Why President Obama is Hosting a Summit on UN Peacekeeping


There are any number of activities, events and meetings that a President can hold at the United Nations during UN Week. The President can pick a global issue, declare a “summit” and you can bet that most other world leaders would want to attend. In years’ past, President Obama has done just that, holding events on a range of issues, from countering violent extremism to peace in South Sudan.

This year, President Obama is choosing to focus on UN Peacekeeping. And for good reason.

UN Peacekeeping is under unprecedented strain. There are over 100,000 troops serving in 16 missions worldwide. Most of these missions are short staffed, many lack equipment like helicopters, and a few are operating in the midst of jihadist insurgencies in which UN Peacekeepers are routinely targeted. “The world is asking peacekeepers to do more, in more places, and in more complex conflicts than at any time in history,” writes Gideon Maltz, deputy chief of staff at the US Mission to the UN.

Despite this strain, the Obama administration still views UN Peacekeeping as an effective tool to help manage conflicts worldwide, particularly when no single country is willing to do all the heavy lifting. And since the twin disasters of Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, Peacekeeping has a had a pretty good track record of success. In the last decade and half, places like East Timor, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Cote D’Ivoire have benefited mightily from the presence of Blue Helmets.

But the prospect’s for success in many of today’s missions do not look so strong. In Mali, the UN faces a jihadist insurgency–something it’s never had to grapple with before. In South Sudan, peacekeepers are relegated to protecting thousands of civilians who have fled to UN bases seeking protection. The newest mission, in the Central African Republic, is still 2,000 troops short of its authorized strength.

President Obama is holding this summit because the USA wants UN Peacekeeping to be better at its job. Though there are very few Americans serving in peacekeeping operations, the USA has the largest financial stake in UN Peacekeeping, underwriting about 28% of the $8.2 billion price tag. The USA also has an outsized interest in promoting the kind of global stability that successful peacekeeping operations can deliver. The challenge for the USA and the rest of the world is to provide UN Peacekeepers with the tools they require to do their jobs well.

That is what this summit is all about.

Check back soon for more details on the summit and its outcome. 

UPDATE: President Obama opened the summit making the case for the value of UN peacekeeping to American and global security interests. “Our collective ability to ‘maintain international peace and security’ has often depended on the willingness of courageous U.N. peacekeepers to put their lives on the line in war-torn corners of the world,” he said in his opening remarks. Obama also pledged to double American troop commitments to UN Peacekeeping (from 80 to 160) and pledged deeper American political and material commitments to UN peacekeeping.

But America’s real contribution to this summit was deciding to hold it in the first place. Obama announced that, in all, there were 30,000 new troops committed to UN peacekeeping as a result of this meeting.

Perhaps the biggest and most newsworthy of these commitments were made by China, which has historically stayed largely on the sidelines of UN Peacekeeping.  No longer. President Xi Jianping pledged an 8,000 troop “standby force,” a badly needed helicopter unit, de-mining units and $100 million to the African Union to build its own peacekeeping capacities. This is a dramatic shift in Chinese policy at the United Nations. To be sure, China has contributed units to peacekeeping operations before, but never something on this scale. Deeper still, Xi shared a moving quote from a Chinese peacekeeper who was killed in Haiti adding some unlikely emotional gravitas to this announcement.

Other commitments were helpfully compiled by @UNPeacekeeping on Twitter as they were announced. They include, but are not limited to the following,

@UKUN_NewYork pledges 70 specialised troops in support of @amisomsomalia, up to 300 troops for @unmissmedia#PKSummit

#Italy pledges 1 helicopter squadron, 1 engineering company, 1 infantry specialised battalion, support to training #PKSummit@ItMissionUNNY

#Finland pledges amphibious task unit, special ops forces, military observers, police, CBRN lab & training capacity #PKSummit@FinlandUN

#Uruguay pledges 2000 troops, aircraft, K-9 platoon for explosives, training and 12 naval vessels #PKSummit

#Rwanda pledges 2 attack helicopters, level 2 hospital, all-female Formed Police Unit & 1600 troops @RwandaUN#PKSummit

#Indonesia pledges 2700 troops, police in 9 missions, training, composite battalion to @unamidnews by end of year, Police Units #PKSummit

Using soft power to leverage big commitments in service of an important but struggling global institution — all while putting very little of your own skin in the game — is called leading from behind. And it worked exceedingly well today.