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Cutting UN peacekeeping operations: What will it say about America?

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Cutting UN peacekeeping operations: What will it say about America?

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. REUTERS/Mike Segar

In a recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, the American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, made clear the Trump administration wants to slash U.S. funds to the U.N., including support for peacekeeping. Ambassador Haley also asserted that “The United States is the moral conscience of the world.”

While only about 40 American troops are among the 92,000 peacekeepers currently deployed in 16 active peacekeeping operations, the U.S. pays a little over 28 percent of the cost. That amounts to about US$2.2 billion out of the U.N.‘s peacekeeping budget of $7.8 billion. While that is a lot of money, advocates of peacekeeping point out that the total is less than one-half of one percent of what all the countries in the world spend on their armed forces.

It remains to be seen what the level of funding for these operations will actually be when Congress enacts the new budget. But it is worth considering what operations are actually contributing to peace and what the effects of cutting them would be. If the president and Congress want to spend less on peacekeeping, I believe they should consider starting with the five oldest operations first.

A brief review of the evolution of peacekeeping can help explain why. As a career diplomat, I was involved in a number of such operations around the world. Since I became an academic, it has been one of my areas of research.

Out with the old?

The U.N. engages in two distinct types of peacekeeping that result from two different types of conflict. One is following a war between two countries over territory. The U.N. became engaged in that kind of peacekeeping early on following the war that broke out in 1948 when Israel was created and then immediately attacked by its Arab neighbors.

The other is after a war over political power within a country. Civil wars have become the norm as the first type of conflict has become rare. Only one of 28 U.N. operations initiated in the last 20 years was the result of a war between countries.

Today, of the 16 current U.N. peacekeeping operations, the ones involving wars between countries are the five oldest, with an average age of more than 54 years. In a war over territory between countries, once a ceasefire is established, all the U.N. has to do is monitor the zone between the two armies to ensure that it remains demilitarized. But after so many years, the question is whether the work of these operations contributes to peace or just makes the status quo and the lack of a final resolution of the conflict permanent.

U.N. military observers in Ramallah, Palestine, 1948. UN Photo

U.N. peacekeeping began after the war at Israel’s creation in 1948. Its first operation was the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization. It is still headquartered in Jerusalem, and its only real function is to provide military officers to other U.N. operations in the region. That could be accomplished by simply folding the required personnel into those operations and in my opinion no longer requires an entire standalone peacekeeping operation.

The second oldest is the U.N. Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan, a relatively small and inexpensive operation. However, its presence since 1949 has not prevented India and Pakistan from fighting each other over the years. Since both countries have nuclear weapons, it could be argued that the U.N. presence makes some contribution to stability in the region, but that premise needs to be examined closely.

One reason these operations have lasted so long is that politicians on both sides often prefer the status quo. The alternative would often mean surrendering some of the territory the war was fought over.

Take the U.N. Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, launched in 1964 after fighting between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. Various attempts over the years to bring the two communities back together have failed because the politicians involved haven’t engaged in serious negotiations to resolve their differences. The only thing this operation does at this point is allow that intransigence to have no consequences. The $56 million annual cost of the operation should be borne by Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, and not the U.N., so that there is some incentive to find a solution.

Because of the civil war in Syria, peacekeepers of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, established in 1974 after the Yom Kippur war, have been forced to retreat from Syria to the Israeli side of the border. Since they can no longer monitor the ceasefire zone between the two countries, the operation should be at least suspended.

What if there is no peace to keep?

The U.N. Interim Force was created to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon in 1978. Today, the force must contend with Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed group the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, which controls all of southern Lebanon and is stockpiling tens of thousands of rockets there. There is little hope that the Lebanese government will change this situation since Hezbollah has become part of it and holds a number of seats in parliament. The U.N. could save half a billion dollars a year by simply abolishing this operation, as it provides no deterrent to another war.

The mere presence of the peacekeepers is not going to change that situation either, as the mandate given to them by the Security Council does not allow them to search for weapons. To make matters worse, there is not a hint of a political process underway that might resolve the differences between Israel and Lebanon. As a result, this operation is unable to make meaningful contributions to peace and has even failed to investigate when Hezbollah arms caches have exploded in the past.

In the interest of saving the American taxpayers some money, there is one more non-U.N. peacekeeping operation that should be ended. It is the Multination Force and Observers, which was set up after the Camp David accords were signed in 1979 to monitor Sinai in order to permit Israelis to withdraw and Egypt to return.

It is not a U.N. operation because Russia threatened to veto any Security Council action to establish one. The MFO was set up to keep the Egyptian and Israeli armed forces apart, but those armies are now conducting joint combat operations, including drone strikes against terrorists in Sinai. The terrorism has also forced the peacekeepers to relocate to the southern end of the peninsula, far from the area they should be monitoring.

Peacekeeping has changed

The remaining 11 U.N. peacekeeping operations largely deal with civil wars in Africa. They are younger and more complex. The U.N. often must gather and demobilize most of the combatants, form a new national army from the rest, help organize democratic elections, provide humanitarian aid and begin economic reconstruction and development.

Because the fighting is over political power and the armies involved are usually poorly trained and equipped, they often resort to attacking noncombatants as a way to weaken the other side since one measure of political power is the number of supporters one side has. In these situations, civilian casualties and refugees spilling over into neighboring countries create humanitarian disasters, which places great pressure on the U.N. to send in the peacekeepers in their traditional blue helmets.

In her remarks, Ambassador Haley said that because the peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo deals with a corrupt government, the U.N. is aiding its predatory behavior. Her solution is to simply end the operation. In such unstable situations, however, U.N. peacekeepers can save lives. When stronger action against corrupt governments is needed, it is the responsibility of the Security Council to act and not the failure of peacekeepers.

Having spent the first half of 2016 on a Fulbright grant in Israel researching peacekeeping, I’m convinced that the operations in and around Israel are not making a significant contribution to its security. To the extent they do, the same work can be accomplished with a few drones and a handful of people to facilitate communications between both sides when they are talking to each other.

However, I’m also not convinced that Washington will make the right decisions when it comes to reducing American support for peacekeeping. If the victims of such a move are innocent civilians in Africa, another casualty will be the claim that America is the moral conscience of the world.