Cruz Report: The Politics of Force and the United Nations’ Peacekeeping Trilemma

A battalion conducts a foot patrol in Pibor, South Sudan on March 6, 2013. (UN Photo/Martine Perret)

Improving Security of United Nations Peacekeepers comes at the right time. Two-thirds of United Nations peacekeepers are deployed in high-risk environments, and more were killed by acts of violence between 2013 and 2017 than any other five-year period in UN history. The report’s purpose was “to propose practical, implementable and effective recommendations to reduce peacekeeping personnel fatalities and injuries from acts of violence.” (p.2) Its diagnosis was that the UN flag no longer offers natural protection, and many peacekeeping contingents suffer from “Chapter VI syndrome,” which has prevented them from adapting to new challenges posed by some contemporary armed conflicts. Consequently, the UN’s fatalities during this period are blamed on “deficiencies in training, equipment and performance.” (p. 31) The report’s prescription is changed mindsets; improved capacity; threat-sensitive mission footprints, using massed and mobile forces; and enhanced accountability mechanisms. It made recommendations on eighteen issues to reduce fatalities and serious injuries to UN peacekeepers, particularly from ambushes and attacks on their bases.

In sum, the report is an important contribution on a variety of operational and tactical issues concerning how the UN can wield military power and force effectively to protect its peacekeepers and degrade spoilers. Nevertheless, it also makes some debatable assumptions, dodges the big normative and political questions about whether UN peacekeepers should be going on the offensive in so many high-risk environments, calls for some highly ambitious changes, and addresses only one dimension of what I call the UN’s peacekeeping trilemma.

Questionable Assumptions

The report places considerable faith in the utility of military power and force. But this produces some questionable assumptions. Three stand out. First, that force is the only language hostiles understand. But UN peacekeepers are not angels facing demons; they confront armed groups with political agendas and hence a calculous that includes non-violent incentives. Second, “Nobody attacks a stronger opponent” is not a watertight assumption. This might be rare at the tactical level, but military history shows how surprise, desperation, skill, and opportunism have encouraged weaker forces to confront and sometimes overcome objectively stronger enemies. Third, faith in the utility of force leads to the assumption that “projecting strength is more secure for uniformed and civilian personnel.” The jury is probably still out at the operational level but at the strategic level effective deterrence is always better than coercion and compellence. Recall that the two deadliest single episodes in modern UN peacekeeping—in Mogadishu (June 1993) and Semuliki, DR Congo (December 2017)—came against contingents that had previously projected force against spoilers.

Big Questions Unasked

The report is correct that UN peacekeepers have died because of deficiencies in training, equipment, and performance. But this ignores the underlying political issue, which is the UN Security Council’s decision to deploy peacekeepers into high-risk environments and to take on specific spoilers. Nor does the report tackle the politics of why and whether the UN should authorize such operations with mandates to degrade specific spoilers or support the consolidation of weak and sometimes illegitimate governments. On the other hand, it does call for updating the basic principles of UN peacekeeping, but does not clarify how.

Ambitious Reforms

Across the eighteen identified issues, the report makes lots of sensible and feasible recommendations for improved safety and security of peacekeepers, some of which could be implemented quickly. Others, however, require more fundamental changes at the UN and in member states. For example, getting rid of caveats is probably impossible. But even if they are inherent in multinational military operations, they do require much better management. Similarly, consistently sending poorly performing contingents home is well beyond what the UN secretariat alone can deliver. This would require some of the member states to dramatically increase the strategic priority they accord UN peacekeeping in their national security policies–put bluntly, display a greater willingness to spend money, take risks, and spill blood on UN missions. And it would require a much deeper UN bench of alternative contributing countries and contingents, which will take time in even the best-case scenarios.

The UN’s Peacekeeping Trilemma

These preliminary points suggest that the report addresses only one dimension of the UN’s peacekeeping trilemma. A trilemma is a situation in which an actor pursues three principal goals but for logical and practical reasons only two of them can be achieved simultaneously.

In UN peacekeeping, the first imperative is for missions to implement a wide range of mandated tasks, including difficult activities such as civilian protection, the consolidation of state authority and degrading spoilers, even in high-risk environments. Despite some recent efforts to focus initial mandates on a limited number of immediate stabilization priorities, the long lists are thought to reflect the ingredients necessary to bring stable peace to war-torn territories.

The second imperative is that UN peacekeepers should not have to assume unacceptable levels of risk. Casualties are to be avoided wherever possible and force protection should be a central factor in planning operations. Fear of body bags returning home pushes most contributing countries to try very hard to avoid sacrificing any of their peacekeepers.

The third imperative is to keep financial costs down and achieve maximum efficiency and minimum waste. This is particularly important for those member states that pay most of the bill for UN peacekeeping, either because they would rather invest funds elsewhere or they don’t believe UN missions can effectively deliver on these mandates. The Trump administration makes this argument more crassly than most governments, but it is more widespread, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis.

These imperatives can be summarized as follows:

Goal 1: Maximize success: Achieve broad mandates, even in high-risk environments.

Goal 2: Minimize risk: Avoid peacekeeper casualties.

Goal 3: Maximize efficiency: Keep financial costs down.

The trilemma means that key decision-makers at the UN will need to choose which two goals to prioritize because it’s unlikely they can achieve all three.

Decisions, Decisions

The UN could focus on achieving Goal 1 (implement broad mandates) and Goal 2 (minimize risks to peacekeepers). But for this to work, the UN would probably require overwhelming, rapidly deployable, mobile forces and to invest heavily in force protection, including through sophisticated bases, armored vehicles, and high-technology capabilities. This would considerably increase the financial costs and work against Goal 3.

Alternatively, the UN could focus on Goal 1 (implement broad mandates) even in high-risk environments while simultaneously reducing its financial costs (Goal 3). But this would likely produce operations with fewer personnel, smaller mission footprints, and less capacity to project force, which would mean contributing countries assuming great risk to achieve their mandated tasks, thereby undermining Goal 2.

Finally, the UN could reduce financial costs (Goal 3) by authorizing smaller missions or not deploying peacekeepers to the most high-risk environments. Simultaneously, it could adopt force postures and footprints for its operations that ensure minimal risk to personnel (Goal 2). But under such circumstances, it would be virtually impossible to achieve a broad set of mandated tasks such as civilian protection, degrading spoilers, and consolidating state authority (Goal 1) in a range of crisis zones.


Hopefully, this report can persuade the UN Security Council to make some tough political decisions about the types of peace operations it authorizes and the environments it will deploy them into. If the Council continues to send UN peacekeepers into other people’s ongoing wars with a long list of difficult tasks, it is immoral and ultimately counter-productive not to give them a realistic, fighting chance. Implementing the report’s recommendations will help, but it won’t resolve the UN’s peacekeeping trilemma.

Paul D. Williams is Associate Professor of International Affairs at the George Washington University. @PDWilliamsGWU.

This article is part of a series being published in February by the Global Observatory on the report of Lieutenant General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz on peacekeeping fatalities and injuries. The Cruz report comes amid a broader strategic review of peacekeeping missions, focused on how the UN can adapt to the changing nature of conflict.