Will the USA Enter a New Phase of Support for UN Peacekeeping?

It was sort of lost amid the events in Boston las week, but last Thursday Ban Ki Moon became the first sitting Secretary General to pay a visit to the Pentagon. This was a big deal for the United Nations, though not all together unexpected given Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s longstanding support for the United Nations.

The meeting was private, and also included UN Peacekeeping Chief Herve Ladsous. Here’s the official readout of the meeting from the Pentagon spokesperson’s office.

“Secretary Chuck Hagel hosted United Nation’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the Pentagon today.  The visit marks the first time that a United Nations secretary-general has visited the Pentagon.

“Secretary Hagel congratulated Secretary-General Ban on his outstanding leadership at the helm of the United Nations during one of the most turbulent and challenging times in international affairs.

Secretary Hagel and Secretary-General Ban discussed current and potential future United Nations peacekeeping missions of mutual concern, focusing on the distinctive challenges peacekeepers face in unstable environments.  The secretary-general expressed appreciation for the contributions the United States has made to peacekeeping.

The two leaders discussed the heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula and the need for North Korea to live up to its international obligations and commitments as well as the deteriorating security situation in Syria.

The secretary-general expressed his deepest sympathies and condolences to the American people for those killed and injured in the recent bombings in Boston.

Secretary Hagel thanked Secretary-General Ban for his friendship and stated the Department of Defense will strengthen its collaboration with the United Nations. “

A senior pentagon official tells me that possible UN peacekeeping roles in Syria and Mali were part of the discussion, but declined to elaborate further. The conversation, which included Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, involved a discussion of the value of UN peacekeeping to American interests. “The UN is a very relevant organization again,” said the senior Pentagon official. “The Pentagon feels that UN has a very important place in terms of peacekeeping and international affairs in general.” He added: “The fact that this meeting occurred  is a positive indicator of where things are headed.”

I may be getting a bit a head of myself,  but this meeting may mark a new phase of America’s relationship to UN Peacekeeping. As of March 31, there were 92,531 UN peacekeepers deployed to 16 missions around the world. Of these 92,000 peacekeepers only 118 are American. But even though the USA does not contribute many troops to UN Peacekeeping, it is the single largest financial contributor, paying for 28% of the cost.  That’s a generous contribution, but also a reflection of the USA’s relative wealth, and its role on the Security Council which approves every mission.

UN Peacekeeping is fairly consistently stretched to the near breaking point. The demands put on UN Peacekeeping by the Security Council are very high, but UN Peacekeeping has rather limited capacity. Peacekeeping depends on member states willingness to contribute troops and equipment–and sometimes member states decide not to. Helicopter assets in particular are in very short supply.

One way the USA could materially improve the chances of success in missions like South Sudan or DRC would be to simply contribute a few helicopters and pilots. The USA will never contribute troops to UN peacekeeping on the scale of a country like Bangladesh or Pakistan. But the USA (and Europe) have certain capacities that could very much enhance certain missions. Relatively small materiel contributions could go very long way.

Despite what happens, I think we can expect some shifts in the Pentagon’s relationship with UN Peacekeeping.  Hagel has shown himself to hold a fairly nuanced understanding of how UN peacekeeping advances American interests, so it is only natural that he would seek to deepen the Pentagon’s ties to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.  He hinted as much in his confirmation hearing.