Why Peacekeeping Fails

Does peacekeeping have a future? Here’s a discussion of the fundamental challenge it faces today.


The United Nations was not even three years old when it launched its first peacekeeping mission in 1948. Since then, for the last 70 years, it has been continuously involved in such operations, often with mixed results. Over that time peacekeeping and the wars to which it has been applied have changed. The challenges peacekeepers face have evolved from relatively straightforward missions to assignments that are highly complex and, more recently, impossible to accomplish.

To understand why peacekeeping today is destined to fail requires a discussion of what peacekeeping is, the conditions it requires and how today’s conflicts do not meet those conditions. This history also explains why, in each of the seven decades of United Nations peacekeeping, the number of peacekeepers who died on duty has grown, with the total now more than 3,800.

Today there are 14 U.N. peacekeeping missions employing nearly 100,000 soldiers, police and civilians at an annual cost of almost $7 billion. The United States is assessed 28 percent of that cost, but the Trump administration has announced it will cover only one-quarter of the bill in the future and is pressing to shut some of the operations down.

The current missions reflect the three stages of peacekeeping’s evolution. The oldest among them, launched in response to wars between countries over territory, can be described as classical peacekeeping. The second stage involved multidimensional operations, in which peacekeepers have undertaken a wide variety of tasks to help countries recover from civil wars. The most recently launched operations exemplify the third stage—protection and stabilization missions—in which peacekeepers have been given a mandate to protect civilians and aid governments that are threatened by violent extremism.

To understand where peacekeeping is today requires considering each of the three stages and how this evolution has affected what is being asked of the peacekeepers.

Uncomplicated but Endless: Classical Peacekeeping

In classical peacekeeping operations, the peacekeepers had the uncomplicated assignment of monitoring a demilitarized zone between the two armies following a war between countries over territory. The goal was to allow both sides to have the confidence that neither was taking advantage of a cease-fire to improve its military position. The combatants had a wide variety of weapons at their disposal, but they were generally disciplined military forces that attacked each other rather than civilians. So while the work had its risks, the peacekeepers were not targeted.

Ironically, wars between countries over territory, which is what the United Nations was established to help prevent, are very rare today. But the cause of such wars—the territorial dispute—is never easily settled. As a result, classical peacekeeping operations can be endless, providing only the illusion of peace.

Take, for instance, the first two operations the U.N. launched: United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), headquartered in Jerusalem, and United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) in disputed Kashmir. Even though they both have been going on for more than 70 years, neither shows any sign of ending. The problem with classical peacekeeping is that, while it presents peacekeepers with a manageable assignment, ending it can prove impossible because it requires the parties to agree on where the imaginary line on a map called a border is to be drawn.

If a line is drawn, politicians on one or both sides of it will complain that their country lost out in the bargain. To avoid the perception of defeat, political leaders will refuse to negotiate seriously, preferring the status quo indefinitely to being accused of surrendering some of the territory over which the war was fought. That is why Israel and its neighbors and India and Pakistan have made so little progress toward resolving their differences.

Six of the 14 current operations involve classical peacekeeping. UNTSO, UNMOGIP, the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in Syria, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNFIL) and the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) have been in existence for a combined total of more than three centuries, yet there is no prospect of any of them being brought to a successful conclusion. Since the U.S. government has said it recognizes Israel’s sovereignty over the territory it occupies on the Golan Heights, when can the peacekeepers there go home? The answer is obviously when Syria gives up its claim to the land, which means never.

If the United States wants to save money on peacekeeping, it should push to close all six classical operations (and the non- U.N. mission in the Sinai). If the countries involved and their main supporters want to retain the peacekeepers, they should be required to pick up the tab.

The problem with classical peacekeeping is that, while it presents peacekeepers with a manageable assignment, ending it can prove impossible.

One of the few exceptions to the rule that classical peacekeeping missions are nearly impossible to end occurred while I was in Lima in the late 1990s. A border dispute between Peru and Ecuador had been simmering for nearly 50 years and had broken out into fighting on several occasions. A creative solution was found that left part of the disputed territory on the Peruvian side of the border, but granted Ecuador nonsovereign rights to it. Both presidents were able to declare victory, and the dispute was ended. The peacekeeping mission that had monitored the border—comprising a small number of troops from Argentina, Brazil, Chile and the United States, who were not under U.N. auspices—was declared a success and closed down.

Solutions like that are difficult to find, even when the dispute is over a patch of remote jungle. But at least land can be divided more easily than what is at stake in the next kind of conflict to which the U.N. applied peacekeeping.

Multidimensional Peacekeeping Operations

As the colonial empires of the European powers fell apart following World War II, many of the new nations that emerged did not have a smooth transition to independence. Civil wars broke out as different factions fought for control of the government. These wars were waged in poor countries where, in a struggle for political power, the winner takes all and the loser is out of luck. As undisciplined armed groups clashed in these struggles, civilians thought to be supporting the other side became targets. Humanitarian disasters resulted as the noncombatants responded by fleeing the fighting, becoming displaced persons or, if a crossable border was nearby, refugees.

Once a cease-fire was established in these wars, peacekeepers could be sent. They brought a long list of goals to accomplish to help the peace become permanent. The list could include demobilization of most of the former combatants, helping them reintegrate into civilian life, forming a new national army that was not loyal to only one faction, aiding refugees and displaced persons with returning to their homes, providing humanitarian aid and development assistance to restart the economy, and holding elections in a country with little-to-no democratic experience.

Given the cost of such operations—thousands of peacekeepers are required—there has always been pressure to achieve all of the objectives on a tight schedule. If the elections produced a government with a measure of legitimacy, the peacekeepers could declare success and depart. That outcome was achieved during my time in Mozambique in the early 1990s, thanks in no small part to the leadership of Aldo Ajello, the special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General. At the same time, in Angola the rebel leader Jonas Savimbi rejected the results of the voting and returned to war because he defined a free and fair election as one that he won. The conflict there continued for nearly another decade until Savimbi was killed in 2002.

While the United Nations has had mixed results in its multidimensional peacekeeping missions, they are, at least for the moment, largely a thing of the past. Of the current missions, only two are multidimensional. It would be more accurate to call them unidimensional now, because their objectives have been drastically reduced over the years. Today they are small operations limited to attempting to professionalize the police in Haiti and Kosovo.

The remaining six current operations are all in sub-Saharan Africa, and they represent the latest evolution of U.N. peacekeeping missions. They can be described as protection and stabilization missions, and they are the most dangerous and difficult ones with which peacekeepers have had to deal.

Peacekeeping in the Face of Violent Extremism

Traditionally, three principles have guided the conduct of peacekeepers: (1) They became involved only at the invitation of the parties to the conflict; (2) They were to be strictly neutral; and, (3) They were to use force only in self-defense. If these principles were not adhered to, a situation could prove disastrous. For instance, when peacekeepers took sides in the Congo in 1960 and Somalia in the early 1990s, hundreds of them died as they were drawn into the fighting.

At the risk of being tautological, peacekeepers are bound to fail if there is no peace to keep. When a cease-fire is negotiated, peacekeepers can do their work. Without one, they are either ineffective or the international community is faced with ordering them to try to impose an end to the fighting. That requires the international community to be willing to have the peacekeepers inflict and take casualties.

The rise of terrorism is the reason the final stage in the evolution of peacekeeping has become so dangerous. Perhaps reflecting the lack of an agreed definition of terrorism, many in the United Nations and elsewhere prefer to use the term “violent extremism.” Terrorists are indistinguishable from noncombatants; they will use any type of weapon, and their objective is to kill innocent people to call attention to their cause. Whatever it is called, when extremist violence comes into play there is no role for peacekeeping. Yet peacekeepers are being asked not only to protect civilians but, often, to help the government stabilize the situation and extend its control over its own territory in countries threatened by extremists.

The fundamental problem is that there is no peace to keep, and U.N. forces are incapable of imposing one because they are peacekeepers and not warfighters.

This violates all three of the traditional principles of peacekeeping and makes the peacekeepers targets. The prospect of such attacks has accelerated the trend among rich countries to decline to provide troops for peacekeeping. As the operations changed from the classical variety to multidimensional missions and as the number of casualties grew and some of the missions, like the one in Angola, failed, the enthusiasm for participating waned. As peacekeeping evolved further into the protection and stabilization missions now underway in Africa, the interest of developed nations in putting their troops at risk virtually disappeared.

Further Complications

To make matters much worse, the five countries where these protection and stabilization missions are taking place—Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—have governments that are among the most corrupt, repressive and incompetent in the world. One need only to look at their corruption rankings by Transparency International, their political liberty rankings by Freedom House or their governance scores on the Ibrahim Index to confirm that.

In addition, these countries are not particularly interested in protecting their own citizens. Their armies and police exist mainly to protect the government and not the nation as a whole or its citizens. Enhancing the capability of security forces alone will only strengthen their ability to keep that regime in power and to suppress any democratic alternatives.

In 2006, in tacit recognition of this problem, U.N. member-states established the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which holds that it is the primary obligation of a government to protect its own citizens. Since R2P was created, the Security Council has passed 75 resolutions reminding governments of their obligation to protect their own citizens. Of that number, 41 were directed at the five countries where protection and stabilization missions are now taking place. The R2P principle also holds that if the government fails to protect its own citizens, the international community may step in to do so. Because the governments of these countries are either unwilling or unable to provide such security, the peacekeepers are being asked to do so.

Since the wealthy nations with the most capable armies are unwilling to provide a significant number of troops, this most dangerous and difficult type of peacekeeping is left largely to poorly equipped and trained soldiers from developing countries who are not going to defeat violent extremism. If the United States cannot prevail against violent extremists in Afghanistan after 18 years of trying, there is no chance that the available peacekeepers can succeed in Africa. And asking peacekeepers to die protecting the citizens of a country whose government will not is unlikely to inspire them to make that sacrifice.

The most recently launched peacekeeping missions will therefore fail, because U.N. peacekeeping has become a way for rich countries to send the soldiers of poor countries to deal with conflicts the rich countries do not care all that much about. The fundamental problem is that there is no peace to keep, and U.N. forces are incapable of imposing one because they are peacekeepers and not warfighters. If the international community wants to try to impose a peace, it should send troops that are capable and willing to do that.

Such a solution is not going to happen, however. It is far easier to identify a policy problem than to come up with realistic recommendations to fix it. Peacekeeping is a bandage, not a cure, for the scourge of violent extremism. At best, it can stanch the bleeding, but cannot heal the wound. But it is used nonetheless, because it is the easy alternative.

A Better Approach

Neither peacekeepers nor the typical reaction of governments—more violence—will be able to prevent violent extremism. There is one approach that holds promise, but whether the international community has the will, attention span and unity to take it is doubtful.

In 2017 the United Nations Development Program interviewed 495 young African men who had voluntarily joined violent extremist groups. The study found they were motivated by a sense of grievance toward, and a lack of confidence in, their governments. For them, the extremist ideologies were a way to escape a future with no possibility of positive change. The study concluded that improved public policy and governance was a far more effective response to violent extremism than a military one.

However, governments—especially in the five countries where the protection and stabilization missions are taking place in Africa—will not lessen their corruption, repression and incompetence simply because it is the right thing to do. These countries, as underdeveloped politically as they are economically, have weak legislative and judicial branches of government and little in the way of civil society or press freedom. The incentive to govern better will have to come from outside forces.

To ensure the necessary changes do happen, the international community should apply substantial and consistent economic and political pressure and sanctions against all those responsible for the creation of these situations. The five countries should be declared de facto failed states, and international organizations put in charge of the governments’ finances. Any aid to or trade with these countries should be made contingent on the attainment of better governance, human rights and adherence to democratic norms.

To do that effectively, other countries and a wide range of organizations would have to make peace the top priority instead of placing their own vested interests first. That will require addressing the problem, not just dumping it in the lap of the United Nations and making the peacekeepers take the blame for failure because it is the easier thing to do.

Dennis Jett is a professor of international affairs at Penn State University. His 28-year career in the Foreign Service included assignments as ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and in Argentina, Israel, Malawi and Liberia. The second edition of his book Why Peacekeeping Fails has just been published.