After state-building: the new UN minimalism?

by | Aug 20, 2008

In early August, Daniel wrote a punchy post entitled “After state-building”.  Looking at American debate about what to do in Afghanistan and Iraq, he concluded “we may be about to witness a paradigmatic shift away from state-building. But what replaces it?”  I’d come to a parallel conclusion for the UN: “the idea of large-scale, multi-dimensional UN missions overseeing countries stumbling out of conflict may have run out of road.”  But I didn’t have an answer about what comes next.

And I still don’t.  But I’ve outlined some initial thoughts in a piece over on the Guardian website, timed to pre-empt the arrival of the UN’s new peacekeeping boss – Alain Le Roy – next Monday.  I run through the current list of short-term UN woes (where are the helicopters?), but then turn to “longer-term, strategic challenges”:

These aren’t about management. They involve adapting to a less American, more multipolar world. The current scale of UN peacekeeping is a product of the last, all-too-American decade. The Bush administration favoured hefty UN missions to stabilise places where it did not want to get bogged down itself: Haiti, Liberia, Darfur.

UN officials, shaken by their impotence over Iraq, have often felt obliged to look “relevant” elsewhere. The result has been a trend towards bigger peace operations with ever-more ambitious, perhaps unrealistic, mandates to rebuild these shattered states. In private, many of the organisation’s experts worry that they cannot fulfil these mandates – almost all would prefer less expansive alternatives with realistic targets.

But the greatest obstacle to effective peace operations is that tensions between the US and its rivals can reduce the UN to paralysis. China has ensured that the UN mission in Darfur cannot push back much (if at all) against pressure from the Sudanese government. Throughout 2008, Russia has stymied efforts to transfer UN peacekeeping responsibilities to the EU in Kosovo. UN observers in Georgia evacuated as Russian troops advanced this month.

If great power tensions increase further, the chances for more UN missions can only decrease. That would be tragic for the vulnerable who rely on the UN from, Port-au-Prince to Kinshasa. It might be dangerous for the great powers too. Without the UN to provide basic security, the odds of small flare-ups escalating into big crises will grow.

So as Alain Le Roy looks beyond his first round of crises, he may decide that his overarching strategic task is to build up a minimal consensus between the US, its allies and its rivals about what UN peacekeeping is for in an age of tensions between them.

Minimal consensus, eh? What might that look like? Stand by for answers sooner or, more probably, later. But I have started to spot quite a few symptoms of a “new minimalism” around the UN of late.  These include its first ever peacekeeping doctrine, which is sharp and thoughtful document but feels conservative relative to earlier UN statements on peacebuilding and statebuilding (there’s textual analysis in my recent International Peacekeeping article, if you like that sort of thing). 

It’s also worth checking out the state of debate on the Responsibility to Protect – Ban Ki-moon’s staff have been rather skillfully guiding discussions, emphasizing “soft” aspects of R2P like conflict prevention over “hard” military interventions.  It’s worth having a close read of this really good report on the subject from the International Peace Institute.  Now, a couple of policy documents do not equal a new ideology, but I think we’re seeing the first signs of a deeper minimalist trend…


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    <strong><a href="">Richard Gowan</a></strong> coordinates the International Security Institutions program at the <a href="">Center on International Cooperation</a>, New York University. He is also the UN Policy Fellow at the <a href="">European Council on Foreign Relations</a> and an associate of the <a href="">Foreign Policy Center</a> (London).

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