Helmets belonging to soldiers of the Nigerian army are seen as part of preparations for deployment to Mali, at the Nigerian Army peacekeeping centre in Jaji, near Kaduna January 17, 2013.
Helmets belonging to soldiers of the Nigerian army are seen as part of preparations for deployment to Mali, at the Nigerian Army peacekeeping centre in Jaji, near Kaduna January 17, 2013. 
Afolabi Sotunde / Reuters

On September 28, President Barack Obama convened a summit of more than 50 world leaders on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. The gathering followed a similar effort by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last summer. Both meetings were intended to boost contributions to UN peace operations in the face of record-level demand for peacekeeping, particularly in Africa, where several missions are struggling to achieve their mandated tasks. Obama’s summit exceeded expectations, generating over 170 pledges of new personnel, assets, and support capabilities. In total, approximately 40,000 uniformed personnel (troops and police), 40 helicopters, 10 field hospitals, and 15 engineering units were pledged along with individual state promises to aid in capacity-building efforts. China made by far the largest single pledge of troops, police, and helicopters.

The summit also saw the release of United States Support to United Nations Peace Operations, a new presidential policy that calls for the United States to aid in partner-building efforts, expand direct contributions to UN peacekeeping efforts, push for systemic reforms in the face of increasing scrutiny of UN efforts in the Central African Republic and elsewhere, and commit new staff officers, logistics support, troop training, and to oversee civil–military command exercises. As well as codifying the importance this administration attaches to UN peace operations, the new policy calls on Washington to support new initiatives, as well as requiring the Departments of Defense and State to reform their respective personnel systems to credit and professionally reward personnel who are deployed to UN missions. The United States has also pledged to double the number of U.S. staff officers in UN missions, and has signed an agreement that makes U.S. logistical material and services available to UN peacekeepers.

Obama’s policy is long overdue; it is the first of its kind in 21 years, the last being written in the wake of the “Black Hawk down” episode in Somalia in October 1993. The document represents a sensible and important step towards making UN peace operations more effective—and toward enabling Washington to play a constructive role in that process.


Over the last eight years, the UN peacekeeping system has confronted unprecedented pressure, with record numbers of personnel deployed to some of the world’s most protracted, ongoing war zones. Today, over 106,000 uniformed and 18,000 civilian peacekeepers serve in 16 UN missions, with approximately 80 percent of them deployed in Africa. These numbers are a consequence of unprecedented demand for peacekeepers, as the UN has struggled to generate full numbers of authorized troops and police to serve on missions. The organization has also faced major shortfalls in its supple of military helicopters, armored vehicles, and engineering and medical units. The current system is not sustainable in either the short or long term. As a recent High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) concluded, “There is a clear sense of a widening gap between what is being asked of UN peace operations today and what they are able to deliver. This gap can be—and must be—narrowed.”

For the past decade, UN peacekeeping and the UN Security Council’s agenda have mainly focused on sub-Saharan Africa. In part, this is due to the large number of crises that have regularly afflicted the continent. But it is also because decisions to deploy UN peace operations to Africa have generated less controversy than in some other regions, notably the Middle East. Unfortunately for the United Nations, most member nations rank this region as their lowest geostrategic priority, which had made it especially difficult to generate contributions to peacekeeping operations deployed there. A look over the strategic horizon, however, reveals plausible scenarios in which the UN’s peacekeeping operations could shift toward the greater Middle East, for example in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, or Eastern Europe, for example Ukraine. These conflicts are also more strategically critical to Western powers, and so creating a robust force would be considered more important there than for African nations.

Internally displaced children look at an African Union - United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) peacekeeper standing guard near the vicinity of a UNAMID base near Labado, South Darfur December 9, 2013.
Internally displaced children look at an African Union - United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) peacekeeper standing guard near the vicinity of a UNAMID base near Labado, South Darfur December 9, 2013. 
Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters
During recent peacekeeping summits and by virtue of its new policy, the Obama administration has recognized the crucial importance of persuading “capable militaries and police forces to increase their participation in UN peace operations.” In particular, the Obama administration was likely correct in assuming that strengthening the UN peacekeeping system will hinge on persuading former members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan to contribute to UN peace operations in a major way. Some ISAF countries—including Australia, Georgia, Germany, South Korea, Romania, and Turkey—have failed to contribute large numbers of troops or assets regularly to UN peacekeeping operations in the past. Others—including Canada, Finland, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom—have deep experience on the front lines. Either way, with the end of the Afghanistan campaign, many ISAF contributors will have troops free up for other missions, perhaps including the United Nations. 

The inclusion of ISAF members would be crucial toward successful UN peacekeeping missions for two main reasons: First, the grouping brings together states that possess many of the capabilities that UN missions desperately need, such as mobility, logistics, engineering, medical know-how, and intelligence gathering.

Second, the inclusion of former ISAF members into UN peace keeping operations would help rebalance the work of UN peacekeeping, which is currently divided among three groups: those who authorize UN missions and write their mandates (namely, the Security Council, led by the permanent five members); those who finance the missions (members of the OECD); and those who provide the vast majority of uniformed personnel (African and Asian states). This system creates inevitable frustrations between all three groups, as each of them have reasons to feel that the others are not pulling their weight evenly. As Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said recently, the situation was “unsustainable and unfair.” UN peace operations should be able to draw their personnel from a broader pool of contributing states, including the world’s richest countries.

With these benefits in mind, and with the drawing down of military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington had a window of opportunity to develop a new policy fit for the world of contemporary peace operations, rather than those of early 1990s. Its own personnel, not to mention interested external audiences, wanted a document that defined the strategic needs in this area. The president’s memorandum clearly emphasized the U.S. national security interest in supporting UN missions to prevent the outbreak, escalation, and spread of conflicts worldwide, especially in places where other actors and organizations are reluctant to lead a response. It also highlighted the international burden-sharing facilitated by UN operations as well as their cost-effectiveness, especially compared with unilateral deployments by the United States. The policy provided analysis of the major opportunities available to the United States, and set out how Washington should work with its key partners in this field, including regional organizations.


Washington’s contributions to UN peace operations have always been multidimensional and important, particularly in the African operations where the United States has provided crucial training, equipment, logistical support as well as financing. With a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the United States has the responsibility of veto power, which gives it a major say in mandating new operations as well as a leading role in designing institutional reforms, several of which have come to fruition in recent years, notably the Senior Advisory Group report and the new UN Military Unit Manuals.

The United States is by far the leading financial contributor to UN peace operations, responsible for just over 28 percent of the United Nation’s assessed peacekeeping budget and about 22 percent of the regular UN budget, which funds special political missions. Uniformed personnel from the United States are also frequently deployed as UN peacekeepers. In the 1990s, the United States provided over 4,000 UN “blue helmets,” but since 2000, it has yet to deploy a single military contingent. Instead, Washington has sent staff officers, military observers and experts, and police officers on peacekeeping missions. There are currently 82 uniformed personnel from the United States taking part in UN peacekeeping missions.

The United Nations flag is seen outside its headquarters during the United Nations' 68th session of the General Assembly in New York September 27, 2013.
The United Nations flag is seen outside its headquarters during the United Nations' 68th session of the General Assembly in New York September 27, 2013.
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
In Africa, Washington has deployed contingents of Special Forces and military advisers to support the African-led missions against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa and against al Shabab in Somalia. Meanwhile, it has created various “train-and-equip” and assistance programs, the largest and most enduring of which are the Global Peace Operations Initiative and Africa Contingency Training and Assistance, which build partner country capabilities to undertake peace operations and help with the logistical support and deployment of such peacekeepers in the field. Washington has also used various forms of counterterrorism funding to support some troop-contributing countries, such as Section-1206, to prepare for deployment in peace operations. And at the African leaders’ summit in 2014, the White House announced a new African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnershipto provide an additional boost to specialized peacekeeping capabilities in Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Beyond these programs, Washington has also recently conducted ad hoc initiatives to support UN peace operations in the Central African Republic, Mali, and Liberia. In the Central African Republic, the United States sold expeditionary modular basesto the UN mission, which allowed it to establish sector headquarters outside of the capital city of Bangui. In Mali, the United States sent an asymmetric warfare team to assess the threat that IEDs create for UN peacekeepers. And in Liberia, Washington deployed hundreds of troops and assets to support UNMEER, the UN’s first ever “health-keeping” mission, against the Ebola outbreak.

Although the new policy says that the United States “will strongly consider” providing military personnel, specialist U.S. military contingents are unlikely to deploy soon unless the United Nations authorizes a new mission that would meet the pragmatic criteria outlined in the president’s memorandum. Similarly, the new policy reiterates the same overarching goal of its predecessors: Strengthening the United Nation’s ability to deploy effective peace operations directly supports U.S. national interests, as it shares burdens in a cost-effective, international manner. As Obama said during the leaders’ summit, UN peacekeeping “is not something that we do for others; this is something that we do collectively because our collective security depends on it.”

President Sauli Niinisto of Finland addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, September 29, 2015.
President Sauli Niinisto of Finland addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, September 29, 2015.
Mike Segar / Reuters
The policy also reiterates some important fundamentals of U.S. engagement with UN missions. In accordance with the findings of the HIPPO report, the president’s memorandum is correct to emphasize the primacy of political solutions to armed conflicts. It also stressed that UN operations are not always “the appropriate response [to international crises] in all instances.” For example, they are not usually well configured to conduct military counterterrorism operations, or to engage in sustained fighting against “spoiler” groups such as al Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, or Islamic State (also known as ISIS) forces near the Golan Heights.

The policy also outlined how the United States plans to become a leading “technology contributing country” to UN peace operations, although it remains unclear what this will entail in practice. Perhaps the most important new development thus far is the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement signed between the United States and the United Nations on September 25. This initiative means that the United Nations can now request the logistics material and services that are used by U.S. military personnel and partners, providing logistical upgrades to UN forces that are in theater. The new policy also makes a crucial shift toward requiring the Departments of Defense and State to seek “ways to credit, professionally reward, and more readily track UN mission experience and expertise ... within their personnel systems.” The policy also charges the Pentagon with developing “a cadre of military personnel able to serve in leadership roles in UN Headquarters and field missions.” 

Lastly, the new policy asserts Washington’s support for, and leadership within, the systemic reform of UN peace operations. This includes advocating for prioritized and sequenced mandates whereby missions are given a short-list of immediate priority tasks and then proceed to broader mandates once they have had time to assess and influence the situation on the ground. The president’s memorandum also emphasizes the need for merit-based leadership selection, more sustained efforts to implement civilian protection mandates, greater accountability for peacekeepers in the field, a more rational bureaucracy at UN headquarters in New York, and a new strategic force generation system. 


With its new policy on the books, Washington must now shift its attention to implementation. The Departments of State and Defense will lead the charge, as will the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. With a December 28, 2015 deadline to submit an implementation plan, questions remain about whether or not priorities and funding can be worked out in time. U.S. officials must also work out the challenge of doubling the number of staff officers in UN peace operations (currently at 40), in order to make the president’s pledge a reality.

Making matters more complicated, there are concerns about whether or not Washington’s commitments will outlive the current administration. To make sure they do, Obama will have to quickly build a cadre of military personnel eager for UN mission experience; and the Departments of Defense and State will have to quickly revise their personnel systems accordingly.

Lastly, the administration will have to work very hard to ensure that the many pledges made during the leaders’ peacekeeping summit turn into tangible contributions. This will require the investment of significant political capital, but the investment should be worth the effort. It is in nobody’s interest to let UN peace operations collapse under the weight of the demands that the Security Council has placed on them, especially at a time when they might become more necessary than ever. With conflict erupting throughout the globe, peacekeeping’s role is sure to expand, rather than contract, and strong leadership could make all the difference.

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