This spring marks 75 years since the United Nations (UN) first deployed a peacekeeping mission to the Middle East in 1948. Since that time, the UN has deployed more than 70 missions and two million peacekeepers to countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Peacekeeping has become one of the primary and most visible tools that the UN uses to maintain international peace and security. It has ebbed and flowed over time in terms of numbers and structure, with the goal of supporting parties to the conflict to reach and maintain peace.
Those who have been around UN peacekeeping for more than a few years may hesitate to suggest that peacekeeping is “at a turning point,” a sentiment that is often overused. And yet, the present moment may indeed be such a turning point, both due to emerging challenges in the field, and because of political and institutional realities within the UN and among its member states.
The war in Ukraine has exacerbated tensions within the Security Council, while on-the-ground tensions have reached a boiling point in multiple peacekeeping contexts. At the same time, the UN secretary-general’s call for a “New Agenda for Peace” has provided a policy framework for the UN and its member states to rethink how the UN approaches its involvement in peacekeeping and the broader spectrum of its peace and security work.
Yet, while this moment may warrant the type of bold and out-of-the-box thinking that the secretary-general has called for, current political realities make innovation more challenging. Here’s an overview of some of the challenges that peacekeeping is facing at the international, institutional, and field levels, as well as some opportunities for the future.
At the international level, power politics are playing out both within the UN Security Council and at the country level. Though contention among the permanent members of the Security Council (P5) is not a new phenomenon, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought it to new heights. The resulting tension has reduced the number of Security Council resolutions passed overall, as well as the Council’s ability to achieve unanimity on those resolutions that do pass. This weakens the legitimacy of mandates and sends a signal to parties that compliance may be negotiable. UN mission officials have noted that parties to a conflict, including members of host governments, are seeking to play on divisions within the Council to achieve their own political gain among international actors.1
Tension among Council members also reduces the body’s responsiveness to crisis situations. While the Council’s work did not come to a full halt following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as some feared, it has sharpened divisions among members and made compromise more difficult. This reduces the Council’s ability to respond as flexibly as needed to emerging crises. Some Council members and civil society representatives have also expressed reluctance to re-negotiate language in existing resolutions for fear of losing ground when it comes to gender, protection, and other rights-related issues. This was the case in a recent discussion on the renewal of UNAMA’s mandate, where stakeholders expressed concern that mandate negotiations could lead to backsliding in such areas.
In addition to tension within the Council, we’re also seeing balance-of-power dynamics play out at the country level. For example, when considering the future of international intervention in the Sahel, it is not only a question of what strategies will be most effective for addressing the regional crises, but also how such actions may bolster Russian influence. Given the increasing investments of Russia, China, and the United States in Africa, challenges related to P5’s own vested interests within peacekeeping contexts are likely to grow.
The UN as an institution is also grappling with how it understands peacekeeping as an important, yet evolving, tool. Policymakers and academics often cite the statistic that the UN has not deployed any new multidimensional peacekeeping operations since 2014, and there have been questions as to whether the era of large-scale peacekeeping is coming to a close. While peacekeeping in one form or another will likely continue, there is some conjecture that the UN should focus its investment on observer or political missions which have a lighter footprint.
This sentiment has been promulgated by multiple factors. In the past year, peacekeeping operations have experienced crises of consent, both with host governments and with local populations. Public outcry in the DRC over the mission’s perceived failure to protect civilians led to riots, while contention with the Malian government has stymied the mission’s ability to fulfill its mandate. The Malian government has even gone so far as to reject France as the penholder of the mission’s mandate—an unprecedented move. Lack of host state consent makes it more difficult for missions to implement their mandates and it has fed into mis- and dis-information campaigns that heighten insecurity for peacekeepers and can have a significant impact on the organization’s reputation.
This crisis is based, in part, on some of the UN’s own flawed approaches. The focus on stabilization within peacekeeping, coupled with ever-growing mandates, has led to bloated and overly militarized peacekeeping presences that have not been effective in facilitating sustainable peace.
There is also a sense from within the UN that the secretary-general’s own views on peacekeeping may pull the organization away from larger-scale missions. The near absence of peacekeeping within the secretary-general’s “Our Common Agenda” report was a stark illustration of his lack of enthusiasm for the tool. While the UN Department of Peace Operations (DPO) is a contributing entity to the NAP, it is possible that peacekeeping will continue to be deemphasized in favor of the secretary-general’s priorities of prevention and peacebuilding.
At the country level, the security context has grown more difficult, with ongoing violence, malicious attacks against peacekeepers, and a rise in violent extremism. Such conditions are pushing peacekeeping beyond its intended bounds and blurring the line with counterterrorism and peace enforcement. The UN has attempted to maintain a distinction between its peacekeeping presence and that of other security actors, though this has been difficult in practice. It also reduces peacekeepers’ ability to fulfill their mandates, as in Mali, where more than three-quarters of the mission’s force is focused on self-protection rather than the protection of civilians or other parts of its mandate.2
Even as the UN seeks to put limits on its peace enforcement, the threats posed by terrorist and other non-state armed groups have led some member states to want more forceful responses. In some cases, regional, sub-regional, or other multinational coalitions have taken on this role. Yet, in other cases, states are turning to mercenaries or private military groups, such as the Wagner group, which offers them “an appealing alternative to traditional international peace and security interventions.”
In spite of these challenges, there are some things the UN can consider if it wants to make peacekeeping more responsive to the current landscape. First, when it comes to the future of multidimensional peacekeeping, the UN and member states should resist the urge to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Multidimensional mandates do not need to be thought of as all or nothing; rather, the UN and member states should carefully assess which parts of multidimensional mandates have been effective and which should either be reformed or carried out by other actors.
For example, it may be that in some contexts, UN peacekeepers are particularly effective in monitoring and reporting on human rights violations, supporting local-level mediation, or protecting civilians within certain areas. Yet other tasks—particularly those that require personnel to be more embedded within local communities or maintain a longer-term peacebuilding presence—may be better implemented by the UN country team or other partners.
Therefore, the UN should work toward peacekeeping interventions that embody more of a “building block” model that increases flexibility in terms of mandated activities and the actors that take the lead in implementation. This would allow the UN to craft more realistic and appropriate mandates that are in line with the resources it has available, while also drawing more on the capacities of partners—including regional organizations and other local actors—for more effective and sustainable implementation.
In line with this, a second area of opportunity, and one that was emphasized in the “Our Common Agenda” report, is strengthening partnerships with regional and sub-regional organizations. Given the number of emerging challenges, including the regionalization of conflicts, such partnerships are central to the future success of peacekeeping. Partnerships in peacekeeping are not new; what has changed is the number and strength of regional and sub-regional organizations that are involved in peacekeeping contexts. Along with efforts to establish funding mechanisms for African Union peace support operations, the UN could do more to flesh out the operationalization of Chapter VIII of the UN Charter and ensure that the UN Security Council can provide adequate support to regional organizations without abdicating its primary role in maintaining international peace and security.
Finally, the UN should also take this time to reevaluate some of the underlying approaches and assumptions that have driven its previous interventions. For example, statebuilding in peacekeeping often centers on strengthening the state and its institutions while failing to deal with contestation over the state’s legitimacy. The “primacy of politics” often omits politics outside of formal spaces, including those found at the local level, while stabilization approaches, which have dominated both UN and NATO thinking over the past two decades, drive militarized responses that fail to deal with the drivers of conflict. This rethinking is in line with the secretary-general’s call that we “reassess core assumptions, including how peace and security are defined, negotiated and sustained.”3
There are, indeed, many areas of UN peacekeeping that require rethinking or new approaches altogether. However, those of us who are engaged as policymakers, researchers, and practitioners must avoid the urge to linger on the problems and instead focus on how to leverage and expand on successes that have been experienced over the last 75 years of practice. With more than a quarter of the world’s population currently affected by armed conflict, the UN remains the best actor to maintain international peace and security, and peacekeeping is one of its strongest tools to do so.
 According to discussions held at an IPI closed-door roundtable discussion, 2023.
 According to an interview between the author and a former MINUSMA official; February 2023.
 Our Common Agenda, paragraph 89