America Needs Peacekeeping Missions More Than Ever

The more the United States commits to peacekeeping efforts, the more powerfully — and efficiently — its influence will reverberate around the world.


The American adventure in unilateralism since 9/11 has been, to put it mildly, less than successful. Over almost a decade and a half, the United States has been obsessed with large-scale, enemy-centric operations that overlook the root causes of conflict; Washington has preferred to rely on a singular solution, rather than turn to multilateral institutions at a fraction of the cost. With the nightmarish outcomes of military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan still unfolding, the results speak for themselves.

The good news is that the United States has recently reinforced its commitment to multinational peace operations. The bad news is it hasn’t gone nearly far enough.

President Barack Obama’s decision to host this year’s summit on U.N. peace operations, and the accompanying Presidential memo — the first of its kind in over 20 years — directing especially the Departments of State and Defense to increase U.S. support to the U.N. in multiple ways, demonstrate Washington’s newfound recognition of the institution’s strategic value. The United States is starting to learn that it can more effectively pursue its interests, at much lower investment and risk, if it acts in concert with others.

“We know that peace operations are not the solution to every problem,” president Obama said at the United Nations at the end of September, “but they do remain one of the world’s most important tools to address armed conflict. And I called for this summit because U.N. peacekeeping operations are experiencing unprecedented strains. … Put simply, the supply of well-trained, well-equipped peacekeepers can’t keep up with the growing demand.” A big reason the U.S. is interested in U.N. peacekeeping is “because our collective security depends on it.”

The September memo echoes this, explaining that “the United States has a compelling national security interest in preventing the outbreak, escalation, and spread of conflicts” in fragile states where global security threats such as violent extremist groups, human trafficking, endemic diseases, and mass flows of refugees and displaced persons tend to arise. “Multilateral peace operations, particularly [U.N.] peace operations,” the memo states, are thus “among the primary international tools that we use to address conflict-related crises.”

The core business of the U.N. — reining in conflict and building peace — is fast becoming a priority for the U.S. foreign policy and national security establishment. Building on last year’s Quadrennial Defense Review and this year’s National Security Strategy, National Military Strategy, and Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, the memo goes on to instruct cabinet departments that, as a matter of policy, the United States will build its capacity to support U.N. peace operations; contribute U.S. support, capabilities, and personnel to U.N. diplomatic initiatives; and lead and support efforts at the U.N. for systemic institutional reform.

From a standpoint of enlightened self-interest, a superpower like the United States that’s struggling to hold its sway in the world — and is worried about stretched budgets — would be wise to treat U.N. peacekeepers as a sort of force multiplier. The blue helmets are currently the largest deployed military force in the world, with over 100,000 uniformed personnel from 124 troop-and-police-contributing countries deployed in 16 missions that are central to American security interests, but often in parts of the world (in Africa especially) where the large-scale presence of U.S. combat forces is neither feasible nor desired.

Peacekeepers offer an efficient way for the United States to pursue its interests. While the United States provides the biggest share (28 percent) of the U.N. peacekeeping budget of $8.3 billion, other donor nations – most notably Britain, France, Japan, and Germany – cover the remaining 72 percent. And U.N. peacekeeping is a relative bargain. The U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) reimbursement rate comes up to around $1,300 per peacekeeper per month. That’s less than one-fourth the pay and benefits of the lowest paid American soldiers.

Crucially, America has been willing to contribute more than just money to peace operations programs. The United States has done more than any other country to build the mission capacity of troop-contributing countries. The Africa Contingency Operations Training & Assistance (ACOTA) program, started in the 1990s, and the Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI), launched by the George W. Bush administration, have helped train hundreds of thousands of peacekeepers.

The Obama administration’s most recent efforts, however, have both broadened and deepened Washington’s commitment across “a spectrum of conflict prevention, peacemaking, and peacebuilding interventions authorized by the U.N. Security Council.” Beyond ACOTA and GPOI, and along the lines of Presidential Policy Directive 23 on Security Sector Assistance, the memo directs State and Defense in particular to help the U.N. deploy better-trained and -equipped blue-helmets and intensify the management of troop training, assessment, planning, mobilization and deployment. It also tells the Pentagon to conduct joint peace operations exercises with troop-contributing countries, help the U.N. improve leadership and gender diversity among peacekeepers, as well as institute and enforce higher standards of troop and police professionalism on matters such as sexual exploitation. (At the summit, Obama noted abuse of that sort “undermines the core mission because it erodes trust with communities” and has “a corrosive effect on global confidence in peacekeeping itself.”)

At a more diplomatic level, the United States is helping the U.N. improve the selection and management of police forces, and enhance cooperation with regional organizations such as the African Union, as well as with longer-standing security organizations like NATO. Additionally, at the request of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon earlier this year, the Pentagon is providing DPKO enabling technologies in remote base camp logistics; for the protection of forces and civilians; in information systems; and in intelligence, planning, training, and field medical services — all areas for improvement identified in last summer’s High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations report and specified in Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s own directive.

But while the Obama administration’s new strategy goes far to detail how the United States intends to lead from behind in reforming the United Nations, it perpetuates Washington’s reticence to lead by example. There are few indications that the United States is preparing to increase direct contributions of personnel to U.N. peace operations.

This is a serious strategic error. For one, it fails to exploit the many strategic advantages gained from the direct involvement of U.S. military personnel in U.N. field missions. From my own experience in Liberia, where I served for nearly two years as the U.N. mission’s chief of civil-military coordination, I learned how the U.S. military can engage the world in a more productive way than it did in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president’s memo ignores the ways that having even a few officers dispatched to U.N. field missions as “strategic scouts” and “strategic enablers,” as I later tagged them in a Small Wars Journal article, helps the U.N. but also the United States.

Putting U.S. officers in key staff jobs, among them intelligence, operational planning, logistics, and civil-military operations, undoubtedly helps U.N. field missions raise their operational state of play. But it also enhances America’s standing and generates priceless soft power and strategic capital, while providing ground sensors for how a mission is really going, and how the United States is actually perceived. Meanwhile, the small number of American men and women who wear blue berets gain working knowledge of the U.N. and real-world multinational operations.

In a way, it also helps the U.S. taxpayer ensure good return on investment, while sending a clear message to other countries that Washington is on watch. “Glad you lot are here,” one British colonel quietly admitted to me after one of my observers witnessed and reported some U.N. troops roughly handling civilians.

That leads to another great strategic advantage of U.S. participation in peacekeeping: In addition to fostering the legitimacy and credibility of U.N. peace operations, the presence of U.S. military and police personnel in multilateral missions encourages the participation of other Western nations whose expertise is badly needed. “The main reason we’re here,” I once told a senior U.S. officer in the American contingent headquarters early in the Kosovo operation, “is so that everyone else can be a part of this.”

Although the president doubled the commitment of military observers and other staff officers to field missions at the summit, he should have gone much further. Given the impressive returns on peacekeeping operations so far, the United States can afford to go well beyond the 30 to 40 U.S. officers — about the size of an infantry platoon — currently involved in U.N. peace operations worldwide. Every senior U.N. commander I have met would welcome it. As one told me: “We need more from America than checks. We need to see that you’re with us, in the field.”

The other thing Obama’s memo hints at is a thinly veiled superciliousness that the United States has little to learn from the U.N. It talks about having American military personnel help peacekeepers learn their craft but does not take into account that the Pentagon doesn’t have a single serious program to train peacekeepers. The U.S. military has plenty of experience at stability operations, which are largely focused on beating bad guys, but not peace operations, in which the enemy is the conflict itself.

The U.N. also has much deeper experience in peacebuilding; it has addressed the drivers of conflict and instability more successfully and for longer than the United States, despite lacking America’s relative political unanimity and immense resources. At September’s Sustainable Development Summit in New York, the U.N. issued its final report on the decade-long Millennium Development Goals initiative. Although it fell short of some milestones, other goals were met and exceeded. Its goal of cutting extreme poverty by half, for example, was achieved five years in advance.

Despite the U.N.’s faults, and the frustrations it often presents for the United States — fodder for those who cling to tired delusions of unilateralism and American global hegemony — most polls show that U.S. public support for it has consistently reached nearly 60 percent. That’s almost six times the favorable rating for a Congress that struggles annually to appropriate the U.S. share of the organization’s funding and thus bankroll its influence in the U.N. At a recent discussion on what’s next for U.N. peace operations reform, the U.N. representatives welcomed America’s renewed interest and initiatives as an “unprecedented strategic opportunity.”

“We can’t exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everybody else,” the commander in chief reminded West Point cadets last year. “We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if a whole lot of our political leaders deny that it’s taking place… That’s not leadership; that’s retreat. That’s not strength; that’s weakness. It would be utterly foreign to leaders like Roosevelt and Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy.” Or to George Herbert Walker Bush, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

No other country has been more responsible for, has exercised greater influence over, and has a greater stake in the future direction of the U.N. than the United States. Improving the most successful international institution in history, however, can only happen through engagement, not evasion. If Americans simply decide to pick up their toys and quit the sandbox, then someone else will take their place — and they probably wouldn’t like the results.

Photo credit: ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Nov. 11, 2015: The recent United Nations Sustainable Development Summit took place in September. A previous version of this article stated that it took place in October. 

Christopher Holshek, a retired U.S. Army civil affairs colonel, is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Peacebuilding and author of Travels with Harley: Journeys in Search of Personal and National Identity.