Since the end of World War II, states and international organizations have deployed nearly 200 peace operations involving military contingents, and they remain the principal international mechanism for managing armed conflict. A closer look at the last decade of peace operations—from 2010 to 2020—highlights ten macro-level trends which can help us understand some of the key priorities, challenges, and where peacekeeping might be heading next.
First, there’s been a major increase in quality scholarship about peace operations, particularly United Nations “blue helmet” missions. There’s now a stronger evidence-base for understanding how UN peacekeeping works, as well as its impacts. The new quantitative literature is overwhelmingly positive, concluding that, despite some important limitations, UN peacekeeping still works. In comparison, the qualitative literature highlights more flaws and operational challenges facing peace operations but nevertheless recognizes they generally make bad situations better. Less scholarship has focused on non-UN peace operations, but here too there’s been significant recent progress.
A second trend has been growing skepticism about the liberal peacebuilding agenda and political awareness of the limited leverage external actors wield when trying to build stable peace in war-torn territories. This is somewhat ironic given the first trend identified above but, so far, no strong consensus has cohered around a preferred alternative to broadly liberal approaches.
This skepticism is reflected in a third trend, the decline of transitional administrations, where international peacekeepers, usually led by the UN, temporarily assumed governing authority over a territory. While major transitional administrations emerged in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor in the late 1990s, the 2010s saw zero international appetite for such missions. Following the eruption of civil war in December 2013, South Sudan was the only case where even a minor debate arose over establishing a transitional administration, led by the UN or African Union (AU). But there was no support for such proposals in New York or Addis Ababa let alone Juba.
In contrast, as transitional administrations receded, the 2010s was arguably the decade that stabilization missions rose to prominence. At the beginning of the decade, stabilization was mainly the preserve of NATO forces in the Balkans and Afghanistan, a few small European Union military operations, and only one UN stabilization mission: the UN Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Since then, the UN authorized stabilization mandates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, and Central African Republic (CAR). The AU did likewise in Mali, CAR, and Somalia. So too did the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Mali and Gambia.
The continued importance of regional organizations in authorizing and conducting peace operations constitutes a fifth notable trend. The majority of these operations were in Africa, deployed by African organizations—most notably the AU and ECOWAS—but also the European Union. The EU and NATO remained the only regionally-based organizations to deploy peace operations out-of-area. The various capability gaps and comparative advantages of these organizations meant regional missions significantly increased the number and types of “partnership peacekeeping”—where two or more actors explicitly coordinate their peace support activities in the same theater of operations.
A sixth trend during the 2010s was the relatively limited progress of the women, peace, and security agenda in relation to peace operations. The good news is that the number of women in senior mission leadership roles and deployed as uniformed peacekeepers continued to rise in the 2010s. But while the proportion of female police improved significantly, the proportion of troops didn’t get close to the desired target. It is also evident that women’s meaningful participation in peace operations remains stymied by many political, societal, and operational barriers. Moreover, the dominant discourse which signals women’s “added value” as peacekeepers often becomes an “added burden” in practice and bought into gender stereotypes.
The struggle to make fundamental change was also apparent in a seventh notable trend: continued interest in peace operations strengthening the rule of law in host states and improving police components through more effective doctrine and guidelines, standing capacity, formed units, and specialist teams. But here too peacekeepers faced enormous practical difficulties and unrealistic expectations, especially when trying to tackle the challenges posed by transnational organized crime.
An eighth, and related trend was more serious attempts by various organizations to deal with the dark side peacekeeping, namely, poor performance and a lack of accountability for harming local civilians. The 2010s saw major steps forward on setting standards and measuring the performance of peacekeepers in an attempt to ensure that contributing countries and units are up to the tasks. In contrast, attempts to ensure accountability for misconduct and indiscipline did not make as much headway. Considerable challenges remain for ensuring individual accountability—when peacekeepers engage in sexual exploitation and abuse, smuggling, and civilian harm—and collective accountability, for example when UN peacekeepers spread cholera in Haiti.
A relatively under-the-radar trend worth noting was the continued importance of private contractors in contemporary peace operations. From training to transportation, logistics and strategic communications, contractors remained an integral part of the contemporary peacekeeping scene, although debate continues over the functional limits of their involvement, especially concerning the use of force.
Finally, the continued prioritization of civilian protection mandates in many multidimensional missions that lacked a viable strategy of conflict resolution, left peacekeepers without a successful way out. Without a pathway to peace, multiple peace operations and their authorizing institutions were forced to think hard about transitions and exit strategy issues. This was particularly tricky for missions that were playing important damage limitation roles in ongoing conflicts but where there was no end to organized violence in sight.
Peace operations clearly had mixed results during the 2010s, but on balance they arguably brought more positives than negatives. Most relevant organizations also improved in terms of their professionalization. While the future remains uncertain, practitioners and analysts will have to keep working hard to understand what’s happening and what roles peace operations can be expected to play.
Paul D. Williams is Professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He tweets @PDWilliamsGWU. This article draws from the new third edition of “Understanding Peacekeeping.”