United Nations peacekeeping may appear poised for a major shift in the near future. Over the past five years, there has been a steady decline in the number of peacekeepers deployed worldwide, while two of the UN’s largest peace operation—in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—look set to wind down in the coming years. Facing continuing downward pressure on the UN peacekeeping budget, a deeply divided Security Council, and a strongly contested track record, some experts have argued there will be little appetite for large missions in the coming period, possibly heralding the end of the era of large multidimensional peacekeeping.
Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic is almost certain to worsen the economic outlook for those countries that provide the bulk of the UN’s peacekeeping budget. Despite these trends, there are three reasons why multidimensional peacekeeping is likely to remain an important aspect of the UN’s peace and security response: conflict risks are growing, the UN remains the least expensive option, and the Security Council has maintained a surprising degree of unity when it comes to deploying and maintaining large missions.
Reason One: Conflict Trends Are Worsening
After a steady decline during the 1990s, the rate of civil wars has nearly tripled in the past decade. This has resulted in a nearly six-fold increase in battle deaths, with 2014 and 2015 being the two deadliest years for civilians caught up in conflict since the end of the Cold War.
A related trend is the increasing recurrence rate of today’s civil wars. More than half of conflicts resolved in the early 2000s have since experienced a return to war. Today’s conflicts are not only more deadly, they are also proving to be more intractable, as factors like transnational organized crime, globally-linked jihadi networks, and regional meddling in internal conflicts have made lasting political solutions more elusive.
It is likely that COVID-19 will drive these trends in an even more negative direction, potentially triggering new conflicts and certainly leaving fewer resources for resolving current ones. Already, the pandemic is having a detrimental impact on key indicators in Africa (where most peacekeepers are deployed today) including in areas of health, socio-economic wellbeing, and food security. As recent UN University research has demonstrated, the kinds of socio-political uprisings that tend to lead to violent conflict are often immediately preceded by strong economic shocks. COVID-19 is almost certain to lead to such shocks, increasing the risk of new conflicts.
The rise of civil wars, combined with their growing intractability, creates a need for peacekeeping. Deeply entrenched, intractable conflicts are precisely those that major powers avoid directly engaging, turning instead to the UN, especially where there are no major strategic interests on the part of the permanent five (P-5) members of the Security Council. As I have argued elsewhere, the demand for peacekeeping may well go up in the coming period.
Reason Two: The UN is Still the Cheapest Option
National governments make hard-nosed calculations about the costs of intervention in wars and, under almost any calculation, the UN offers a cheaper option than deploying the national troops of a major power. In 2017, for example, the United States Government Accountability Office conducted a study of the costs of the UN’s multidimensional peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), versus what a similarly sized US-led operation would cost. MINUSCA, a fairly typical peacekeeping operation with around 10,000 troops, cost the UN roughly $2.4 billion over a three-year period, with a knock-on cost to the US of about $700 million in budgetary donations. A similarly sized US-led operation would have cost nearly $6 billion dollars, meaning the UN offered a savings of $5.3 billion dollars to the US over a three-year period.
COVID-19 is likely to make these financial calculations more acute, as major powers look for savings in an era of shrinking economies. Regardless of whether you believe it is effective, UN peacekeeping is a relatively cheap endeavor for countries looking to demonstrate a track record on peace and security, without breaking the bank or exposing their own soldiers to risks.
Reason Three: The Council is Still (Fairly) United on Peacekeeping
The Security Council is as divided as it has ever been and is seen as grossly inept in the face of some of the most important conflicts in recent history. Unable to act on Syria or Yemen, silent on the growing tensions in the South China Sea, a bystander to Ukraine and Venezuela, and embarrassingly late to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire, the Council is experiencing probably its most fragmented and ineffectual period since the end of the Cold War.
However, on peacekeeping the Council has often managed to find common ground, even in the face of deep differences. Following the 2019 coup in Sudan, the Council agreed on a series of steps that eventually resulted in the establishment of a new political mission to succeed the African Union/UN mission in Darfur.
Despite major differences among the P-5 on the conflicts in Mali and Central African Republic, both missions have received united support from the Council in recent years. And agreement on the broad path for the exit of MONUSCO in the DRC may be another indication that the Council can come together on peacekeeping.
This does not mean the Council has a uniformly good track record on peace operations, and its failure to nudge any of the Middle East files forward in the past 20 years should give us pause before becoming too encouraged. But when faced with a major conflict that does not directly involve the strategic interests of one or more of the P-5 powers, the Council has managed to create enough common ground to establish and maintain large multidimensional peace operations. There is little reason to believe that a surging conflict in a country without major P-5 stakes would not result in a similar response by the Council in the future.
Are Multidimensional Peace Operations the Answer?
Outside of the demand for peacekeeping in fact going up, and the Security Council’s ability to establish and maintain large multidimensional operations, a more fundamental question is whether such missions should be deployed in response to today’s conflict dynamics. Offered below are some guiding (potentially leading) questions for policymakers:
1. How can the UN deal with asymmetric threats?
In Mali, a large, multidimensional UN peacekeeping mission has struggled to address the threats posed by violent extremist groups, taking some of the highest casualties in peacekeeping to date. In eastern Congo and CAR, the missions have struggled to deal with armed groups that often target civilian populations and/or UN peacekeepers. An unarmed political mission in Afghanistan has worked against terrorist groups, but with NATO forces at the sharp end of the counterterrorism efforts. In Libya, the political mission has few resources to combat terrorist groups, but is also not directly mandated to confront them.
Each of these missions faced some form of asymmetrical threat, and each is structured differently. If a new UN peace operation is faced with asymmetric threats, what configuration (e.g., heavily militarized or a lighter model) will deliver most effectively and set expectations at a realistic level? Are there settings where having no in-country mission would be better, given the risks?
2. What kind of mission is best placed to deal with weak and/or difficult host governments?
One of the outcomes of protracted civil wars in places like Somalia, Mali, CAR, and South Sudan is the weakening of state institutions and/or the hardening of government positions against the UN. The AU/UN mission in Darfur experienced near total intransigence from Khartoum when trying to deploy, often expending its political capital on technical issues like visas and customs. Missions in South Sudan and the DRC too have often found that the government can be one of the most serious obstacles to their effective operation.
Larger militarized missions often become viewed as too aligned with host governments and/or become too caught up in their operations to pursue political objectives. When deciding on the size and ambition of a peace operation, the UN should ask what configuration and size will maintain meaningful independence and leverage with the host government.
3. How important, and achievable, is a security guarantee to the peace process?
One of the most important benefits of a large peacekeeping presence is its purported capacity to deliver a security guarantee to peace processes, holding spoilers to account, protecting civilians to build confidence in a peace process, and helping to ensure that parties uphold their promises. In some processes, this security guarantee is both critical and achievable by the UN, e.g., the presence of thousands of peacekeepers in Liberia was seen as important for the parties to transition into peace, for example. In others, the security guarantee was more elusive, such as the repeated failures of the Darfur peace process, or the inability to sustainably dismantle major armed groups in eastern Congo. Asking direct questions about the UN’s ability to deliver that security guarantee, including in situations where the host government is a major perpetrator of violence, will help the UN design more realistic peace operations (or indeed decide whether a peace operation is the appropriate tool for the job).
There may be well scope and need for multidimensional peace operations in the future, though as Richard Gowan and Louise Riis Andersen have pointed out, smaller, more flexible missions may be more suited to some of today’s most challenging conflicts. Ultimately, the UN should not think of the issue as a binary one, choosing between a 20,000-troop behemoth or a small special envoy’s office. As the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations proposed, peace operations should be thought of along a spectrum, and there may be a range of models that have not yet been tried, possibly due in part to the artificial distinctions between peacekeeping and other missions (e.g., special political missions, peacebuilding presences, or envoys). Rather than ask whether peacekeeping has a future, we should be asking how peace operations could shape the future of conflict prevention.
Adam Day is the Director of Programmes at the Centre for Policy Research at United Nations University. He tweets @AdamDayNYC.