The President's Peacekeeping Panacea

UN peacekeepers might be cheaper than sending Americans, but sometimes you get what you pay for.

Those seeking to downsize U.S. foreign policy like the idea of outsourcing more and more peacekeeping missions. It might not be a bad deal if America got value for money, but that is not always the case. Even as the White House looks more to punching the UN peacekeeper “easy button,” there are disturbing signs that Washington isn’t doing nearly enough to distinguish a dollar well spent from an expensive placebo.

Since the end of the Second World War, the world has waited for the UN to step up and play a pivotal role in maintaining international peace and security. The Cold War pretty quickly turned that rising expectation into a false dawn.

But when the Cold War ended, faith was reborn. Deployments of the “Blue Helmets”—UN peacekeepers sporting baby-blue headgear—expanded exponentially. And some folks—such as those at the Human Security Report Project—think that’s great.

An independent research center in Canada, the Human Security Report Project, issued a 2005 report tracking the decline in political violence worldwide since the fall of the Wall. It concluded “… the single most compelling explanation for these changes is found in the unprecedented upsurge of international activism, spearheaded by the UN.” But there is more faith than reason in that “cause and effect” conclusion.

John Hillen examined UN peacekeeping over a decade ago in his book Blue Helmets: The Strategy of UN Military Operations. He found that “[s]tarting in 1989, there was an exponential increase in the number, size, complexity, and forcefulness of what is commonly called ‘peacekeeping.” What he did not find was a lot of evidence that it worked very well. He concluded flatly that a place like the United Nations “cannot competently form the means necessary for significant military action.”

Plenty of glaring examples subsequently proved him right—most noticeably the 1993 massacre in a Bosnian UN “safe area” and the 1994 UN speed bump to genocide in Rwanda.

Yet despite its checkered record, the UN keeps rolling out more missions,not fewer. If the UN budget is any indicator, its peacekeeping operations remain a growth industry. The UN budget just finished an unprecedented decade of growth, with the U.S. remaining a major contributor. Peacekeeping was a big part of that. From 2003 to 2008 the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations budget and personnel tripled. The peacekeeping budget last year was $7.23 billion, with America chipping in the lion’s share—more than 27 percent.

Yet, even with bigger budgets it is hard to argue the UN has gotten better at peacekeeping. Consider the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). Since 1999, the mission has consumed over $11 billion. Yet despite all that cash, the largest force the UN has ever deployed, and a mandate to "use all necessary means" to protect civilians, peacekeepers fled when the rebel group M23 attacked Goma in November. The city’s civilians were abandoned to rape, kidnapping and executions.

Despite this sketchy record, Washington may still sign up for more of the same. After all, it would allow the United States to maintain the fiction that it is “doing something” to improve global stability while downsizing the US military footprint overseas and reducing American defense capabilities.

This may be the rationale behind the testimony by the State Department’s Johnnie Carson before the House Armed Services Committee in December. The Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs did little more than make excuses for MONUSCO’s shortfalls. “We must remain realistic about what MONUSCO can be expected to achieve,” Mr. Carson explained, “with its mandate and resources and across a country the size of Western Europe.”

Rather than call for dropping an unrealistic mission or for a force with a realistic chance of achieving the mission, the State Department seemed content to let the Blue Helmets carry on—and let the Congolese lump it. Shrugging off the UN’s shortfalls and just writing more checks could be the face of things to come.

The confirmation hearings for Senator John Kerry as Secretary of State may offer more clues concerning the Obama administration’s intent to foot the bill for more peacekeeping. Kerry was instrumental in pressing for peacekeepers for the Sudan. He has also been an outspoken advocate for “smart power,” which includes using international instruments like the UN for solving most problems.

But it is not really smart for the United States to throw money at every problem that pleads for a peacekeeper. Granted, not every UN mission is a failure, and other peacekeeping forces have shown results. The African Union Mission in Somalia, for example, has produced concrete results, and last year the UN rightly boosted its support for the operation.