United Nations peacekeeping is a frustrating exercise.
Getting the forces together is messy and sometimes ill-coordinated. Finding the funds to pay for the deployment and maintenance of the troops is even more trying. The generous, like Canada, get hit harder.
Military officers themselves are often very ambivalent about peacekeeping because it is akin to police duty rather than to regular combat duty for which armies are trained. Peacekeeping is therefore sometimes regarded as a distortion of the primary military role.
Worse, some countries are actually pulling out of assignments ,, which they had long accepted through a sense of futility. For in Cyprus, the Golan Heights, Kashmir and elsewhere, there is little evidence that peacekeeping has worked, that the two sides have actually settled their quarrels, that the job is finished and the peacekeeping troops can go home, confident that they have helped permanently to resolve a dispute.
Is U.N. peacekeeping worth the bother? Despite all of this evidence of failure, all of this doubt regarding purpose and procedure, we need more peacekeeping, not less. The United States would be well-advised to facilitate and encourage other governments to contribute to the peacekeeping effort. What justification is there for this seemingly paradoxical counsel?
Consider the alternative.
First, let us look at the criticism that peacekeeping is a failure. How is it a failure? To what degree is it merely disappointing, or helpful but alone insufficient?
Take the Golan Heights example. It is true that Arabs and Israelis have not resolved differences. It is correct that the border remains armed and that occasional clashes and infiltrations do occur. But consider the alternative. The two sides could be at full-scale war. The United States could have several thousand troops pinned down in efforts at pacification. Without the U.N. presence, a cold peace could become a hot war much more quickly, for them, and for us.
Perhaps the antagonists do rely too much on the physical presence of U.N. troops. After the troops go in, the two sides may spend too little exertion in genuine dialogue. The threat of a breakdown of the peace process is sometimes helpful to accelerate serious discussion about conflict resolution. These are important warnings to the architects of the peacekeeping effort. But surely the presence of peacekeeping forces is useful in separating the belligerents physically, in monitoring and in creating a "trip wire" that each side is reluctant to trigger.
Second, consider the alternative to U.N. deployment. If the U.N. forces were not in place with more than 40,000 personnel, in more than 20 locations around the world, who would shoulder that burden?
If countries were called upon outside the U.N. collective security format to enforce the peace, the problems of legitimacy and coordination would surely loom at least as large as they do through the U.N. route. But more probably, no one would heed the call to keep the peace for reasons of fear as well as ignorance and lethargy. That would leave the responsibility with the world's single superpower, the United States.
In this period of rapid and uncertain worldwide change, the last thing the United States needs is an additional 20 hot-spots around the globe to worry about. Budgets are tight. Resources are thin. Selectivity is becoming the watchword of Pentagon thinking and of all foreign policy thinking in Washington.
Certainly the United States should take the lead in those major confrontations in which the big powers are deeply involved and where only the military muscle that the United States possesses sufficient to back down an aggressor or hold a peace that is ultra-fragile. But in situations where the adversaries are small, are tired, are isolated, feel additional constraints on their behavior or genuinely wish to move toward a more stable plateau, the United States can benefit from a little assistance from friends and the U.N.
For many governments, the U.N. provides neutral, non-controversial cover for their assistance in sustaining a workable world order that the United States has had a big role in shaping. Participating in defending world order is a good experience for these governments and for their peoples. When many hands are on the throttle of the peacekeeping process, the system becomes less centric.
Third, evaluate the criticism about financial cost. As The Economist has observed, the entire U.N. peacekeeping budget is less than the price of a couple of stealth bombers. At that price, peacekeeping is a bargain.
A deeper financial criticism is that the U.N. has no budget of its own to support peacekeeping. It must go "hat in hand" to the individual governments.