Red, White, and Blue Helmets

Less than a year after taking office, President Barack Obama promised that his administration would increase the United States’ support for United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, including “contributing more U.S. civilian police, civilian personnel, and military staff officers to UN missions.” Since the 1990s Battle for Mogadishu, when 18 American soldiers were brutally killed during the United Nations’ intervention in Somalia, though, the United States avoided deploying any significant number of “Blue Helmets” overseas. Today only 68 American soldiers are members of UN Peacekeeping Forces, ranking 73rd out of 123, behind Zimbabwe and just ahead of Namibia.

Image courtesy of United Nations, © 2008.

Image courtesy of United Nations, © 2008.

America’s failure to contribute anything other than a token force of soldiers to peacekeeping dramatically reduces the effectiveness of UN forces and is a lost opportunity to boost the United States’ global image. With the unprecedented nature of asymmetrical threats and of non-state actors, the challenges faced by international forces in Lebanon, Kashmir, and South Sudan require troops that are better trained and equipped.

Currently, most Blue Helmets come from developing nations who rely on UN resources to provide training to their militaries and pay their soldiers’ salaries. While there is certainly a role for these troops in any peacekeeping operation, on countless occasions they have shown themselves ill prepared to deal with modern insurgencies and rebel groups. The failures of UN Peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan to prevent massacres of civilians are but two of the most recent glaring examples of developing nations’ soldiers being unable to provide stability or security.

The United States is far from alone in outsourcing many of the actual “boots on the ground” for UN missions to poor countries. In 1994, the permanent members of the UN Security Council accounted for 20% of all peacekeeping personnel. Today that number is less than 4%. Instead, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh together now account for nearly 40% of all deployed international forces. It is true that the United States contributed 28.6% of the entire UN peacekeeping budget for 2016, but much of that money is spent on troops who are unable to calm the hot spots they have been assigned to.

Increasing U.S. involvement in peacekeeping missions could greatly improve the effectiveness of those operations. As Michael O’Hanlon, the Director of Research for the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution has argued the United States military is uniquely positioned, after long fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, to fight in the modern battlefield. Specifically, he cites the organization of American Security Assistance Brigades, which retain high-level logistical support staff, but break operational units down into 12-15 member advisory teams. He suggests that, with the proper local political support, just two of these brigades, or around 6,000 soldiers, could stabilize the Congo, instead of the 18,620 Peacekeepers deployed there as of August 2016.

Furthermore, U.S. troops would be less prone to the human rights abuses that have historically plagued peacekeeping operations. Whether because of poor training, insufficient supervision, complex situations, or cultural differences, numerous sexual assaults have been perpetrated by peacekeepers around the world. In just three months, Human Rights Watch documented eight instances of sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic alone. Chains of command, extensive training, and a thorough military justice system all make the American soldier an outstanding defender of human rights, and better able to fulfill the mission of the UN  worldwide.

Similarly, the outbreak of malaria in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake almost certainly came from unsanitary practices by Nepali UN personnel. Tragedies of this nature are certainly rare, but deploying more highly trained soldiers could certainly reduce their occurrences.

Finally, sending United States forces under the UN flag would globally enhance America’s “soft power”. The failure to receive UN approval for the invasion of Iraq, as well as refusal to deploy significant forces in either Libya or Syria, harmed America’s global standing and fed a perception of it as an exclusively self-interested global power. Increasing American involvement in peacekeeping operations would signal a commitment to collaboration to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Showing a willingness to collaborate through the UN would counter the narrative of American arrogance.  

UN Peacekeepers can be a force for good in unstable regions of the world. In the post-Cold War world, they have reduced the chance that a conflict, once stabilized, will resume by 50%. Post-conflict countries with Blue Helmets enjoy economic growth 2.4% higher than those without peacekeepers. The Partnership for Effective Peacekeeping writes, “By decreasing the likelihood of further conflict, and spurring economic growth in the first several years after the end of a conflict, the presence of [UN Peacekeepers] reduces the likelihood that additional U.S. resources will be necessary, either for military or humanitarian purposes over the long-run.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen has testified that the success of peacekeeping operations is in America’s national interest.

It is impossible to argue that UN peacekeeping missions are flawless. Certainly the United States should be selective about what missions it supports, and with whom it partners. Even within that framework, however, significant room exists for an expanded American presence on Blue Helmet operations. Doing so would not only make peacekeeping more effective, and reducing suffering around the world, but also serve as a gesture of the generosity of the American people.

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