, we have to adjust to an environment in which UN operations can only deliver limited goods: some stability, perhaps, and a limited amount of time to do political deals and maybe get to work on early economic recovery (for guidance on that part, check out the excellent new study by my colleagues at CIC).  But not shiny and sustainable social democratic states.


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