By Dr Samir Puri
The UN’s viability to act as a peacekeeping force for good is always constrained by geopolitics. When the geopolitical tides change – as they evidently are in the twenty-first century, with the rise of China, the resurgence of Russia, and other developments – the UN feels the impact. When it comes to peacekeeping, the UN risks being lost at sea.
We tend to associate UN peacekeeping with interventions in war-ravaged countries. The UN’s blue helmets have deployed to countries like Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the 2000s, mitigating the cataclysms of these wars.
In fact, keeping the peace between countries was the UN’s original mission. Today, the convulsions of a changing balance of power between major world powers are starting to be felt. As such, the UN’s original mission may become much more relevant once again.
“The Parliament of Man”, wrote historian Paul Kennedy, never mentioned the word “peacekeeping” in its Charter: “In 1945, the term meant keeping the peace among nations and checking those that threatened their neighbours or countries further afield”. Indeed, when the UN Charter was signed in San Francisco on 26 June 1945 by 50 countries, the atomic bombs were yet to fall on Japan. The UN formally came into existence on 24 October 1945, mere weeks after the Second World War ended.
It is from the theme of Kennedy’s seminal work, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”, that the UN was born. Since its origins, the number of UN member states has almost quadrupled to 193. But the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (U.S., UK, France, China and Russia) have stubbornly retained their places around the famous horse shoe table in the UN headquarters in New York.
The UN Security Council is where peacekeeping dreams can die. There is no better demonstration than the UN’s inability to prevent Syria’s civil war from entering its eighth year. The carnage in Aleppo in 2016, or Ghouta in 2018, can make us ask what the point of the UN is. Ever since Russia’s military intervened in 2015 to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Russia’s diplomats have wielded their Security Council veto to help Assad’s forces win on the battlefield.
The UN’s “Geneva Process”, run by Staffan De Mistrua, has repeatedly stalled. If it did not have enough obstacles already, Russia has convened its own talks in Sochi and Astana to exclude the anti-Assad rebels and undermine UN attempts to negotiate an end to Syria’s civil war. Russia simply will not allow the UN to set the pace and tone of conflict management over Syria.
Nevertheless, the UN will never be written out of the script entirely. UN agencies, like the UNDP and the UNHCR, may still be useful when it comes to clearing up messy post-conflict situations.
Even after US President George W. Bush famously circumvented the Security Council to invade Iraq in 2003, the UN still played a nascent role after the invasion. The UN sent its best man for the job, Sergio Vieira De Mello, to try to broker a political deal amongst Iraq’s newly liberated factions after Saddam Hussein had been toppled. On 19 August, 2003, Al Qaeda militants killed De Mello in a suicide truck bombing. Cowed, the UN withdrew its field presence from Iraq at a time when it was badly needed. Bush condemned the bombing. Even if his invasion of Iraq had undermined and divided the UN, then-Secretary General Kofi Annan had still tried to support Iraq’s reconstruction.
Wars such as in Iraq and Syria involve high geopolitical stakes for major world powers. In such wars, the UN’s ability to intervene and stabilise conflicts tends to be low. Conversely, the UN will always remain a much more viable platform for interventions in conflicts with lower geopolitical stakes.
As Peter Rudolf noted in a 2017 article for Survival, “peacekeeping operations have undergone considerable change since the turn of the century. Peacekeepers are deployed in a greater variety of scenarios, ranging from monitoring ceasefires to complex peace operations. The protection of civilians has become an important focus, and operations have become more robust in their use of force to defend their mandate. Despite these changes, the UN continues to champion its original peacekeeping principles, specifically the consent of the parties. Peace operations, like the evolving MONUSCO mission in the DRC, and MINUSMA in Mali have “blurred the line between peace keeping and peace enforcement”, according to Rudolf.
Elsewhere in the world, the UN provides all manner of bespoke conflict interventions that fall short of peacekeeping. In Colombia, after President Juan Manual Santos agreed to a peace deal with the FARC, ending over five decades of guerrilla war, UN observers supervised the FARC’s handover of weapons in 2017. This is vital work for which the impartiality of the UN’s personnel is an asset.
Then there is mediation and UN good offices. As Roxaneh Bazergan of the UN’s Mediation Support Unit explains, the UN provides technical support to regional organisations that try to manage wars, like the African Union in the DRC, and the OSCE in Ukraine. In 2018, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed a new envoy to the Yemen conflict, charging Martin Griffiths to broker peace in the war-torn country. The odds may be stacked against Griffiths, but the UN should at least try.
Wherever there is a conflict, the UN is sure to be providing or offering some sort of specialist service. From full blown peacekeeping missions, to disaster relief, to mediation support and envoys. It is hardly fair to accuse the UN and its agencies of shirking the challenge.
Rather, the real question is whether the geopolitical winds are blowing favourably for the UN to make an impact. The pride of the great powers will often be the UN’s first hurdle. The UN could either be set up to fail, or simply not be invited in the first place.
The rise and the fall of great powers always sets the overall tone, which is why we should pay attention to the changes that are clearly afoot in the international order. The U.S. is slowly shifting from being the world’s undisputed heavyweight champion, to the world’s disputed heavyweight champion.
China will back the UN when its national interests allow it. For example, if the UN can stabilise an African country that China does business with, Beijing will not stand in the way. Otherwise, China will certainly block UN processes that intrude on its great power space. For instance, China prevented the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) from being applied in disputes in the South China Sea.
For the great powers, the UN has always been useful when convenient, and an obstacle when in the way of national interest. We should expect to witness much more of this as the world enters a new phase of rivalry and geopolitical competition.
Dr Samir Puri is a lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London. His most recent book is called Fighting and Negotiating with Armed Groups: the Difficulty of Securing Strategic Outcomes. In 2017, his article, “The Strategic Hedging of Iran, Russia, and China: Juxtaposing Participation in the Global System with Regional Revisionism”, was published by the Journal of Global Security Studies.