It was a welcome and rare sight: a rebel army in retreat. Last November, one of the most feared rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the M23, was defeated. After a 20-month insurgency and a fight to quell it, there had come a tipping point: a 3,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping "intervention brigade," sent to support the Congolese military, had been given an unprecedented mandate: to take offensive action.
The brigade represented a radical change in how peacekeepers operate, and it is just one of U.N. peacekeeping’s latest reforms. In fact, a month after the defeat of the M23, another unprecedented action took place in DRC, as U.N. forces launched unmanned, unarmed aircrafts to monitor the volatile borders with Rwanda and Uganda. It was the first time U.N. peacekeepers had ever directly deployed surveillance drones, and since then, these aircraft have begun to monitor new threats from armed groups. If proven valuable in DRC, they could be deployed in other parts of the world.
Changes in peacekeeping strategy — along with a ramped up diplomatic effort — offer the best chance for stability in DRC in a generation. And they represent U.N. reform in the truest sense: a completely new way of operating.
Yet at the very moment when reforms like these are giving hope to vulnerable people, a different kind of threat to peace in places like the DRC has emerged: Washington’s ongoing funding battles. Though many have hailed the recent Fiscal Year 2014 congressional funding bill as a break in political hostilities, the legislation will sink the U.S. into even further financial arrears at the U.N.
The world cannot afford such setbacks — especially now. Presently, more than 150 million people rely on U.N. peacekeepers for safety and security, and Americans also greatly benefit from their work. Peacekeepers rebuild failing states into potential U.S. partners. They help pave the way for overseas trade and investment. They enable millions of civilians to access the freedom, dignity, and fundamental rights that form the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy. And, according to a Government Accountability Office study, they do all that at one-eighth the cost of deploying American troops overseas.
U.N. peacekeeping is not perfect, of course. For all the recent success in places like the DRC and Timor-Leste, Srebrenica and Rwanda remain painful reminders of tragic failures. Even so, the U.N. has worked diligently — and with strong U.S. support — to make peacekeeping more effective and efficient. Additional reforms, coupled with those already outlined here, have the potential to deliver big benefits for international security and American taxpayers, to say nothing of the benefits to the vulnerable mothers, fathers, and children who rely on U.N. protection and assistance.
One key example of critical reform is the Global Field Support Strategy (GFSS), first approved by the U.N. General Assembly in 2010. This strategy was prompted by the realization that far-flung U.N. missions were not being properly serviced or supplied. New missions were created to deal with fast-moving crises, but their roll-out was slowed for months by logistical and budgetary problems. Shipments of rations, communications equipment, and helicopters were delayed, crippling peacekeepers in the field. And while the blame for these delays often rested with troop contributors or host countries, there were occasions when the U.N. bureaucracy was at fault. So, with firm support from the United States, the GFSS streamlined the logistical side of peacekeeping and delivered significant savings. In 2012, by implementing reforms from the Strategy, the U.N. shaved over $400 million from the overall peacekeeping budget, giving peacekeepers the supplies they needed at a lower cost to U.N. member states. As the largest donor to U.N. peacekeeping, the U.S. stands to gain the most from the GFSS’s full implementation.
Then, there are groundbreaking changes in the way U.N. peacekeepers are evaluated and paid. Traditionally, soldiers and police serving with the U.N. have been paid a set rate, regardless of how they perform in the field. However, two key initiatives championed by the U.S. are changing that. In 2011, American diplomats pushed through a new rule at the U.N. prohibiting payments to peacekeepers who commit crimes, including sexual abuse and exploitation. In addition, starting next year, as much as $50 million in annual bonuses will be paid to peacekeepers and U.N. member states that set a positive example — serving with distinction in risky areas or providing key services such as medical care, engineering, or air support. These are some of the U.N.’s first attempts at pay-for-performance, and they will need strong oversight to be successful. But by rewarding the best peacekeepers and punishing the worst, they could lead to better outcomes for U.N. missions and the people they serve.
With so much on the line, and meaningful progress underway, now is the time to maintain longstanding U.S. commitments to U.N. peacekeeping — not undermine them. And it is what the U.S. public wants: A recent poll found that more than 70 percent of voters think the United States should pay its peacekeeping dues on time and in full. Certainly, at a time of polarization in Washington and around our nation, such a strong number should stand out as a mandate, plain and simple.
Yet Congress has not always respected this mandate. Recently enacted legislation funding the government through the remainder of Fiscal Year 2014 fails to provide any funding for the new U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali and maintains an arbitrary cap on the percentage of the peacekeeping budget that America can pay. As a result, the U.S. has sunk further into peacekeeping arrears, threatening our vital reform agenda at the U.N.
In addition to potentially weakening U.S.-led reform efforts, falling into arrears will harm countries that contribute troops to U.N. missions, including U.S. partners like India, Ghana, and Bangladesh. When U.N. peacekeeping faces budgetary shortfalls, these countries aren’t adequately reimbursed for their service, and this makes it harder to recruit and retain the best peacekeepers. Financial disputes have hurt participation in U.N. missions before: In 2011, amid a heated funding debate, the U.N. force in DRC faced a crisis when India withdrew four attack helicopters and Uruguay threatened to pull out 1,300 soldiers. A similar run on resources today — in South Sudan or Mali — would damage U.S. interests and put innocent civilians at risk.
Much more needs to be done to strengthen and reform U.N. peacekeeping, and Americans should not be satisfied until all of the U.N.’s 15 missions are performing at the highest level. But as the need for peacekeepers continues to grow, starving the U.N. of resources will only make matters worse. The United States can lead the way to a stronger, more effective system of international peacekeeping, but it must start by honoring its financial commitments.