UNMIL Photo/Christopher Herwig, April 17, 2009, Buchanan, Grand Bassa, Liberia -Private Linda Mensah, one of the 41 female members serving with Ghanbat 10 with UNMIL in Buchana on patrol about the Liberian Port City of Buchanan.

How the United States Can Strengthen UN Peacekeeping and Support International Peace and Security

One of the most visible tools of international cooperation on peace and security are UN Peacekeepers — Blue Helmets. Since the advent of UN Peacekeeping in the late 1940s, the institution of UN Peacekeeping and the circumstances in which Blue Helmets deploy have changed considerably; and in recent years the role of UN Peacekeepers and the peace and security architecture of the United Nations itself have undergone a very rapid transformation.

Today there are about 95,000 uniformed personnel deployed to 13 missions around the world.

Though the United States deploys very few boots on the ground to peacekeeping missions, it is the single largest funder of UN Peacekeeping. Also, as a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, it determines where peacekeepers should be sent. This means that the United States holds tremendous potential to determine the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping.

My guest today, Victoria Holt, has spent a career studying what makes UN Peacekeeping effective and designing policies to strengthen American support for UN Peacekeeping. Victoria Holt is Vice President at the Henry L Stimson Center and served as  Deputy Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Security during the two terms of the Obama administration. We kick off discussing a brief history of UN Peacekeeping and how it has changed over the years before having a broader conversation about what opportunities exist for the United States to help strengthen UN Peacekeeping and to support the larger peace and security architecture in which UN Peacekeeping operates.


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Today’s episode is produced in partnership with the Better World Campaign as part of a series  examining the opportunities for strengthening multilateral engagement by the new Biden-Harris administration and the incoming 117th Congress. To learn more and access additional episodes in this series, please visit http://getusback.org/

A Brief History of UN Peacekeeping

Victoria Holt [00:03:21] Well, while it’s famously said that peacekeeping is not in the UN charter, it’s among the best known activities of the United Nations. It started as monitoring cease fires with Blue Helmets, upholding peace agreements, but towards the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the 90s, we saw a real shift and increase of conflicts within countries. So, peacekeeping became more involved in a number of ways- in the protection of civilians and support to political agreements and increasingly building out governance, rule of law, support to human rights and trying to prevent erosion of governance. So today’s modern peacekeeping missions are sent in first to support a political agreement, to bring an end to conflict, to help the parties to a peace -get to yes- but also to provide a reminder and support to the security of civilians, who are often at the heart of modern conflicts. So, these missions have deployed since the mid to late 90s in ups and downs. Most mandates, now, have Chapter VII authority, which allows peacekeeping missions which are led by an SRSG civilian leader and have-

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:34] That’s the Special Representative of the Secretary General, the top civilian head of a peacekeeping mission, as opposed to the military head of the peacekeeping mission.

Victoria Holt [00:04:43] Thanks, Mark. That’s actually right. And maybe I should just say-

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:46] You can try to stump me with a U.N. acronym. I have been stumped before, but it’s been a while.

Victoria Holt [00:04:53] I think you’re probably quite fluent in some of the language. But these missions are made up of a mix of military police and civilians led by a civilian SRSG chief, Special Representative, Secretary General- usually with a force commander, a police commissioner, and then leaders who head humanitarian development, human rights, civil and political affairs, among other areas- increasingly also gender advisors.

[00:05:19] So, as I mentioned, the first goal is to support a political process. And sometimes a peace agreement is already in place, sometimes there is not. But the goal is to come to a place where the conflict is ending and transfer it back to a government of governance. But also, many of the modern conflicts and ones that we’ve seen since the 90s, increasingly, had civilians at the heart of the conflict- most extreme in Rwanda [or] Srebrenica where missions were deployed, but at the time, unable or unknowing about what to do to protect civilians. So that has been a big shift. And for the last 20 years, missions have been mandated to protect civilians and, increasingly, with some credit to the U.N., they’ve really designed both the conceptual framework on how to do this, how to shape an environment, how support a political peace and when necessary, to provide physical support and protection to those who come in harm’s way.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:13] It’s maybe worth emphasizing for listeners something that you mention at the beginning. That when peacekeeping was first created, it was created to keep a peace between usually two different countries. But now, oftentimes, peacekeepers are deployed in the midst of some sort of conflict in which civilians are the primary target. And it’s often an internal conflict. And  peacekeeping has had to adjust in that process to put, as you said, civilian protection at the heart of their mandate. And that has been I think that is the single biggest shift over the last several decades in U.N. peacekeeping.

Victoria Holt [00:06:49] Yes, I think that’s right. I will also note, starting during the Bush administration, in particular, the post-conflict architecture grew. So you had, say, in Liberia or Haiti, Sierra Leone and East Timor, when the violence had been quelled, there was a real recognition that these countries needed to have basic governance and rule of law stood up. Accountability mechanisms and human rights were missing. So you saw much more multidimensional peace operations come in that brought in suites of civilian experts and worked directly with both civil society and the country’s government to try and stand up institutions that law run and provide not just security, but rule of law and long term protection for the population. So that’s another trend I would flag.

UN Peacekeeping During the Obama Administration

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:39] So you were the official in the Obama administration most directly in charge of setting U.S. policy towards U.N. peacekeeping, U.N. peace operations, and other aspects of the U.N. security architecture. What were some of your priorities during those years?

Victoria Holt [00:07:59] Well, let me say that the priorities of the Obama administration were to work with partners and allies and try and make the best effort to prevent conflict and to restore peace where possible. And pretty quickly, not driven by policy per se, but in response to crises, we saw an earthquake in Haiti that demanded an immediate humanitarian response. And while the U.N. mission had lost many lives in the earthquake, they became the first contact for some of the U.S. military sent down to help support the aid delivery.

[00:08:31] We also saw an election in Cote d’Ivoire where two leaders claimed the rightful presidency and it took months, as a peacekeeping mission, to help support what was a political strategy to try and arrive at the rightful winner of that election. We also saw independence come for South Sudan. That is a multi-decade effort by the United States to support what became South Sudan and with that, a new U.N. operation. Likewise, missions had to get shifted, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, when multiple crises in the East required a response.

[00:09:09] So it wasn’t just a matter of policy, Mark, it was a matter of how do you best deal with crises around the world? What’s the toolkit available? And that evolved for us to recognize in CAR -the Central African Republic- in Mali, in Somalia, in other countries where there is a crises -whether it was almost a failure in Mali or ethnic cleansing in CAR- that the toolkit of the U.N. was often the first choice.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:34] And CAR, of course, is the Central African Republic and that was a new mission that deployed during the Obama administration. But maybe just to emphasize the mission in southern Sudan, which you were there for the creation of. When that country, soon after independence descended into civil war, you really saw that civilian protection mandate come to the forefront. You had hundreds of thousands of civilians, if I recall, flock to U.N. peacekeeping bases to seek some modicum of safety from the fighting around them. And that’s just something -the idea of U.N. peacekeepers opening up their bases to fleeing civilians- that just would not have happened decades ago.

Victoria Holt [00:10:16] Well, yes, you’re right. South Sudan was a situation where the internal fractures and the potential for violence had been underestimated and the U.N. had to turn quickly, and did turn quickly, to try and protect civilians fleeing from violence and to this day, still have many civilians living in protection of civilians compounds. And when that happened, we realized that the basis of the political agreement -which is the fundamental of a peacekeeping mission- had, pretty much, been eroded. And so in the short run, that mission really was meant to be focused on the protection of civilians and then the political process could be reestablished.

[00:10:54] You know, some of these operations also demonstrated- even when the Security Council, together, acts swiftly to authorize more capacity, as we did in South Sudan and then later on in response to interventions both by African forces and the French in both Mali and the Central African Republic- but the ability of the U.N. to turn quickly and provide the capacities that it needed to respond were not available. And this was because U.N. missions depend on nations to come forward and volunteer capabilities. And what we found was often in short supply, with things like logisticians and engineers, female police officers, and sometimes those who could operate in Chapter VII environments. And so it was a problem in plain sight that even when the Security Council acted swiftly, the capacity to deploy quickly was not available to the U.N., which led to what became first the summit, led by then-Vice President Biden, calling out to member states with a list of what the U.N. needed and asking them to offer up more capacity both in human capacity, logistics, sometimes in military as well, so that when the U.N. needed a rapid response or the member states of the Security Council would call for one, that capability would be available.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:16] And maybe it’s worth emphasizing that this summit, which I remember I was watching the live stream of it at the time, was during the U.N. General Assembly. And you had the Vice President, then Biden, sit in the chair seat and people around the room -foreign ministers and presidents and heads of state from other countries- making announcements of additional capacities that they would contribute to U.N. peacekeeping operations to make them more effective, whether it was a police unit or a female police unit or a helicopter or two, it was just kind of almost like a reverse auction. They’re kind of giving away capacity to the U.N. and Biden was the one chairing the thing.

Victoria Holt [00:13:01] Well, actually, we did two summits-

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:03] And Obama did, too, right?

Victoria Holt [00:13:05] Right. So actually, Biden held a special session. [In] that, we tried to basically raise attention to the gaps of U.N. missions. But I think you’re potentially thinking of the following year in 2015. President Obama hosted during the opening of the General Assembly, but not in the Security Council because it was based on all the members of the U.N. being invited if they would then pledge, from a list of what the gaps were, that the U.N. had provided, to not just the United States, but to the world.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:34] That is what I am thinking of, the Obama summit.

Victoria Holt [00:13:37] Yes, yes, yes. And we were very pleased. That day started off with at least 30,000 pledges. And then by the end, we had exceeded that. And this process has continued, so there have been over 50,000 pledges of more capacity to the United Nations since that process kicked off.

[00:13:55] “Reverse auction”- I may try that in the future. I do remember that we told every government that there would be a set of icons that would light up when the head of state was speaking, and therefore, they needed to give us their commitments in advance so the icons could be identified, which is a wonderful forcing mechanism.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:19] There you go. By icon. I like that.

[00:14:23] So that was basically the scene when the Trump administration took office. In the last four years, how has U.N. peacekeeping changed or how has the architecture for the U.N. peace and security issues changed more broadly, perhaps, as a result of actions taken by the Trump administration or, perhaps not, just as general trends evolved? What have been some of the key themes and issues over these last few years?

UN Peacekeeping During the Trump Years

Victoria Holt [00:14:53] Right. Well, let me take the broader trend first, which if you look at the last four years until where we are today, the disruption and displacement of people around the world is at record numbers. We keep seeing this and it’s now at roughly 80 million people displaced. And I think that is often and mainly a cause from conflict. And so in a sense, it reinforces the importance of the role of the Security Council, to try to prevent conflict and to try and address it where it starts, because this is one of the repercussions of the failure to do so.

[00:15:26] Obviously, other trends include the growth of non-state actors, proxy wars, the rise of authoritarianism, a disregard for international humanitarian human rights law, increasing competition among many states, great powers, and others. And so, in a sense, the rules of the road have really been weakened. And I think that we’ve seen the results of many of conflicts. I should also note Syria. There was a small peace operation there -an observer mission- that went in to try and prevent what we have seen since evolve. And it wasn’t able to succeed but it reminds us of the power of observers to try and bear witness to what’s going on. I’m thinking of the mission that ran from April 2012 to August 2012.

[00:16:13] So on one hand, Mark, we’ve got this immense shift to an increase in conflict and its effects. And just as the post-Cold War taught us, conflict can often happen within states. We’re now in a new period where, while these trends have always existed, they’ve really shifted the landscape. And they need to think broadly about the architecture of conflict prevention and what we do to address them. So I would say, I certainly think that’s been concurrent with the Trump administration. Some of that preceded it, but it’s definitely been exacerbated.

[00:16:47] Obviously, one or two other trends that we’ve got- climate change, that we recognize, is increasing security risks to countries around the world and regions. And then, of course, we’ve come to the present moment, the pandemic, which is both a terrible crisis, but also having massive economic impacts. And OCHA just put out its numbers and it’s pretty hard to see the number of people and the amount of money they want to raise, and they know, coming out of the gate, that’s going to be a heavy lift. So that’s, first, trends.

[00:17:21] The Trump administration rejected allies and alliances. It tended to want to criticize and beat up on the very countries and institutions that traditionally have supported both U.S. interests and our values system. And I think the main way that we saw that was withholding funding. Now, on one hand, this has been a traditional view that the U.S. should pay less for U.N. peacekeeping but most administrations, including the Bush administration and Obama administration, had tried to pay our full dues, both in the regular budget peacekeeping. But instead of asking Congress for that, the Trump administration did not. And I fear that we’re heading toward nearly one billion in arrears for U.N. peacekeeping. Which at the same time, the U.S. continued during the Trump administration, to vote for peacekeeping missions, and in some cases to go to them and to call for improvements in performance and accountability to stop sexual exploitation and abuse, and actually was very supportive of a number of efforts, including Action for Peacekeeping, A4P, and other very fiscally sound reform and modernization efforts.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:32] So maybe it’s just worth emphasizing, as a member of the Security Council, as a permanent member of the Security Council, a veto-wielding member, the United States basically has an effective veto over any mission. It continued to approve missions, yet, during the Trump administration, it refused to pay for the missions that it had approved.

Victoria Holt [00:18:51] Well, I would say it’s mixed. The U.S., thanks to Congress, provided the State Department with the assessed funding for up to 25 percent of what we owed to the United Nations, and in general, the State Department was paying at that level, is my understanding. There is a gap. The cap that Congress, at 25 percent, does not reflect the amount that the U.S. is assessed for its peacekeeping dues, which is between 27 to 28 percent. So that’s where the funding has been the gap. And actually, the U.S. has a chance this coming year, in 2021. There will be a negotiation on those assessment rates and potentially an opportunity for Congress and the administration to align, and for the U.S. to go into those negotiations and get Congress to put up the funding to pay back the old dues, and to realign what we are assessed and what we pay.

How Can the Biden-Harris Administration Strengthen UN Peacekeeping as a Tool of US Foreign Policy

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:46] And also -I believe it was last year- the U.N. underwent something of a reorg. What I used to know is the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, became the Department of Peace Operations and what used to be known as the Department of Political Affairs, became the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. And those two departments are intended to work more closely together in order to work along the entire spectrum of conflict from conflict prevention, like you mentioned, to the deployment of peacekeepers. What can you say about that reorganization and how significant it has been internally in the U.N. and about how the United States might support that kind of effort of looking at conflicts along their full spectrum?

Victoria Holt [00:20:40] Well, it certainly makes sense to look at conflicts across the full spectrum and [for] the Secretary General’s effort to do that better and to better integrate. But as you point out, the Department of Political Affairs with peacebuilding and with peace operations, peacekeeping, makes full sense. And I think if anything, it could go deeper and be strengthened so that whether you’re looking at a cease-fire monitoring mission, an effort to rid countries of chemical weapons, multidimensional peacekeeping mission, and or support to peace enforcement, that you could have one area where these are all worked out together with knowledge of the region and expertise.

[00:21:20] The Secretary General, also, has given more authority to the field. And so whether you are a political leader of a mission in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Colombia, or South Sudan, Mali, et cetera, that the leaders of those missions are more able and, should, I think, take the responsibility and have the authority to make decisions about the political way forward, about financial decisions, etc.. So I think that’s a really good effort.

[00:21:49] The bigger challenge is how do you come up with strategies? And I think one of the things the United States can bring forward is a real engagement in the diplomatic side of all of these crises. The US, when we have a full complement in our mission in New York, not just one ambassador, but the full five that we have authority to have. When we link the mulitlateral-

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:10] What do you mean by the full five? Can you explain what you mean?

Victoria Holt [00:22:13] Yeah, sorry. So the United States in New York at the Mission has a Permanent Representative-

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:19] That’s commonly known as the UN ambassador. So it’d be Linda Thomas Greenfield.

Victoria Holt [00:22:24] Yeah, that’s the nominee. Correct. And usually, she or he has four other ambassadors serving along the permanent representative, the ambassador, who support the work of the Security Council, as well as ECOSOC management reform, et cetera. And it was concerning that during much of the Trump administration, we never had the full complement Senate-confirmed five ambassadors.

[00:22:51] So I think first you start with engagement and strategy. And I think the U.N. has gone a long way to look at early warning and analysis, understand security risks, look at performance and accountability across the whole suite of what the Security Council tools are to deal with not just peace operations and prevention, but nonproliferation, extremism, basically the challenges up and down the board for any kind of conflict. And so the US can really help, I think, better lead to link up those tools with the idea of political strategies are.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:28] So that’s one obvious opportunity for the incoming administration. What else do you see in terms of how the U.S. might better engage the U.N.’s peace and security architecture to promote both self-interest- enhanced national security, but also global security as well?

[00:23:51] Well, as the incoming administration has said, they want to strengthen and build alliances and work to support challenges including climate change, the pandemic, the proliferation of nuclear material weapons, and to deal with conflict prevention. And so, I think starting out by just re-engaging in the world as we know the administration has pledged to do, rejoining and paying our dues in the World Health Organization, the climate accords, the long list of efforts that help to reduce risk will be a priority. And within the Security Council, I think that the US will be able to bring coherence to this agenda.

[00:24:34] The council has greater fractures than it did a few years back, but there are still areas of cooperation. So let me briefly mention, on the peace operations side, the United States is still the largest trainer of peacekeeping personnel in the world through our Global Peace Operations Initiative and also support through our deployments around the world, and through other accounts- the State Department. And that is a very underrecognized area which could continue. I think on the leadership side, the U.S. has often argued for the best person to lead something. That’s another area where we could continue to strengthen the quality of those who are chosen to lead missions. I think, more broadly, if you step out, the political strategies issue is one I’ve already mentioned. I think the link to climate change is one that deserves recognition by the Security Council and not just as a security risk, but to also understand how the U.N. tools in the field can be addressing and working with the other U.N. mechanisms that are trying to help fragile states.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:25:40] What do you mean by that?

Victoria Holt [00:25:42] Well, for example, the U.N. often deploys to fragile states and these states are often not just conflict-affected, but climate-affected and often have low access to energy, if you look at the SDG lists, and yet they have the benefit of U.N. field missions. So in some cases, these missions, which need to pay to bring in their own energy resources and are often reliant on diesel and diesel generators, could instead start from the beginning working with the country team in the host nation to say: How would the resources we’re bringing potentially leverage access to energy where we deploy? And this has already begun a little bit, say, in eastern Congo, where hydropower is now being available to the mission, or where the power of purchase agreements in Somalia may use U.N. funding to leverage access to energy and build up the infrastructure that the markets are making available around the world but generally are not willing to take the risk on fragile conflict-affected states.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:26:44] Interesting.

Victoria Holt [00:26:45] Yeah. So I think there’s a way that missions could think longer-term- work with the country teams, look at the SDGs, look at the climate goals of the host nation where they deploy, and start in the beginning to say: How do we both serve the needs and the goals of peace operation to prevent conflict and create a stable environment and use the resources we’re bringing with us, in places like Mali, to shorten the supply chain? Right? And save lives and also potentially increase access, for the communities they serve, to energy?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:27:15] Interesting. No, I had not heard of that. Let’s do it.

Victoria Holt [00:27:24] Well, we’ll tell you what. We’re rolling out a study on this in January. I’m happy to share that with you.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:27:28] There you go. Tease the Stimson Center study on this.

[00:27:32] Is there anything else you wanted to get in, discuss? I have been learning from you on U.N. peacekeeping operations for years and years, so I’m sure there are questions I didn’t ask that would be interesting to hear you answer. Is there anything else you wanted to to to mention, discuss, get in, emphasize?

Victoria Holt [00:27:54] I think the question of how and when authorization to use force, is one that the Security Council will need to grapple with. And I think the U.S. can lead on this. It’s often come up in the context of Africa, where the African Union and African-led forces have been willing to do interventions in places like Somalia, Mali, Burundi, Central African Republic. ECOWAS has led, in the past, North Africa. And it’s often done this with bilateral support from other nations, including the United States. And it’s been a real push to see if the U.N. can increasingly pay for and support these peace enforcement missions’ coalition operations.

[00:28:37] And I think that this issue needs to get addressed in two different aspects. It’s often been cast as a money issue- that the U.N. should just pay for this and that nations, including the United States, are hesitating because they’re cheap. I don’t think that’s the issue. The fundamental issue is, should the United Nations be paying for what is basically war-fighting capabilities- peace enforcement missions, which traditionally have been authorized by the Security Council, blessed by it, but not led or funded by [it], because the nature of U.N. missions, is that they are not for fighting. They can handle operational and tactical use of force to protect civilians but going to war against extremists in the Sahel, for example, is not something that the U.N. should resign to do as a military capability.

[00:29:27] So, I think that there needs to be some return to thinking about how to support African and African Union-led forces, how they can be equipped with both right political backing and the capability to deliver, but [also] not have them confused with the architecture of U.N. missions. And we’ve talked about this for a long time. There can be a case-by-case basis using the charter in Chapter VIII, to basically come up with a way that the Security Council can back and support these missions. But I think that that is an ongoing challenge that has to get reckoned with, particularly as conflict increasingly targets civilians. I don’t think this problem is going to go away. I won’t read you the Shrebernitza report but we have to remember not to be confused by- we need to have a clear-ish line between the expanded peace operations of the modern era, and what war-fighting looks like.

[00:30:23] The Security Council, I think, is a very important forum. And it’s a place where the United States is able to work with both great allies and great competitors. And I’ve mentioned that peace operations is often an area where there is more cooperation than not. But I think that the council has been going through a time of increased competition, and the U.S. needs to come in and recognize that, and also be able to understand how, whether it’s nonproliferation or climate change, peace and security, or human rights, that, that is a primary forum for trying to both express interests and values and reinforce both to the world.

[00:31:10] I also think that the United Nations should take some heart. It does a lot of good around the world. And I say this mostly because whenever I visit missions, I am taken aback at the number of individuals who are doing creative, often brave, and very flexible things to try and support mandates they have been given. And it’s humbling. This is in peacekeeping missions, humanitarian operations. It’s the panels of experts who try and track down who’s violating sanctions regimes. It’s the ones who are thinking about long-term peacebuilding, or individuals trying to report on the use of chemical weapons and restore accountability mechanisms. So I don’t think we should lose sight of the power in the field or in the tools of the Security Council and the importance of focusing and strengthening its efforts to prevent conflict.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:32:02] Well, thank you. Thank you so much for your time, Victoria. This was great. Thanks, Mark.