Dr. Anjali Dayal, an assistant professor of International Politics at Fordham University in New York, researches UN peace operations, the politics of the United Nations Security Council, and UN involvement in peace processes. Her new book, Incredible Commitments: How UN Peacekeeping Failures Shape Peace Processes, asks why warring parties turn to United Nations (UN) peacekeeping and peacemaking even when they think it will fail. Drawing on archival research, process-tracing of peace negotiations, and in-depth interviews, Dr. Dayal draws critical insights from two of the organization’s most important efforts in maintaining international peace and security.
In an interview with Daniel Forti and Priya Swyden of the International Peace Institute (IPI), Dr. Dayal discusses her book and unpacks ways in which policymakers can better understand the relationships between conflicting parties, political processes, and UN-led peacekeeping and peacemaking efforts.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Putting the primacy of politics at the heart of UN peace operations is a common refrain, particularly when it comes to their support for domestic political processes. How does your research engage with the relationship between peacekeeping operations and the primacy of politics, and how does it seek to advance this discussion further?
One of the fundamental problems is that we know peacekeeping missions succeed and peace agreements hold when combatants and the warring parties want them to, and they don’t when the combatants don’t want them to. Almost no intervention is going to be able to withstand a group of people who are committed to breaking the peace, and at its heart that means these projects are fundamentally political.
But warring parties are not necessarily interested in peace at any cost. Some may be interested in peace, but they may also be interested in a specific vision of the post-conflict world or in advancing the goals that lead them to war to begin with. And in that way, we have to continuously remember that peacekeeping is not just about solving a military or a security problem, it’s inherently a set of political projects that needs to meet the interests of all parties. My work puts forward the argument that at every level, peacekeeping is a political process that is deeply tied to both peacemaking efforts and the political interests of warring parties.
You also emphasize in your book that peacekeeping operations should be understood in terms of a social context. What does that mean in practice?
We often think about UN peacekeeping as a set of individual missions. For practical reasons, it’s understandable that we focus on a specific mission as its own individual unit. But there are many reasons why we need to think about them more strategically. Part of this thinking is operational. We know that the way missions are staffed makes them meaningfully interlinked as experts move across missions. We know that the level of funding for one is tied to the level of funding for another. We also know that a similar group of people is involved in the planning and execution of missions. These all lead to a common stamp being left on UN missions worldwide.
More broadly, we are in a world in which the UN’s peacekeeping and peacemaking functions meaningfully shaping civil wars in interdependent ways. They shift the strategies and incentives for protagonists in different civil wars. They’re changing the set of options that combatants have and in turn, shaping the trajectory of that domestic peace process. So thinking about how missions are social entities—consider the way that we can pick up the newspaper and see what the UN is simultaneously doing in the Central African Republic (CAR)and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). If we’re doing that, then all the different parties to conflicts in the CAR and the DRC are also doing that. Their assessments of what the UN will or won’t do is also anchored, at least in part, in that sense of what’s happening in these other places and what the UN is doing somewhere else.
Looking at peacekeeping through a social context therefore means thinking of them as not being just individual missions, but as part of a larger system where each unit is actually responsive to the next. Each set of combatants can look at other missions, can look at past missions, can look at past interventions in their own places and get a sense of what might happen, or of how to tailor their strategies, or what they can possibly get from the international community.
This analysis leads to questions about individual and group agency, particularly those individuals who engage with peacekeeping operations and peace processes. What are some of the incentives and benefits that different stakeholders have when engaging with peacekeeping operations?
Many theories of peacekeeping place its value on resolving the uncertainty and the security dilemmas that happen at the end of war. When you have signed an agreement and have to demobilize, disarm and reintegrate, you are doing so in the context of having just fought a war over political problems. So there are questions about whether, and how, you trust the other side to uphold their end of the deal. Peacekeeping is often framed as something to alleviates this credible commitment problem: You don’t have to trust the other side, you don’t have to demobilize and disarm them, and you don’t have to trust them to help you uphold security. You just need to trust the UN.
But people are making choices about what they want from the post-conflict peace and what they want from post-conflict governance. And it is an understandable but limiting perspective to believe that the UN is always being asked to a country in the primary service of peace. So the fundamental question that I’m trying to answer is what do warring parties want from peacekeeping when they don’t think they’re going to get a strong security guarantee? Why would you seek out the services of a guarantor (the UN) that you didn’t think could give you a credible commitment?
My research highlights how peace is only one potential benefit from having internationally-led peacekeeping and peacemaking. There are also material, tactical or symbolic benefits that come along with UN support. Some benefits are straightforward, like rent or cash injections into a local economy. Sometimes warring parties need a big multilateral intervention to help with things like refugee resettlement or state building that they could not do on their own. Sometimes warring parties want the UN on the ground so that they can get more time and space to negotiate, empower local elites, to frame different factions as being important in the negotiations sphere. Non-state actors also strongly value the UN’s symbolic role in the international community. Sitting down with the UN, agreeing to a mission, being part of a negotiation process is one way to achieve a certain legitimacy that you can’t get from another group in your country.
Your book focuses on two historical case studies—UN peacekeeping in Rwanda (UNAMIR) and in Guatemala (MINUGUA). Can you just highlight why you chose them, how they reflect the key findings of your research, and their relevance for the UN’s contemporary work?
Both countries are examples where international actors are involved in the beginning of the peacemaking process all the way through the end, and both countries are countries where genocide is part of the conflict. In that sense, looking at them together seemed to be the best way to illuminate two halves of the same question: Why would you ask the UN to come back when you personally had experienced its massive failure? Or why would you try and ask for a smaller, less effective mission if you had this great example of actual peacekeeping success next door? And so trying to think about both those together was one way to get at the bigger question
While there’s a lot of scholarship about the Rwandan genocide, there’s much less scholarship about the peace process that preceded the Rwandan genocide: a multiple-year negotiation with a lot of international actors involved, where the peace agreement serves as the basis of the current Rwandan constitution. After the genocide, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) makes the decision to ask the UN to come back. That to me was a real puzzle. Why would you do that if you didn’t think they’d be able to guarantee your security, and if you had the best evidence of anyone in the world that they wouldn’t be there to protect you? The Rwandan government and RPF deeply needed the material benefits of UN support, including help to reconstitute the state, even if there was very little prospect that the UN would provide the kind of protection that ordinary Rwandans had needed during the genocide. And the RPF understood UNAMIR’s involvement on the ground as the best possible shot at being seen as legitimate actors at the international level in the immediate aftermath of the genocide.
The other case study I examine in the book is the Guatemalan negotiations in 1995-1996. That is a case where the government of Guatemala and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), the rebel coalition, looked at El Salvador’s extremely successful peacemaking and peacekeeping process, and viewed that not as a success, but instead as a place where all the parties to conflict lost too much. So the parties actively worked to minimize the UN’s footprint in Guatemala, and they did so with explicit reference to what had happened right next door. They wanted a different peace—one that helped the political elites advance their specific goals—and they wouldn’t get that if the UN was too involved. So they asked for different kinds of involvement, like UNGA mandate instead of a Security Council mandate, a truth and reconciliation commission that didn’t have strong teeth, and support from a mid-level official instead of a senior UN envoy.
What do you think your research means for the UN’s work now and for the future? How would you package all of this to someone who’s working at the UN saying, what should I think about moving forward?
One thing I took away from doing this research is that I’m nervous about these counterinsurgency stabilization operations and what they mean for other peacemaking. If, as I assume, these are social enterprises—if you know people can look at what the UN is doing elsewhere, and if legitimacy is a big part of what they might want from the UN—then we have a real problem where the UN is partnering with the state to come to actively fight for counterinsurgency. Why would you sit down with an international body if you think that international body is going to turn around and try to defeat you?
We have omnibus studies now on the efficacy of peacekeeping that categorically say peacekeeping is an effective intervention. It’s good at keeping the backsliding into war from happening. It’s good at lessening the impact on civilians and lowering civilian death. It’s good at keeping conflicts from bleeding across borders. But it’s not good at protecting people from the state. It’s much more effective at protecting people from rebel violence than it is at protecting people from state violence. And in that context, a world in which the UN is going to partner with the state to try and counter what it believes to be violent extremism might be a world where it’s more difficult for the UN to broker peace. It may make it in fact less likely that parties to conflict in other places are going to say we would like to sit down with the UN, we would like to negotiate an agreement and put an end to this conflict—because you might fear the UN may be a party to the conflict on the side of the state, not just an international body that’s on the ground in service of the peace.
And without overstating the findings that I have in the book, that for me, is the biggest point of concern for contemporary operations. If what people want is more things from the UN and less emphasis on security, that’s something the UN can do. That’s a set of interventions that can be better tailored to local contexts as well. On the other hand, the logic of counterterrorism and stabilization is attractive to the state, but it may come at a cost to the other kinds of more diplomatic missions that we know are successful and will work to help people.
Who should read your book and why?
If you’re interested in peacekeeping or peace processes, you will probably be interested in the book. If you’re interested in the way the UN system has evolved to be a deeply institutionalized part of contemporary conflicts you might be interested. And I think if you’re interested in how the UN shapes war and peace in the world today, and how it does so in unexpected ways, then the book is for you.