Stiffing the Blue Helmets

This op-ed originally appeared in The Guardian

Today, at the end of his week-long jaunt through Africa, President Bush stops in Liberia, the war-torn east African country, to highlight that country’s democratic transition. Two weeks prior to his visit, though, the president imperilled Liberia and other emerging democracies by releasing a budget request that significantly shortchanged UN peacekeeping, which over the last seven years has been the main vehicle by which African conflicts have become African democracies. This is not only disingenuous, but it is an incredibly shortsighted move.

With an annual budget of only $6bn, UN peacekeeping can hardly spare the cash. The shortage caused by American stinginess may soon be felt in missions that need the most help, such as the peacekeeping force for Darfur. The president’s budget under funds that mission by $136m – a substantial sum considering that the UN is struggling to come up with equipment like 24 helicopters needed to transport peacekeepers across Darfur’s vast, unforgiving terrain.

Darfur is not the only mission in which the president is unwilling to fully invest. Missions to Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and yes, Liberia, (to name a few) also stand to lose US funds. This is hardly helpful to the spread of democracy on the continent. Spending a relatively modest sum on peacekeeping today helps to ensure that countries emerging from civil war do not descend back into conflict.

Peacekeeping missions generally begin after two or more combatants sign a ceasefire, but before a lasting peace has taken hold. Over time, the job of being a buffer often morphs into a vast nation-building project, and the UN has a solid track record in this kind of work. Liberia, which elected Africa’s first female head of state in 2005, is one prominent example of the transformative effect of peacekeeping. Yet another is neighbouring Sierra Leone, where UN peacekeeping has planted the roots of democracy following one of Africa’s most brutal conflicts.

Groups outside the United Nations have noted the UN’s nation-building successes. A 2005 Rand Corporation study, for example, found that UN-led nation-building efforts are more successful – and cheaper – than comparative American-led efforts.

The United States has also recognised the UN’s usefulness in this regard. Since the start of the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the UN has quietly assumed responsibility for managing a growing number of conflicts, not only in Africa, but worldwide. The flare-up in Haiti in 2004 and the July 2006 fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, for example, were both mitigated by sending UN peacekeepers, very few of whom were from the United States. Most Americans would be surprised to learn that of the over 90,000 UN troops and police currently deployed to 20 missions worldwide, only 293 are American.

At the heart of this arrangement is an implicit deal: The UN will go to places where the US cannot or does not want to so long as the US picks up a little over a quarter of the cost of each mission. At least, that is the way it is supposed to work. In reality, the US, as a veto-wielding member of the UN security council, has approved mission after mission while falling behind on its payments. If the president’s budget passes as is, the US will be $610m short of what it owes to peacekeeping this year, bumping America’s total arrears to nearly $2bn.

Peacekeeping certainly has its flaws. The UN has very little authority to discipline individual peacekeepers accused of improprieties, including sexual misconduct. Peacekeeping also tends to struggle in cases where, like Darfur, the parties are still in conflict and no single powerful country takes responsibility for the mission’s success.

Still, despite its shortcomings peacekeeping remains a pretty solid investment. For relatively modest sums, the UN takes up the burden of managing conflicts and overseeing the democratic transition of post-conflict societies. If promoting democracy in Africa and beyond is as much of a priority as the White House proclaims, then surely somewhere in the massive $3.1 trillion budget request, the president can find spare change to pay America’s share of the cost of UN peacekeeping.