The New Agenda and Peace Operations: Don’t Bet Against the Future

UN peacekeepers with UNIFIL, alongside Lebanese troops, are seen through a barbed wire fence at the "Blue Line" marking Lebanon's southern border with Israel amid escalating tensions, Kfrachouba, Lebanon, Aug. 26, 2023. (Marwan Naamani/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Reports of the death of United Nations (UN) peace operations have been greatly exaggerated. When, after securing a second five-year term in 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres released his vision for the future of global cooperation in “Our Common Agenda,” many of those working in or on UN peace operations grew concerned about the report’s virtual omission of the topic. The only passing reference to peacekeeping related to concerns of “liquidity reserves” (§ 124) reflecting circumstantial cash-flow problems and financial strains that had impacted missions and the ability to reimburse troop-contributing countries, and continue to affect the regular budget of the organization.

In that sense, “The New Agenda for Peace” (NA4P) may reassure optimists, as it gives some recognition to peace operations. The very fact that the report uses this term, which encompasses peacekeeping operations and special political missions (SPMs), is encouraging, particularly since it has faced some pushback from both member states and the UN Secretariat departments despite the 2019 reform which established a single regional structure shared by the departments of political and peacebuilding affairs (DPPA) and peace operations (DPO). Member states have not yet been able to agree on a single “peace operations account” to finance a full spectrum of peace operations and related backstopping activities.

The NA4P describes peace operations as “an essential part of the diplomatic toolbox” of the UN and suggests that “these missions will remain a central component of the continuum of United Nations responses.” It even offers tweet/X-able catchy quotes such as “peacekeeping represents effective multilateralism in action.”

End of an era

The fine print, however, reads like another nail in the coffin of the UN’s largest and most visible operations, including the multidimensional missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Mali, and the Central African Republic (CAR). These missions, which range from 13,000 to more than 20,000 troops, police, and civilian personnel each, have often struggled to manage conflicts rather than keep peace, leading to what the NA4P describes as “the gap between United Nations peacekeeping mandates and what such missions can actually deliver in practice.” Although post-Cold War Western liberal interventionism has primarily been exemplified by the failed experiences of the US/NATO in Afghanistan and Iraq and to a lesser degree France in the Sahel, these types of large UN operations—some of which are termed “stabilization” without a consensus on what the term encompasses—have also sometimes become seen through the same interventionism prism, particularly when deployed in parallel or on the heels of military interventions.

It is undeniable that UN peace operations are facing a crisis of relevance in the face of both the changing nature of conflicts (fragmentation and internationalization) and changing geopolitics. The NA4P, however, falls short of unpacking “the why” UN peacekeeping operations face a crisis of consent and rarely successfully leverage their uniformed components. It doesn’t explain why, for example, they struggle when not “in control” of political processes, when they become the target of disinformation, or when bilateral forces or mercenaries deploy in the same country.

In many ways, the NA4P confirms the vision Guterres has laid out since arriving at the helm of the organization in 2017. Earlier this summer, when asked by a student whether there is a future for UN peacekeeping, Guterres answered, “My clear opinion today is that peacekeeping operations, where there is no peace to keep, do not really make much sense and I am interested in finding orderly exit strategies in order to be able to replace those peacekeeping forces by other forms, more effective, to do the job.”

The focus is elsewhere

The centerpiece of the pages dedicated to peace operations—three out of the report’s 38—seems to be about transition and exit strategies, suggesting that the secretary-general wants to move on from current peace operations, which are at an impasse. This is clearly the flavor of the moment, from Mali—where MINUSMA is facing a difficult withdrawal amid the resumption of hostilities between the Malian army and their Russian ally and various armed groups—to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and likely Sudan (UNITAMS). This also confirms a broader trend of contraction, with the closing of other major operations in 2017-2018 in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Haiti, followed by the end of the hybrid UN-AU operation in Darfur at the end of 2020.

As Crisis Group colleagues noted, the real focus of the NA4P is elsewhere—not on what the UN can do to manage conflicts, but instead on what member states themselves can do to prevent and resolve conflicts.

The NA4P rightfully calls for the organization to “adapt to the geopolitical realities of today and the threats of tomorrow.” However, while quite bold and aspirational on other issues (such as cyberattacks, the arms race in outer space, military spending, and applications of artificial intelligence), it seems rather short-term and driven by contingencies of the moment when it comes to peace operations, yet in a way also more pragmatic and realistic.

None of the recommendations related to peace operations are really new. Besides buzzwords of “networked multilateralism and strengthened partnerships,” the main fixes suggested are technical and have to do with the better “use of data and digital technologies” in peace operations. And the recommendations are more or less veiled criticism directed at the Security Council—to ensure the “primacy of politics,” “provide its full support throughout, with active, continuous, and coherent engagement with all parties” and not “burden peace operations with unrealistic mandates—with one point aimed at the broader membership, who are asked to “renew their support and recommit to further peacekeeping reform.”

Passing the buck

But there seems to be a disconnect between the lengthy but useful overall diagnosis of the NA4P and its prescriptions for peace operations. The former recognizes a “normative challenge,” “significant global retrenchment of human rights and an erosion of the rule of law” and reaffirms that the “impartiality of the Secretariat is vital,” along with the importance of “prioritizing comprehensive approaches over securitized responses.” Yet the latter proposes little in terms of adapting UN peace operations, and instead openly embraces “multinational peace enforcement and counterterrorism and counter-insurgency operations,” including enforcement action by regional and subregional organizations.

In many ways, this is the direction most member states affected by terrorism have already taken, often prioritizing bilateral—in some cases Wagner Group mercenary—or ad-hoc coalitions over multilateral arrangements. In a context of competition for influence, especially on the African continent, more rulers prefer military support that is quicker to deploy and more willing to respond to urgent security needs, without the human rights and other political governance strings attached and oversight from a Security Council whose authority they are no longer afraid to challenge. As successive UN secretaries-general have acknowledged, two decades of the “Global War on Terror” have shown that heavy-handed counterterrorism approaches that are not guided by a political strategy and disregard human rights have often made things worse, while multidimensional UN peace operations could—under certain conditions—help address some of the root causes of terrorism.

As Security Council Report noted, there has been renewed momentum in the Security Council since last year regarding the “systematic” financing of the more combat-willing African Union (AU) peace support operations, and a resolution could be passed later this year. Although the result of much work by the AU and successive African members of the UN Security Council (A3), it also has to do with shifting geopolitics and the Security Council’s permanent five members’ courting of the Global South, including the African continent. Ultimately, decisions to deploy such operations under Chapter VII of the UN Charter will continue to be case-by-case and interest-based. Contentious accountability and regional AU and subregional (RECs) leadership issues—on display in the military coups across West Africa and the Tigray/Ethiopia and Sudan crises—along with operational and political challenges already experienced by partnership peacekeeping under AMISOM will not magically go away with a resolution. Haiti, for which Kenya—encouraged by the United States—just volunteered 1,000 police officers to help fight armed gangs, could become the next testing ground.

It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future of peace operations. Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali’s January 1992 Agenda for Peace—which was published at a time when Cold War constraints had been lifted and peacekeeping operations proliferated (22 new operations were launched between 1988 and 1993!) as a response to interstate and regional conflicts—failed to anticipate the rapid evolution towards “multidimensional” peacekeeping as a response to suddenly dealing with civil wars. One thing the study of the world organization teaches us though is that since its creation in 1948, peace operations have adapted and been shaped by developments in the international order. One should therefore be mindful not to bet against the future and underestimate the resiliency of UN peace operations.

A risky reflection on the future of peacekeeping

Interestingly, the NA4P calls on member states to “undertake a reflection on the limits and future of peacekeeping.” This could actually be a risky exercise on different levels.

Member states, in addition to being overwhelmed by Guterres’ many policy briefs and initiatives, could feel a sense of fatigue: there was the 2015 Report of the Independent High-level Panel on Peace (HIPPO), followed by the 2017 Cruz report, the 2018 Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) that led to a negotiated Declaration of Shared Commitments on UN Peacekeeping Operations—endorsed by more than 150 member states—and the 2021 A4P+, as well as various related resolutions. Another risk is that reopening this debate in the current geopolitical context could weaken rather than strengthen a fragile consensus around peace operations, at a time when member states’ unity continues to erode as illustrated by more difficult negotiation processes and a growing number of abstentions on peacekeeping resolutions since 2018. It could also contribute to perpetuating an artificial dichotomy between peacekeeping and SPMs (but the HIPPO mandate also began as peacekeeping before being enlarged to all peace operations). In fact, many things could also be said about the “limits and future” of the cheaper political missions’ “light footprint,” including in terms of the challenges of operating with limited security guarantees and political leverage. At the end of the year, this may turn into a synthesis exercise that think tanks and academics would be well placed to support, even if it concludes in a repeat of past lessons already encapsulated in the 2015 HIPPO report, the 2008 Capstone Doctrine, and the 2000 Brahimi Report, including that the Secretariat should tell the Security Council what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear.

One of the fundamental questions for peace operations in the years to come will be that of principles and norms. Member states, including host governments, have increasingly challenged some of the basic principles that have guided peacekeeping—consent of the parties, impartiality, and non-use of force except in self-defense and defense of the mandate. These challenges have been exacerbated by the Security Council mandating peacekeeping operations to support the restoration or extension of dysfunctional states that often lack legitimacy in the eyes of local populations. Mandates related to human rights and gender have also been challenged by some as encroaching on sovereignty and promoting Western agendas.

But many member states across different regional groupings, and despite their power rivalries and divergent interests and values increasingly affecting peace operations, continue to invest considerable political, financial, and human resources in peacekeeping—not least China, which is now the second-highest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget behind the United States. Despite the many challenges, they still see peace operations as one of the main peace and security tools at the disposal of the Security Council and an important vehicle through which they can practice multilateralism.

If the idea behind the NA4P was to throw the ball back to member states, more reflection will be needed for member states to chart what future peace operations could be in a time of renewed geopolitical rivalries, including one-dimensional and “nimble adaptable models” as well as creative partnership models. While some cynics may think UN peace operations could benefit from less member state attention these days, the fact is that a total disengagement from great and middle powers would be even more detrimental not only to peace operations but also to the UN organization more broadly.

Rather than try to shelter itself and risk irrelevance, the UN Secretariat should embrace power rivalries and better consider power dynamics at headquarters and in field operations without resigning itself to them. For their part, member states would be mistaken to neglect multilateralism in the context of the hardening of international relations, or to focus exclusively on bilateral and ad-hoc peace enforcement arrangements. Today’s world requires diversified strategies of cooperation, power, and influence, for which UN peace operations remain a useful vehicle. In the lead-up to the September 2024 Summit of the Future, and when negotiating its outcome document “A Pact for the Future,” member states will hopefully have both their interest and the future of the multilateral system in mind.

Arthur Boutellis is Non-resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute (IPI).

This article is part of a series reflecting on the July 2023 publication of the UN secretary-general’s policy brief, “A New Agenda for Peace.”