The United Nations currently deploys nearly 95,000 uniformed and civilian peacekeepers in a dozen active operations, at an annual cost of approximately $6.6 billion. Its worldwide deployment of uniformed personnel is second only to the United States. And yet considerable uncertainty surrounds the future of UN peacekeeping. So much so, that last year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres established the “Future of Peacekeeping” project to imagine what future peace operations might look like.
Compared to 2015, there’s been a 24 percent reduction in peacekeeping personnel and a 23 percent reduction in spending. Peacekeeping missions have closed in Côte d’Ivoire (2017), Haiti (2017), and Liberia (2018), while the hybrid mission in Darfur has ceased operations, and the mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to downsize. The UN has not established a new multidimensional peace operation since 2014, and Secretary-General Guterres prefers focusing on preventive initiatives and special political and peacebuilding missions with “light footprints.”
The UN’s missions have also come under financial pressure. The United States under former president Trump and some European countries have sought drastic cost reductions, which the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to intensify. Escalating tensions among the permanent members of the UN Security Council also risk undermining cooperation on peace operations more broadly. Taken together, some observers think UN peacekeeping is in crisis.
These trends and challenges are real, but we shouldn’t write off UN peacekeeping. Peace operations are a highly resilient international institution for managing armed conflict. Their resilience derives from “collective intentionality” and “constitutive rules.” Collective intentionality means that peace operations exist as a distinctive form of international activity because international actors have agreed to recognize them as such. Consequently, peace operations will only become extinct if international actors become convinced that this type of activity (should) no longer exist. Constitutive rules are the set of commonly understood principles that define what counts as a particular socially recognized activity. Constitutive rules are malleable but cannot be changed unilaterally—at least a critical mass of those holding these understandings must be persuaded (or induced) to alter them.
Despite a range of current constraints, challenges, and crises, UN peace operations are unlikely to become extinct unless a critical mass of states consistently withdraw material support for them and explicitly denigrate the concept of peace operations itself. We see little evidence that both these things are likely to occur. However, the constitutive rules guiding UN missions and peace operations more generally are likely to continue to evolve due to ideational and material changes. While the proliferation of actors and mission types makes precise predictions impossible, we expect an evolution in both how various actors define their own peace operations and how these actors relate to each other.
There are four main reasons why continued evolution of UN peacekeeping is more likely than extinction. First, the central problems UN missions are intended to help tackle are unlikely to disappear and ignoring those problems will prove difficult. Limiting war and the threat of war, particularly those that might involve or draw in the great powers, remains an urgent need.
Second, there is robust empirical evidence that UN peace operations work. They are effective at preventing armed conflict, reducing violence against civilians and battle deaths once armed conflict has started, helping belligerents achieve peace, and preventing organized violence from recurring once wars have ended. Moreover, UN peace operations are highly cost-effective both as investments for conflict management and in terms of deployment costs. UN member states are unlikely to reject them indefinitely, though peace operations might become less frequent and more constrained in the absence of great power cooperation.
Third, expressed more negatively, there is no better alternative tool for managing armed conflicts. The comparison between wars where significant peace operations were deployed and wars without such deployments is suggestive, despite the difficulty of comparing conflicts and assessing counterfactuals. To take some recent examples, peace operations have certainly struggled to contain organized violence in several theaters, notably Mali, DRC, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Somalia. However, without peace operations the levels of casualties in these conflicts would probably have been much higher and they do not compare unfavorably with war zones that have not witnessed the deployment of major peace operations, such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, Ukraine, and Myanmar.
Fourth, historically, peace operations have persisted through considerable variation in the levels of interest states and organizations have shown in deploying them—especially larger operations with more robust mandates—and rebounded after periods of relative disinterest. The current period of challenges is thus not unprecedented. Indeed, in broad terms, the history of UN peace operations can be depicted as a series of retreats, reflections, and renaissances. The current contraction is no more likely to be permanent than previous ones, given the factors noted above.
Of course, UN peace operations operate within the constraints set by geopolitics. Great powers will remain unlikely to accept peace operations led by other actors in their own conflicts. Diminished great power leadership may reduce the resources available for peace operations. Increased contestation among great powers may further reduce the number of missions, restricting them to areas where there is great power consensus or at least acquiescence. Nevertheless, UN peace operations remain a potentially useful tool for great powers to manage (or appear to manage) a wide range of conflicts. As a result, there is no reason for great powers to make general arguments for abolishing peace operations—and to date, no great power has done so.
Katharina P. Coleman is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia. She tweets @KPColeman. Paul D. Williams is Professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He tweets @PDWilliamsGWU.