For decades now, the United Nations has struggled to avert crises before they happen rather than merely respond to them. In 1992, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called for conflict prevention in his signature treatise, An Agenda for Peace. But in the years that followed, the UN and the international community utterly failed to stop the genocides in Rwanda in 1994 and in Srebrenica in 1995. When Kofi Annan took over in 1997, he also prioritized prevention, but the UN largely proceeded on its reactive trajectory, unable to prevent the genocide in Darfur in 2003. During Ban Ki-moon’s tenure, conflicts in Mali, South Sudan, and elsewhere did not elicit a response until they had reached critical levels. And although the current UN secretary-general, António Guterres, spoke of the organization’s “inability to prevent crises” as its “most serious shortcoming” when he took the oath of office in 2016, the Security Council’s prolonged stalemate over the conflict in Syria shows that in the current political climate, its members are unlikely to change their approach anytime soon.

Guterres is now focusing on what is within the power of his office to change—namely, the Secretariat’s peace and security architecture—and he commissioned an internal review team earlier this year to offer thoughts on how to proceed with restructuring. This effort could very well lead to change, but past experience says otherwise. For 25 years, successive UN leaders, in recognizing the urgent need to move toward prevention, have sought to restructure the UN. They established new departments—Political Affairs, Peacekeeping Operations, Field Support, and a myriad of others—to address deficiencies in the rule of law, security institutions, peace building, and so forth within at-risk countries. Yet there has been no real transformation.

That is because a key problem for the bureaucracy has been its mindset, not merely its structure.

In order to alter its entrenched bureaucratic culture, the UN needs a tectonic shift in the way it thinks: a “red team” that can challenge the organization’s own assumptions, its groupthink, blind spots, political and institutional complacencies, and aversion to challenging the ideas of senior leaders. The UN needs to start first with preventing its own blunders and fallacies so that it can foster the type of culture needed to prevent atrocities.


The ancient Vatican practice of using an advocatus diaboli, or “devil’s advocate,” to assess and discredit candidates for sainthood found its way, in modern times, into nonreligious institutions in the form of red teams. These are groups of independent analysts tasked with detecting flaws in an institution’s practices. Both private and public sectors use them to help mitigate hierarchy and groupthink, which often prevent the free flow of information.

The U.S. military regularly employs red teams, and after the 9/11 attacks, all U.S. intelligence agencies were mandated to have them. The British Ministry of Defence has one as well, which works for both civilian and military agencies. The Israel Defense Forces’ red team carries out alternative analyses of intelligence. And NATO’s Alternative Analysis cell critically reflects on strategies, policies, and doctrines for both headquarters and command elements. 

It is about time that the United Nations adopts its own red team. The secretary-general is the commander in chief of nearly 100,000 uniformed personnel operating in 16 peacekeeping missions and of thousands more civilian personnel serving alongside them. Anyone responsible for that many people, many of whom are in harm’s way, can benefit from a red team and, arguably, has a duty to have one. A red team would also be essential in improving the secretary-general’s decisions on a vast array of other policies in areas such as disarmament, peace building, and preventive diplomacy. Most critical, a red team could help Guterres straighten out the hierarchical and siloed nature of the UN. Departments often compete for primacy and resources and are highly prone to bureaucratic infighting. This frequently leads to time-consuming competition and unhealthy turf wars. At times when there are genuine differences over political strategy, a red team could ensure that divergent thinkers present the secretary-general with alternative policy options, not merely the ones that work best for one department or another or for senior officials’ careers.


The UN has made a number of poor policy choices and strategic mistakes in the last few years that a red team might have been able to forestall. Its most recent misstep was in Mali. As former UN Assistant Secretary-General Anthony Banbury lamented, the UN sent 10,000 soldiers and police officers there in 2013 to deal with a terrorist insurgency in the country’s north, but in a “most grievous blunder,” the force “was unprepared for counterterrorism and explicitly told not to engage in it.” What the UN failed to consider was that placing its troops under such stringent rules and in an asymmetric environment would put an undue burden on its peacekeepers, and that such a strategy would become a recipe for one of the UN’s deadliest missions to date. A red team might have flagged this obvious fallacy before the deployment of thousands of soldiers, a number of which have died at the hands of al Qaeda–linked terrorists.

South Sudan is another case in point. When it gained independence in 2011, the UN adopted a mandate to support the government on the “establishment of state authority.” This was UN language for improving the reach of the state throughout the territory but essentially involved aiding a new regime in its transition by helping it to consolidate its power. But when the regime of President Salva Kiir turned on its own population and the country descended into civil war in December 2013, the UN retracted substantial portions of its mandate and had to shift from supporting the government to protecting civilians from it, a task in which it has also failed spectacularly. Since the outbreak of war, over 50,000 South Sudanese have been killed and over 1.6 million have been internally displaced. The UN’s errant line of thinking was that in South Sudan, where there were deep-seated ethnic tensions, adopting a mandate to extend state authority would work without having to first reconcile the conflicting groups. Thus, the tensions remained and the mandate ended up undermining any efforts at reconciliation. In fact, the mandate bolstered Kiir’s power at the expense of his political rivals and compromised the UN's impartiality.

A red team could have offered alternative options for UN engagement in South Sudan, even unpopular ones. For example, it might have suggested resurrecting the type of executive mandate the UN used in Kosovo and East Timor, which allowed the organization to temporarily govern these territories before they became states. After these two territorial administration missions, executive mandates became an “unthinkable” option at the UN because of the complexity and unpopularity of ruling essentially as a benevolent authoritarian, but a red team might have at least asked the critical question: Was South Sudan any more prepared for self-governance than East Timor was after Indonesia withdrew its forces in 1999 or Kosovo was after its conflict with Serbia? The answer might have been “no,” given the decades of irresolvable war in Sudan that had led to the country’s breakup. If so, this type of executive intervention should have at least been considered for South Sudan. And in instances where “unthinkable” proposals surface within the bureaucracy, a red team can bolster them and other minority opinions that might otherwise be dismissed. 

A red team might also help the UN rethink the types of mandates it chooses to implement and where and how it rolls them out. In 2014, the UN issued yet another mandate for the “extension of state authority,” this time in the Central African Republic (CAR), in response to a civil war that continues to this day. The senior central Africa specialist Thierry Vircoulon pointed out, however, that this directive was “meaningless” because the CAR “was a ghost state before the crisis and is now the debris of a ruin.” He went on to explain, “Inasmuch as its coffers are empty and the problems of the CAR administration—such as the competence deficit, corruption, and bad governance—have not been resolved, talk of extension of the authority of the state is a dangerous fiction.” Again, the UN’s failure was that it chose to focus on extending the authority of a regime rather than prioritizing societal reconciliation first. And again, a red team could have pointed out that issuing such mandates in places where there is no state to speak of not only fails to make sense at such a point in time but can also end up empowering brutal regimes and compromising the UN’s impartiality, since such mandates can boost some political players at the expense of others. It is possible that the secretary-general would have rejected the recommendations of a red team, but at the very least, its outside-the-box thinking would have given the UN’s static culture a much-needed shock. 


Organizations inherently resist having their ideas challenged, and the UN is no different. A red team—both as a proposal and its adoption—will most likely be fiercely opposed. The organization’s hierarchical and institutional culture discourages criticism of senior leaders’ ideas. Even worse, the UN has silenced dissent when confronted with politically inconvenient truths and harsh realities, as in the most recent attempt to penalize a UN official over his disclosure of confidential documents detailing peacekeepers’ sexual abuses of children in the CAR.

Senior leaders are likely to object to a UN red team because they stand to lose influence if departmental weaknesses and inadequate management are exposed or strategies and policy proposals are questioned. But as Micah Zenko highlights in his book Red Team, “When leaders dissuade dissent and divergent thinking, they create an environment that may allow disasters to materialize. Red teaming is the method for making it more likely that those disasters will be foreseen and thereby prevented.” 

The moment is ripe for a UN red team. In a reassuring move, Guterres has recognized many of the UN’s shortcomings and is keen on changing the organization’s culture. As he has stated, he is “committed to building a culture of accountability, strong performance management, and effective protection for whistleblowers.” 

To be sure, some member states, including permanent members of the Security Council, may see a red team as a threat to their interests because alternative analyses could certainly allow the Secretariat to challenge weak positions and back up views that some states may deem to be disadvantageous. But there have been important changes in the current political climate. The United States, for one, has focused on reforming the parts of the UN it finds troublesome. Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently said, “Everything that is not working, we’re going to try and fix, and anything that seems obsolete and not necessary, we are going to do away with.” This attitude has already led the United States to push for the withdrawal from Haiti of the UN peacekeeping mission that had been there for 13 years but had spent at least the last few without any real military purpose.

China might also welcome a red team. Over the years, it has increased its level of participation in peacekeeping operations, which will draw greater scrutiny and criticism of its actions. Beijing is particularly eager to avoid embarrassing mistakes as it seeks a greater role on the global stage.  France, too, having retained its leadership position in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations—and with recently appointed Under-Secretary-General Jean-Pierre Lacroix facing pressures to fix peacekeeping—might see the value of a red team.

A red team will certainly not be a panacea, but it represents a necessary step in rejuvenating the UN system. In his first address to his staff, Guterres called on them “to get rid of this straightjacket of bureaucracy that makes our lives so difficult in many of the things we do.” At the very least, a UN red team can help Guterres loosen the restraints.

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  • CALIN TRENKOV-WERMUTH is a Visiting Fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute and a Research Fellow in the Levermore Global Scholars program at Adelphi University. He was a staff member in the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations and has also served in the UN’s Department of Political Affairs.
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