Worldwatch Perspective: Peacekeeping, a Study in Contradictions

At the behest of its member governments, the United Nations keeps taking on new and increasingly complex peacekeeping challenges, including in conflict-ridden places like Darfur, Haiti, Lebanon, and East Timor. The projected budget for these efforts for the July 2007 to June 2008 period is running to $7 billion—the largest cost ever by far, and substantially higher than the record $5.6 billion spent in 2006–07. Yet U.N. peacekeeping operations remain a study in contradictions.

U.N. missions today don’t just involve monitoring of ceasefire lines, as in olden times. They also cover such activities as providing assistance in elections, building or rebuilding institutions, reforming judicial systems, training law enforcement forces, disarming and reintegrating former combatants, and in some cases even acting as the transitional authority in the absence of a recognized or functioning government.

Yet peacekeeping suffers from major problems, starting with money. In theory, peacekeeping costs are covered by mandatory assessments, payable by the U.N.’s members according to the size of their economy (and thus their ability to pay). A handful of states accounts for the bulk of all payments: just 15 countries cover 90 percent of the budget. But when members pay late or withhold part of what they owe, peacekeeping finances are thrown into deep crisis.

The United States has repeatedly held peacekeeping hostage in this manner, and in recent years, Japan has also run up large arrears. As of late 2007, more than $3 billion of peacekeeping payments had not been made by national governments. Of this, 34 percent was owed by the United States alone.

Even though peacekeeping budgets have been on a welcome incline in recent years, they are still far too small relative to what the U.N. is asked to accomplish. A comparison with world military spending indicates where most governments are really prepared to put their money. In 2006, the world spent $1,232 billion on its militaries, or 228 times the U.N. peacekeeping budget.

While governments continue to rely on the military as a preferred tool of security policy, the nature of many of the world’s intractable conflicts suggests severely misplaced priorities. Research suggests that among the underlying reasons for many tensions today are competition over lucrative resources and the repercussions from environmental degradation. With the rising specter of climate change, more frequent floods and droughts as well as sea-level rise will cause increased human displacement and food insecurity, and may trigger fresh disputes. Climate stability, along with reduced poverty and inequality, should be key goals of a far-sighted security policy.

The United States, deeply mired in its “war on terror,” has other priorities. It now spends roughly as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. The war in Iraq has already cost about $632 billion.

Like peacekeeping budgets, the number of peacekeepers has risen to record levels. Currently running operations in 17 countries, the United Nations deployed 84,309 soldiers, military observers, and police in December 2007. Counting international and local civilian staff and volunteers, the total runs to about 106,000. And 11 smaller “political and peace-building” missions (typically follow-up efforts once a peacekeeping mission ends) deployed another 3,787 personnel as of late 2007.

But yet again, these numbers are dwarfed by conventional military priorities. National military (non-peacekeeping) forces deployed outside of the borders of their own countries totaled about 540,000 in 2005. U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other military bases around the globe alone accounted for 73 percent, or some 394,000 troops. With a combined 117,000 soldiers abroad, Turkey, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia represented another 22 percent.

Every time the United Nations dispatches a new mission, it literally has to beg member governments for personnel contributions. Typically, this leads to long delays that may imperil the success of the entire endeavor. Nowadays, most peacekeepers come from poor countries, mostly from South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Often, they lack proper equipment, and different national contingents may be unable to communicate with each other. The United Nations has to rely on the goodwill and cooperation of governments to provide transportation and other logistical support to get the peacekeepers to their deployment locations.

Peacekeeping, an improvisation that emerged shortly after the United Nations came into existence, has now been around for some six decades. Even though it has become a fairly large undertaking, there is still no way to ensure that these soldiers, policemen, and civilians dispatched to far-flung crises are trained to common standards. In some ways, U.N. peacekeeping very much remains an ad-hoc phenomenon.

This is no accident. Powerful governments have little interest in a global body that has truly autonomous capabilities and thus might act in ways detrimental to their own parochial interests. Washington, Moscow, London, Paris, and other capitals are all too happy to hand off responsibility for an intractable crisis to the U.N.’s “Blue Helmets,” eager to claim credit when missions succeed, but quick to blame the organization when they struggle or fail.

On one hand, it’s encouraging to see U.N. peacekeeping grow into a major factor in the world’s conflict zones. But as long as the United Nations has to operate on a shoestring budget and in ad-hoc fashion, peacekeeping is like a game of roulette.

Michael Renner is a senior researcher and director of the Global Security Project at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, DC.

The United Nations keeps taking on new and increasingly complex peacekeeping challenges, but U.N. missions today don’t just involve monitoring of ceasefire lines. And peacekeeping suffers from major problems, starting with money.