Europe’s Grudging, but Welcome Return to U.N. Peacekeeping.
Richard Gowan |Monday, Sept. 28, 2015
There are a lot of smug policy wonks in New York right now. As this year’s high-level General Assembly session kicks off at the United Nations, the media is focused on what the meeting could mean for Syria. It may achieve very little on that front. But analysts who take a longer view of multilateral affairs still see some reasons for optimism elsewhere.
|Peacekeepers serving with the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in|
the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) patrol the town of Pinga,
The most obvious is the adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a sprawling but impressively ambitious list of global targets for 2030. Academics and activists have been celebrating this success all weekend. A special summit on peacekeeping, to be hosted by President Barack Obama on Monday afternoon, will get less attention. But for a small group of security specialists, it is a rather exciting event.
The focus of the summit is raising new forces for the U.N.’s beleaguered blue-helmet operations, which already field over 100,000 troops and police and are short on helicopters, engineers and other specialized assets. Around 50 countries are coming forward with pledges. Most strikingly, roughly 20 of these hail from Europe.
The U.K. has promised engineers and other specialists for South Sudan. The Netherlands and Nordic countries already have personnel on the ground in Mali. Italy is keen on deploying a U.N. mission to Libya, even if others think it is too risky.
Why is this exciting? European militaries have been wary of deploying under U.N. command since the disasters of Bosnia and Somalia in the mid-1990s. In some years, less than 2 percent of all blue helmets in Africa have come from NATO or European Union countries.
The U.N. has had to rely on soldiers from poorer countries to fill its ranks and has often lacked the will or military kit to keep order as a result. A fringe group of commentators have argued that European governments should deploy small, specialized forces to fill these gaps. I have been a member of this rather esoteric club for a while.
“If the Afghan campaign has shown the limits of Europe’s military clout,” I claimed in a note for the Centre for European Reform (CER) in 2009, “working with the U.N. could give the EU a chance to show that its talk of ‘effective multilateralism’ is backed up by muscle.” This was not a popular argument at the time. Hardy realists believed that the future of European soldiering continued to lie with NATO in Afghanistan. Euro-idealists hoped that the EU would develop an autonomous military identity.
Europe’s strategic situation looks different now. NATO is still recovering from the Afghan war. The EU has toned down its military ambitions and struggled to rustle up 700 troops to deploy to the Central African Republic last year. European defense officials have become interested in the U.N. option again, albeit grudgingly.
These officials are suddenly conscious that they need to do more for their unsettled neighbors in Africa and the Middle East. As Nick Witney and I noted in a paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) last December, the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean created a “ready-made, politically salient, and objectively compelling reason for Europeans to be ready, if needed, to deploy their expensive and under-utilized militaries in the cause of building stability and security to their south.”
This has proved sadly prescient as the refugee crisis has worsened, while European officials also fret about the Islamic State’s spreading influence. This weekend, British Prime Minister David Cameron justified his decision to send troops to South Sudan as part of a broader Africa strategy to ensure “less terrorism, less migration.”
Yet the main factor in making this week’s U.N. summit a success is clear: The host.
U.N. officials have long articulated solid arguments for a greater European role in their missions. France has urged its EU partners to offer it more assistance in countries such as Chad and Mali. But Obama’s decision to host a summit on the issue has focused his European counterparts’ minds distinctly more effectively.
The Obama administration has always taken U.N. operations seriously and wondered how to boost them. “Influential voices in the U.S. are asking if European forces might be better employed in Africa than in Afghanistan,” I noted in my 2009 CER piece. “A thousand more European soldiers can make little difference in Kabul, but could stiffen resolve in Kinshasa.” But Obama’s team was slow to push their NATO allies to do more for the U.N., as Afghanistan took higher priority.
Last year, Vice President Joseph Biden convened a hastily planned summit on reinforcing U.N. operations during the General Assembly week in New York. The overall response was unexpectedly good, paving the way for this year’s event with Obama.
The U.S. has still had to push pretty hard to get so many European countries to come forward with pledges of forces. Quite a few European officials see the entire exercise as a legacy project for Obama and wish he had spent the political capital on strengthening NATO to counter Russia instead. A lot of European offers of new forces will be limited: A transport plane here, some military advisers there.
But the overstretched U.N. needs these assets and personnel urgently: Even a small European deployment could make quite a significant difference to many large but poorly equipped blue-helmet operations. European officers may find that working with the U.N. is less tricky than they had expected, facilitating future deployments.
There is still no reason to be smug about the state of U.N. peacekeeping today: The organization’s missions teeter permanently on the edge of disaster in places like South Sudan and Darfur. An injection of European troops and assets into these missions will not end all their problems. But it will raise their credibility a little bit.
Richard Gowan is an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and nonresident fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, where he was previously research director. He also teaches at Columbia University