The Primacy of Geopolitics: Five Lessons from the UN’s Involvement in Mali

The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) holds a memorial ceremony for nine Nigerien peacekeepers who were killed, October 7, 2014. (UN Photo/Marco Dormino)

On June 30, the United Nations Security Council terminated the mandate of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), following a request by the Malian authorities. Resolution 2690, which was adopted unanimously, established specific timelines for the drawdown, withdrawal, and liquidation of the mission. While the abruptness of the request took many member states by surprise, it followed a period of growing tension between the mission and the Malian authorities. Several MINUSMA officials had been expelled and the mission had been subjected to debilitating movement restrictions both on the ground and in the air. Malian authorities had also rejected a UN investigation that had concluded that Malian troops and “foreign military personnel” (a reference to Russian personnel most likely affiliated to the Wagner group), had carried out a massacre in Moura in March 2022, summarily executing hundreds of people.

For a decade, MINUSMA operated in a difficult political and security environment. Since 2013, 309 peacekeepers, most of them Africans, have lost their lives carrying out the Council’s mandate in Mali. Key among the challenges the mission encountered in recent years was the geopolitical environment, which affected both the mission’s relationship with Mali’s transitional authorities and the dynamics of the Security Council in support of the mission. While the UN and its member states have reiterated their commitment to the “primacy of politics” to guide the design and deployment of peace operations, this is often focused on achieving a sustainable political solution at the national level without sufficiently taking into account the broader geopolitical environment and its effect on key stakeholders. The full consequences of MINUSMA’s rapid withdrawal remain to be seen, but some takeaways from the Mali case can already be drawn out. Here are five lessons to inform future decision-making regarding peace operations.

Lesson 1: Geopolitics Matter

Over the last two years, Malian authorities have consolidated a strategic shift to make Russia a key security partner at the expense of France, which has historically played that role. The shift came as Malian authorities embraced a new narrative of Mali’s “regained sovereignty.” It also responds to their views that France’s engagement with armed groups in the north had emboldened them; that security assistance without the human rights “constraints” often imposed by Western countries is more effective; and that a decade of “business as usual” stabilization operations had not succeeded in containing insecurity—all perspectives that challenged MINUSMA’s very existence. Other pressures contributed to the estrangement between Mali and the West, including disinformation and misinformation campaigns, Russian opportunism, Western concerns about the role of the Wagner group in the country, and the lack of seriousness with which Malian authorities took the political transition.

In addition, the impact of the war in Ukraine, and the general push from the West for developing countries to “pick sides” has only accelerated this shift. In an attempt to hedge its bets, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mali abstained on a UN General Assembly resolution deploring the aggression and demanding Russia to immediately withdraw its forces. A year later, it voted against a resolution reiterating that demand.

The last time that the Council renewed the mandate of MINUSMA, in June 2022, it did so with only 13 of the Council’s 15 members voting in favor. The decision by Russia and China to abstain was the first time since the mission was established in 2013 that the renewal had not been unanimous. This break in Council consensus came months after a military coup in Mali—the second in less than a year—and among widespread calls for accountability, with Western countries pushing for specific language in the resolution urging the Malian authorities to fight against impunity and investigate alleged human rights violations. Although the promotion and protection of human rights had been part of the mandate of the mission from the beginning, the political environment had changed. When the resolution was put to a vote in the Council, the Malian Permanent Representative regretted that some of the strongest reservations expressed by Mali had been ignored and openly challenged human rights elements of the mandate just adopted. Council disunity emboldened the Malian authorities, which considered the role of MINUSMA and the Council in the oversight of the political transition as an obstacle to their plans, and leveraged geopolitical tensions to advance their political agenda.

Lesson 2: Avoid Overidentification with a Particular Country

The role of France was critical in galvanizing international support for Mali in 2012, as the country faced separatist mobilization, a coup in Bamako, and growing territorial control by terrorist groups in the north and center of the country. The intervention succeeded in temporarily pushing back terrorist groups and came at a great human cost: 59 French soldiers were killed in Mali over nine years of military presence.

In 2013, MINUSMA became a core element in France’s foreign policy and its strategy to stabilize Mali. Mali invited a French deployment to prevent terrorist groups from reaching the capital, and France envisioned the creation of a UN presence in Mali to complement regional and bilateral stabilization efforts. MINUSMA received support from the French-led Opération Serval (including in the evacuation of casualties), and the mission’s presence and operations mitigated some of the risks that Serval would have faced if deployed alone, particularly in remote areas. Serval also provided reassurances for Western countries that had been reluctant to reengage on peacekeeping operations in asymmetrical environments.

France was the Council penholder on Mali, and given the strategic importance of the file for Paris, was very territorial in its handling of it, even resisting attempts by Germany to be a co-penholder during its own Council term (2019-2020). Concerns over the conclusions of a 2018 independent strategic review of MINUSMA—which was critical of the role of the mission enabling enforcement operations like the ones carried out by France—led to it not being shared in full with Council members. When relations between the Malian authorities and France started to sour, MINUSMA’s perceived close alignment with France undermined its capacity to be seen as an impartial actor, leading Malian authorities to reject the role of France as penholder in March 2023.

A more inclusive approach to penholdership could have helped leverage the institutional memory and peacekeeping acumen that France brought to the table, with a more diverse set of perspectives, including from the Global South. The anti-colonial narrative emerging in Mali identified MINUSMA with France, contributing to its demise.

Lesson 3: Contradictory Elements of a Mandate Present Operational Difficulties

MINUSMA was a clear example of the balancing act that the Security Council forces missions to undertake by mandating contradictory tasks and clouding their strategic vision. These included supporting the extension of state authority (and thus becoming a critical enabler of the government) while seeking to preserve the role of the mission as a facilitator between that same government and coalitions of armed groups. In an environment in which Algeria was in the driver’s seat of mediation efforts, the UN had to overcome misgivings from the different parties—at least in part as a result of this design—in order to play its facilitation role. The mandates of multidimensional missions do often give special weight to mandated tasks preferred by the host state (i.e., extension of state authority, ceasefire monitoring, capacity development), whereas others are begrudgingly accepted by host states (i.e., human rights monitoring, good offices).

In the current context of polarization and growing opposition to the more normative elements of the peacekeeping agenda, this tension will continue to grow. The challenge for the Security Council is not to retreat into merely focusing on the “negative peace” dimensions of peacekeeping, (protection of civilians, stabilization, interposition), but be able to advance, tactfully, the elements that consolidate “positive peace” (accountability, inclusion) in a context in which many host states are much more interested in the former than in the latter.

Lesson 4: Host Authorities Are Difficult Partners, but There is No Mission Without Them

Much has been written about the crisis of consent in peacekeeping, and the difficulties that many field missions are facing, with regular violations of “status of forces” agreements and other political challenges. While some have argued that a lack of consent by transitional authorities does not carry the same weight as that of a legitimate government, the truth is that peace operations cannot remain in a theater where they are not welcome by host authorities. Consent remains a bedrock principle of peacekeeping, and the design of mandates must take that into consideration. Attempting to go faster, or broader, than what the host state’s political market can bear can irreversibly undermine the capacity of the mission to build trust and engage constructively with the very stakeholders that it needs on its side.

A critical takeaway, however, is the role of the Council in maintaining and sustaining such consent. Missions interact with local authorities and other stakeholders on a daily basis, but it is the Council as the mandating body that has the ultimate responsibility to address the erosion of consent. The Council can preserve the political space for constructive engagement through the different tools at its disposal, including visiting missions and more informal discussions. Council divisions, particularly if key members challenge unity of purpose and pursue parallel agendas, erode the capacity of the Council to play that role. The non-unanimous renewal in recent months of the mandates of peace operations in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, for instance, must make Council members rethink what can be done to regain unanimity.

Lesson 5: Beware the Mismatch of Expectations, Mandate, and Capabilities

A longstanding issue that MINUSMA faced was the fundamental mismatch between what certain Malian stakeholders wanted it to do and what MINUSMA was mandated to do. The demands for MINUSMA to play an enforcement role framed discussions regarding the inception of the mission, and the arguments that it was not doing enough have been recurrent over the last decade. The kind of medium- and longer-term processes that MINUSMA was engaged with were less tangible—and more difficult to present as successes—than the illusory and short-sighted “immediate results” of operations conducted by Malian forces and the Wagner group. The achievements of MINUSMA (its deterrent effect, its good offices, its capacity to ensure access for humanitarian and political actors) were less visible than its shortcomings.

The truth is that, despite its fairly broad mandate, MINUSMA spent considerable assets to ensure force protection. It took it more than two years to reach full operational capacity, and it had a longstanding gap of force enablers even before some troop- and police-contributing countries started phasing out their deployments two years ago in light of the deteriorating political and security situation. Already in 2018, the strategic review raised flags about the bunkerization of the mission and the particular exposure of logistics convoys. Despite these constraints, there were limited efforts to consolidate the footprint of the mission or to narrow down the scope of its mandate.

Like a proverbial Christmas tree overladen with ornaments, tasks kept being added to the mandate without the increased capabilities needed to execute them. In 2019, the Council created a second strategic priority for MINUSMA focusing on the situation in the center of the country. Despite this addition, the Council did not increase the troop ceiling, and the mission got fewer resources than those originally proposed by the secretary-general to the Fifth Committee.


While it is unclear if the UN will deploy a peace operation anytime soon, it is critical that it draws lessons learned from Mali. The path forward for peace operations is precisely to leverage their identity as diverse, multinational endeavors. In the current context, the perceived alignment, real or imagined, of peace operations with a particular country can ultimately become a death sentence.

With MINUSMA, geopolitics undermined the same clarity and “unity of effort” that, back in 2000, the Brahimi report said Security Council mandates require when peacekeepers deploy into potentially dangerous situations. The HIPPO report looked at peace operations through the prism of the primacy of politics. The Malian authorities leveraged geopolitical divisions, pitting the interests of different actors against one another, with the intention of achieving their political objectives. The necessary corollary almost a decade afterward is that the primacy of geopolitics can no longer be ignored.

UN missions such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan have had frictions of their own with UN peace operations. Given how global polarization permeates many aspects of the work of the UN, it is key to mitigate the impact of this trend in conflict management tools, including peace operations.

Víctor Casanova Abós is a Director at Macro Advisory Partners.