Peacekeepers providing water, Donji Potočari, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 1995
Peacekeepers providing water, Donji Potočari, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 1995
Stringer / Reuters

Many Americans believe that peacekeeping is ineffective at best and harmful at worst. They remember peacekeepers leaving at the first sign of trouble in Rwanda or standing inert as the Serbian army massacred Muslim civilians in Bosnia. They recall images of U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Every year, the Gallup organization asks Americans whether they think the United Nations is doing a good or bad job of trying to solve the problems it faces, and for the last 19 years, a majority of those sampled have given the organization a thumbs-down. The United Nations is especially disliked by Republicans. According to Gallup’s 2020 study, only 36 percent of the party’s members view the UN positively, the lowest number in almost 30 years.

These negative stories have been used to help justify the United States’ deep cuts to the UN’s peacekeeping budget. From 2015 to 2018, U.S. financial support for peacekeeping fell by 40 percent. The United States is the largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeping, and its cuts have reduced the overall budget from $8.3 billion to $6.4 billion, curtailing the organization’s ability to act. Although some of the most recent retrenchment is due to former President Donald Trump’s disdain for the UN, after nearly one year of unified Democratic control, Washington still has not fully paid for its peacekeeping obligations and is roughly $1 billion in arrears. As a result, there have been no newly fielded peacekeeping missions since 2014, despite an increase in civil wars. In diplomatic efforts to end conflicts in Afghanistan, Colombia, Ethiopia, Libya, Myanmar, Venezuela, and Yemen, third-party peacekeeping isn’t even on the table.

That is a shame, because the negative perceptions of peacekeeping are dead wrong. Decades of academic research has demonstrated that peacekeeping not only works at stopping conflicts but works better than anything else experts know. Peacekeeping is effective at resolving civil wars, reducing violence during wars, preventing wars from recurring, and rebuilding state institutions. It succeeds at protecting civilian lives and reducing sexual and gender-based violence. And it does all this at a very low cost, especially compared to counterinsurgency campaigns—peacekeeping’s closest cousin among forms of intervention.

To reduce violence around the world, the United States and its partners need to increase their financial and personnel support for peacekeeping missions. They must be more willing to greenlight campaigns, and they must invest in more training for peacekeeping forces. Washington has a geostrategic reason to act. China is stepping in to provide more resources for peacekeeping missions, and it appears to want to control more agencies within the United Nations, including the Department of Peace Operations. But the United States also has a moral imperative. A greater commitment to peacekeeping would bring more stability to the world, saving countless lives.

COUNTING THE WAYS

Scholars have researched the connection between third-party peacekeeping and violence in dozens of studies. As we explained in a recently published article on the effects of peacekeeping, these studies have remarkably similar findings. Although they used different data sets and models and examined different time periods and types of peacekeeping, the most rigorous studies all have found that peacekeeping has a sizable and statistically significant effect on containing civil war, getting leaders to negotiate settlements, and establishing a lasting peace once war has ended. Conflict zones with peacekeeping missions produce less armed conflict and fewer deaths than zones without them. The relationship between peacekeeping and lower levels of violence is so consistent that it has become one of the most robust findings in international relations research during the contemporary period.

This discovery would be striking in any circumstance. But the relationship is especially impressive given that the UN generally intervenes in the most difficult cases. Researchers have found that the UN Security Council tends to send peacekeepers to the civil conflicts where peace is hardest to establish and keep—that is, conflicts with more violence than average, where levels of mistrust are highest, and where poverty and poor governance make maintaining a stable peace least likely. Recent research has also found that UN peacekeepers are sent not just to active war zones but to the frontlines. This suggests that, if anything, current empirical studies have probably underestimated just how effective peacekeeping operations can be.

Peacekeeping is also inexpensive. The United States has spent over $2.1 trillion on overseas contingency operations and Department of Defense appropriations since September 11. By contrast, it allocated less than $1.5 billion to the UN’s peacekeeping budget in 2021—one-fourth of what New York City spends on its police department per year. Imagine what the UN could do if it had more funding and the full support of its member states. A major academic study in 2019 calculated that between 2001 and 2013, the UN could have significantly cut violence in four to five major conflicts if the world had spent more on peacekeeping and provided existing operations with stronger mandates.

Peacekeeping is remarkably inexpensive.

Peacekeeping does not always work as efficiently and successfully as it could. There are many well-known cases where UN missions failed, and certain ongoing operations, including those in the Central African Republic and Mali, are not going well. Sexual exploitation and abuse are thankfully uncommon during operations, but they still happen and are very alarming. Several new studies have also explored the unintended consequences of peacekeeping. Missions, for instance, can distort local economies, reproduce class and racial hierarchies, and raise the odds that women will engage in transactional sex. And even when it is done right, peacekeeping is not a panacea. It has not been shown to have a strong effect on establishing democracy, and it does not guarantee that wars will end. But the overriding conclusion from the most up-to-date studies is that peacekeeping missions play an enormous role in reducing violence and preventing conflicts from spreading.

One doesn’t need to be a political scientist or a statistician to appreciate this fact. Even a cursory glance at peacekeeping’s record shows that missions are remarkably productive. Since the end of the Cold War, the UN has attempted to end 16 civil wars by deploying complex peacekeeping missions. Of those 16 missions, 11 successfully executed on their mandates, and none of the 11 countries has returned to civil war. The general public tends to vividly remember failed missions—such as when peacekeepers brought cholera to Haiti—but although those cases are horrific and tragic, they are not the norm. Success stories, such as those in Cambodia, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Liberia, Namibia, and Timor-Leste, are less newsworthy but more typical. In each of these cases, peacekeepers helped stabilize a state torn apart by violence, stayed as leaders transitioned to nonviolent politics, and then departed. Today, none of these countries are perfect democracies, but they are not locked in civil war.

Sierra Leone provides a case in point. The country’s brutal civil conflict ended after UN peacekeepers were sent from 1999 to 2005 to help implement a negotiated peace agreement. The UN’s “blue helmets” helped disarm 75,000 combatants, bringing stability to the formerly war-torn country. Timor-Leste is another good example. The country’s first elections brought mass violence during which 70 percent of the country’s physical infrastructure was destroyed, including the entire electric grid and almost all homes. Hundreds were killed, and more than half the population was forced to flee. Then, in 1999, United Nations peacekeepers arrived and began administering the territory. The UN returned the country to governmental control in 2002, but peacekeepers stayed for another decade before departing. During the United Nations’ back-to-back interventions, Timor-Leste’s Human Development Index score (which includes life expectancy, education, and per capita income) increased by more than 25 percent. The country remains at peace today.

SAFEKEEPING PEACEKEEPING

At least one country appears to understand the power of peacekeeping: China. As Washington has retreated from the global peacekeeping stage, Beijing has stepped into the void, becoming the second-largest financial contributor and the largest troop contributor to peacekeeping efforts among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. This shift does not bode well for the future of democracy or for human rights promotion. Moments of conflict and instability are opportunities to shape countries’ political landscapes, and China knows that it can use peacekeeping missions to help determine the kinds and compositions of governments that assume power when conflicts end. Beijing also knows that peacekeeping itself can be weaponized to promote national interests. In 1999, China used its Security Council vote to force peacekeepers out of Macedonia after the country offered diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. Once the UN left, the country descended into civil war. (It was eventually stabilized by NATO.) Given Beijing’s behavior, the United States must ask itself if it really wants to cede leadership over this important tool.

If U.S. policymakers decide to ensure that peacekeeping receives proper funding and democratic support—and they should—then Washington must take several critical steps. First and foremost, the United States needs to pay what it owes. As the largest funder of the UN’s Department of Peace Operations, the U.S. government plays an important leadership role in authorizing and shaping UN missions. To convince other countries to contribute financially, the United States needs to set a better example by paying its own assessed dues.

Beijing has weaponized peacekeeping to promote its interests.

Second, the United States must convince the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom—to work together on peacekeeping. These powers are sometimes tempted to use missions as a means to advance their own strategic priorities. But they all have a shared interest in stopping civil wars, which breed extremism and terrorism and fuel refugee crises. They must find common ground on peacekeeping, especially during a time of rising interstate competition. They cannot let the kind of rivalry that impeded peacekeeping throughout the Cold War become an insurmountable barrier to using this effective instrument today.

Finally, the United States, along with other UN member states, should use what it knows about successful peacekeeping to make operations even more effective. That means countries must invest in preventive missions rather than authorizing deployments only after violence has broken out, as is currently typical. Member states should promptly respond when asked by the United Nations to provide critical armed capabilities, such as police units, but also when asked to provide unarmed resources—including field hospitals, monitors, mediation teams, and female personnel. As our own research has shown, the political and economic levers of peacekeeping are at least as effective, if not more so, than brute military strength. The presence of peacekeeping monitors, for example, can reduce the risk that armed groups will conduct surprise attacks, make it easier for aid to reach conflict zones, increase diplomatic support for peace, and often influence domestic opinion by making residents more supportive of nonviolent discourse. Peacekeepers can also help belligerents communicate with one another and help moderate disputes before they escalate.

After decades of counterinsurgencies, Americans are wary of military commitments abroad. The United States, after all, has not had a lot of success in ending many of the conflicts in which it has intervened. That said, the number of civil wars around the planet is increasing, and like it or not, the international community will need to become more engaged in trying to stop internecine conflicts. Thankfully, in United Nations peacekeeping, leaders have a collaborative and cost-effective tool they can deploy to resolve these conflicts and protect civilians. But to meet the world’s needs, U.S. policymakers have to provide the UN with more support and funding. That means they—and the people they represent—must first understand just how valuable peacekeeping has been.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now