Indian peacekeepers need better PR – and big picture thinking too

Eighteen months ago, I wrote a post for GD asking whether India was about to pull its troops out of UN missions. This was inspired by two very good Indian blogs: Nitin Pai’s Acorn and the anonymously-authored Pragmatic Euphony. Both have been arguing for India to cut back its UN commitments to near zero, on the grounds that (i) there is no clear strategic logic for these deployments; (ii) India has urgent military priorities closer to home, like Afghanistan; and (iii) Indian UN contigents have been hit by a series of accusations of misbehavior.

Back in mid-2008, this seemed like an interesting but theoretical argument.  India’s commitment to UN operations looked solid.  But after the 2008 Congo crisis – when Indian units were criticized for avoiding combat – New Delhi made clear diplomatic warnings that its patience with UN ops was limited.  Western diplomats in New York treat Indian sensitivities with extreme care, lest Delhi pull its forces out of blue helmet missions.  If that happened, the UN would be faced with a massive shortfall of infantry, helicopters, etc.

This is one of the big political stories around peacekeeping (perhaps the biggest) now.  But readers of reports on UN ops would hardly know about it, as it gets very little coverage.  By contrast, there’s lots of analysis of China’s role in peacekeeping, as I note in a new article out this week:

Are Chinese peacekeepers more interesting than Indian ones? Many Western security analysts seem to think so. China has just over 2,000 soldiers and police serving in United Nations operations. India has nearly 9,000. Yet while there is a steady flow of American and European think-tank reports with titles like China’s Expanding Role in Peacekeeping—mostly praising it—little is written about India’s far larger contribution.

New Delhi’s policy-makers should pause to ask why. Over the last decade, Indian forces have been on the frontline in many of the UN’s hardest missions, from Sierra Leone to the Congo. In the same period, China has gone from hardly engaging in peacekeeping at all to deploying engineers, medics and policemen—a useful but still limited offering.

Having spent a happy hour under the protection of Chinese policemen in Haiti, this author has no complaints—but it’s clear that China is getting a lot of kudos at little cost.

I should emphasize that I’m not against analyzing Chinese peacekeeping, let alone Chinese peacekeepers (and I thoroughly recommend these papers by ICG and SIPRI on the topic). But I think that Western and Indian strategists alike need to devote more time and energy to thinking through India’s role:

India should take a leaf from China’s great power playbook. It should not service UN missions for their own sake. Nor should it tie its involvement to limited rewards like senior posts in UN missions—such things are nice to have, but aren’t the currency of great power politics. Instead, India should use its investment in the UN as the basis to stake its leadership as a driver of new thinking about peacekeeping in a multipolar world.

Check out the full article for my arguments about how India can take this role – and how it might be an important step towards deploying a robust UN force in Afghanistan to replace NATO, as and when the Alliance finally gives up there.

Observant readers will note that the piece appears in Pragati, a journal on Indian strategic affairs edited by Nitin Pai, who has no problem platforming authors he cordially disagrees with. I hope that he’ll blog an equally cordial riposte to my argument, and that we can then have a knock-down, drag-out online debate about it – and that Pragmatic Euphony (who recently emphasized the need to release Indian helicopters from UN missions as priority) will join in too. For while we disagree rather fundamentally on this question, we agree that it’s an important issue for India and UN alike.