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Salon: UN approaching the breaking point

Note: This post is part of our online salon, UN Peacekeeping: Challenges and Opportunities for the Next Administration, co-hosted with UN Dispatch. First, just so we’re clear, [the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO)] has been growing — nominally, 25 percent in the past year alone — just not as fast as its operational commitments. ...

Note: This post is part of our online salon, UN Peacekeeping: Challenges and Opportunities for the Next Administration, co-hosted with UN Dispatch.

First, just so we're clear, [the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO)] has been growing -- nominally, 25 percent in the past year alone -- just not as fast as its operational commitments. Eight years ago, 520 people in New York supported roughly 40,000 military, police, and civilian personnel in the field. Today, about 1,200 support up to 140,000 mission personnel who work in more violent places than before (like eastern DR Congo, south Sudan, and Darfur).

Exactly how many work where at what time is hard to measure, as it takes the UN many months to fill a new position in NY or in the field. That inability to respond fast (apparently treasured by many of its member states), the growing combat risks posed by new missions, and the sheer size of the enterprise (spread over nearly 20 countries on four continents) mean that the UN is indeed approaching the breaking point (as it not only has to staff 140,000 field positions but find rotation replacements for most of them every 6-12 months). Pile on the departure in June of Under­secretary-general Jean-Marie Guehenno, who has ably managed UN peacekeeping's expansion for nearly eight years, and the simultaneous scattering of UN personnel across NYC as their iconic but aging headquarters is gutted and rebuilt, and you have the makings of a severe morale and management crisis.

Note: This post is part of our online salon, UN Peacekeeping: Challenges and Opportunities for the Next Administration, co-hosted with UN Dispatch.

First, just so we’re clear, [the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO)] has been growing — nominally, 25 percent in the past year alone — just not as fast as its operational commitments. Eight years ago, 520 people in New York supported roughly 40,000 military, police, and civilian personnel in the field. Today, about 1,200 support up to 140,000 mission personnel who work in more violent places than before (like eastern DR Congo, south Sudan, and Darfur).

Exactly how many work where at what time is hard to measure, as it takes the UN many months to fill a new position in NY or in the field. That inability to respond fast (apparently treasured by many of its member states), the growing combat risks posed by new missions, and the sheer size of the enterprise (spread over nearly 20 countries on four continents) mean that the UN is indeed approaching the breaking point (as it not only has to staff 140,000 field positions but find rotation replacements for most of them every 6-12 months). Pile on the departure in June of Under­secretary-general Jean-Marie Guehenno, who has ably managed UN peacekeeping’s expansion for nearly eight years, and the simultaneous scattering of UN personnel across NYC as their iconic but aging headquarters is gutted and rebuilt, and you have the makings of a severe morale and management crisis.

UN peacekeeping has a future if only because it will take years to finish the tasks it has already started, and because NATO is already jammed in Afghanistan, the EU risk-averse (though its new "battle groups" make ideal reinforcements for UN operations in crisis), and the African Union is broke. The AU has ambitious plans for peacekeeping but nothing like the money it needs, and donor train-and-equip programs may suck funds from development and good governance — and bad governance breeds war. So, UN peace­keeping has a future; it would be a better one if more developed state troops showed up on UN rosters outside the Middle East or if those same states paid their share of UN mission costs on time. UN PK costs $6.7 billion a year but its arrears are a fairly steady $2 billion, and it can’t borrow (at US insistence) even to stop wars (making for two-edged irony). When short of funds, it pays vendors first and troop contributors last. Both are needed but vendors quit sooner. Still, no troops, no peacekeeping. Tick, tock.

<p> William J. Durch is a senior associate at the Stimson Center and co-director of its Future of Peace Operations program. James A. Schear served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for partnership strategy and stability operations from 2009-2013. </p>

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