Forget U.N. Peacekeepers: Send in the Gendarmes

In gray-zone conflicts, police don’t have the skills to bring peace and full-scale military interventions can lead to escalation. A force that can bring stability is needed.

By Elisabeth Braw, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
French gendarmes secure the area around the Notre-Dame de l'Assomption Basilica in Nice on Oct. 31, two days after a knife attacker killed three people.
French gendarmes secure the area around the Notre-Dame de l'Assomption Basilica in Nice on Oct. 31, two days after a knife attacker killed three people. VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images

“We believe that both parties should accept Scandinavian peacekeepers and we’re working with Scandinavian governments to put together a peacekeeping force that could deployed into the region to keep a ceasefire,” U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said last month, referring to fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. It didn’t take long for Russia to respond—by brokering a peace deal and sending in peacekeepers of its own.

Until the recent outbreak of all-out war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the situation in the disputed region was regarded as a so-called frozen conflict—not quite war but not quite peace. This is becoming the norm; indeed, all over the world, the gray zone between war and peace is growing. But there’s good news. A model thought up by Napoleon more than two centuries ago may be the perfect answer to not-quite-war conflicts.

In 1939 and 1940, when Nazi Germany was invading virtually all of its neighbors, Switzerland’s Defense Minister, Rudolf Minger, kept a note attached to the doorbell of his home: “In case of war, please ring twice.” Today, it would be impossible to know when to ring twice. Consider what happened six and a half years ago, when so-called little green men who looked Russian but bore no insignia appeared eastern Ukraine.

Since Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the alliance didn’t have to decide whether to invoke its famous Article 5 that guarantees all members will come to the aid of any ally under attack. But Ukraine won’t be the last country to find itself in a confusing state between peace and war. In the South China Sea, China has illegally built islands that now mark China’s presence in the strategic waters; it has even turned its man-made presence into a military installation.

Although the U.S. election last week proceeded without major meddling by foreign powers, today virtually every Western country finds itself the target of disinformation, cyberattacks, and subversive behavior directed by hostile governments. “Hybrid threats are deliberately designed to stay below the threshold of a conventional military response, but at the same time they include activities that risk civilian harm,” said Ewan Lawson, a former Royal Air Force officer now affiliated with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London defense and security think tank. “Information campaigns designed to stir up discontent between groups within a society for example can cause physical as well as psychological harm if the impact of those campaigns results in violence between groups. Likewise cyberattacks on critical infrastructure could lead to incidents of public disorder,” he warned.

The gray zone creates myriad options for attackers. In October, an oil tanker waiting to dock in a British port was hijacked, apparently by criminals. The police responded, assisted by the Coast Guard. But what would happen in a case of multiple hijackings where the perpetrators may or may not be acting on behalf of a hostile government? And what to do if a country finds itself confronted with a string of such incidents? In today’s and tomorrow’s gray zone situations, a military response may be too heavy-handed or ill-suited for the task. The fact that most countries lack real defense in the gray zone between war and peace is, of course, precisely the reason why other countries are now targeting it.

Western leaders would do well to turn to Napoleon for advice. After the French Revolution, Napoleon professionalized an existing royal police force and tasked the new Gendarmerie with maintaining order not just in the republic but in its far-flung territories as well. Soon the Gendarmerie had been adopted in Spain, the Netherlands, and the country that’s now Italy. It was a completely different world, of course, with French Gendarmes policing colonies that had hadn’t been consulted as to whether they, in fact, wanted to be colonies. But today Gendarmerie forces, with their unique blend of policing and military expertise, may be a perfect answer to the troubles facing countries today.

To be sure, police departments respond to unrest in their area—but they’re not set up for large or complex crises, and they’re local. “Gendarmerie-type forces can be a valuable asset in such a situation, generally being funded and controlled at the national level and therefore able to be deployed to trouble spots to reinforce local police services,” Lawson said. The fact that Gendarmes have both policing and soldiering expertise (“blue and green”) and typically serve under both the Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry also makes them perfectly positioned to tackle violence of an unclear nature. To protect itself against blended violence, Western countries need blended defense.

Among NATO members, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and more recent joiners such as Portugal find themselves better equipped than their allies for whichever sub-Article 5 tricks a hostile country might try. Italy’s Carabinieri, for example, already train for internal disturbances and a variety of terrorist attacks, and for the past three years they’ve also been training companies in terrorism response.

Airport managers, manufacturing executives, and arms manufacturers—a cross section of Italian industry—have been trained in how to spot and identify an attack, how to react to it, and how to limit the risk to innocent bystanders. “The main goal of this activity is to set up a net of ‘watchers’ who are able to spot reconnaissance terrorist activity and to stop a terrorist attack in its earliest phase,” Maj. Paolo Volonté, one of the officers in charge of the training, told me. That training could easily be expanded to include hostile-state attacks, including foreign attacks masquerading as domestic violence or terrorist acts.

There is a challenge, however: In countries whose policing wasn’t influenced by Napoleon two centuries ago, blue-and-green forces are anathema. The police maintain order at home; the armed forces fight hostile countries. Many Nordic, Baltic, and Central and Eastern European countries, meanwhile, have Home Guards that function as a citizen reserve for all manner of contingencies. But while Home Guards are useful, they lack the expertise of Gendarmes.

Indeed, police departments and armed forces from lots of countries could add expertise by studying the Gendarmes, the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee, the Guarda Nacional Republicana of Portugal, the Spanish Guardia Civil, and the Carabinieri. Their armed forces including Home Guards could also team up with police agencies for gray-zone exercises that could also include businesses, as I proposed in a recent paper.

Around the world, there’s an increasing need for men and women better trained and equipped than regular constables but who are not quite soldiers. In places like Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Gendarmes are constantly called upon to fix the so-called security gap—where the lack of peace creates lawlessness that no tank can solve and which police officers are incapable of tackling.

Gendarmes’ capabilities also highlight a constant shortcoming of U.N. peacekeeping: The blue helmets are of little value if there’s no peace to keep. If Scandinavian peacekeepers had been sent to Nagorno-Karabakh, would they have been able to handle a chaotic and potentially violent reality on the ground? As things stand, the Russian peacekeepers are likely to be effective in tackling violence but hardly in creating stability and advancing the rule of law. That illustrates why the West needs to have a credible alternative on offer.

The need for Gendarmerie skills in modern conflicts first became clear during the highly complex Kosovo conflict in the early 1990s. “It wasn’t war, but it wasn’t peace either,” Gen. Mike Jackson told me. “It was a really difficult situation, especially since the police, who were Serbs, had left. Having a third-force contingent, in this case Carabinieri, was very useful.” Jackson, the British general who commanded the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) charged with creating stability in Kosovo, recalled when IFOR’s Carabinieri unit arrived in Kosovo and the colonel commanding it came to see him. “I said, ‘It’s like a mafia here.’ He said, ‘Mafia? I can do mafia.’”

There has, in fact, been Gendarme-inspired innovation in recent years: the Italian town of Vicenza now hosts not one but three relatively new outfits dedicated to keeping order in struggling countries: the European Gendarmerie Force deploys gendarmes to countries including Afghanistan, Haiti, Libya, Mali, Ukraine, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Center of Excellence for Stability Police Units—paid for primarily by the U.S. State Department, and with a U.S. Army colonel as its deputy director—trains police officers and soldiers from developing nations in so-called peace support operations. And the NATO Stability Policing Center of Excellence serves as NATO’s think tank focusing on so-called stability policing, the task of fixing the security gap that now typically falls to Gendarmes.

Thanks to Napoleon, a few Western countries are finding themselves with a surprisingly useful tool. While not many other countries want to launch a Gendarmerie, all would benefit from mastering the Gendarmes’ core skill of keeping order in the gray zone, both at home and in international hotspots. To succeed, the centers in Vicenza will have to train many more students. The world can’t expect Italy—the long-standing leader in Gendarme deployments—to always take the lead in attending to a world of proliferating security gaps.

Elisabeth Braw is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw