A Framework for Expanded American Support for UN Peacekeeping

By Cameron Olbert

“The (United Nations) Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” Former American National Security Advisor John Bolton made his stance on the United Nations’ effectiveness clear in this 1994 quote. Despite criticism from Bolton and other right wing American foreign policy professionals, the United Nations is far from ineffective. One of the best kept secrets in modern politics is that peacekeeping forces deployed under the UN flag have an impressive track record of success, often leading to better peacebuilding outcomes than American interventions.[1] As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the United States wields great influence over peacekeeping operations. This paper argues that the United States should increase its support for peacekeeping operations with more funding, more equipment, and by sending more advisors on missions.

A study by Kathman and Wood found that greater numbers of troops deployed is associated with lower levels of anti-civilian violence

Contrary to popular belief, UN peacekeeping operations are a remarkably effective tool to constrain battle-related deaths and keep-or even build-peace. The failures of peacekeepers in places like Srebrenica and Rwanda are well-documented, but the notion that peacekeeping is ineffective or an oxymoron is debunked by the vast majority of quantitative scholarly research. In a meta-analysis of 13 quantitative studies investigating the effectiveness of peacekeepers in their protection of civilians (POC) mandates, Fortna et al found that all the studies find that peacekeeping forces are associated with lower levels of violence.[2] A study by Kathman and Wood found that greater numbers of troops deployed is associated with lower levels of anti-civilian violence.[3] While this is not an airtight equation – adding more troops will not automatically make a given operation more effective – it is natural that when missions are adequately staffed, they will be better able to quell violence in more areas. Appropriately-staffed peacekeeping missions are also associated with fewer combatant deaths. Hultman, Kathman, and Shannon found that greater numbers of armed peacekeeping personnel greatly reduced battlefield deaths. A deployment of 10,000 peacekeeping soldiers was associated with a 73% reduction in combat deaths in an analysis of all intrastate conflicts in Africa from 1992 to 2011.[4] The ability of well-staffed peacekeeping missions to reduce violence and death is as remarkable as it is under-discussed, likely because a kept peace is nowhere near as newsworthy as an unkept peace.

Peacekeeping also restricts the geographic size of conflict zones and is associated with societal stability after their mandate ends. Beardsley and Gladitsch find that deployments of at least 1,000 troops can successfully limit the geographic size of a conflict within a state-thereby preventing its spread.[5] Preventing the spread of conflict is vital for limiting the number of civilians directly harmed by violent actors, but also carries the benefit of limiting the number of civilians displaced and suffering from other second and third order effects of conflict. Peacekeeping is also key for building stable societies post-conflict. In the meta analysis by Fortna et al, the researchers review four major empirical studies on the effect of peacekeepers on the signing and/or implementation of a peace agreement and find that all of them discover that outside peacekeepers both make a negotiated peace more likely and shorten the time it takes to come to such an agreement.[6] It is clear that peacekeepers can often find themselves to be peacebuilders, and their track record in this field is quite successful. Finally, Gizelis and Cao found strong empirical evidence that peacekeeping operations can lead to better maternal health outcomes and better access to education for women.[7] This “security dividend” can come directly from the operation itself in the form of medical supplies and personnel as well as form an environment free from conflict.[8] This environment leads to better outcomes for citizens of a state that receives peacekeepers and ultimately leads to a more secure global environment. From this, it is clear that peacekeepers are effective at both bringing conflicts to a close and are able to create post-conflict environments conducive to lasting peace.

The effectiveness of UN peacekeepers is important for American national security. Violence far from American borders will still threaten Americans, be they humanitarian workers in conflict zones or through the proliferation of armed groups such as Al-Shabaab. While UN peacekeeping operations are generally very effective, major challenges continue to face the UN. Peacekeeping is often underfunded and faces shortages of critical equipment-especially helicopters-and troops. The United States under the leadership of newly-inaugurated president Joseph R. Biden is well-positioned to jumpstart a renewal of support for UN peacekeeping by offering more monetary support, providing helicopters to make up for the helicopter shortfall, and to provide expert military personnel to enhance the effectiveness of missions on the ground.

The United States is the largest single contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget, regularly providing 25% of the entire peacekeeping budget.[9] Despite this, American funding for peacekeeping actually falls below its assessed contributions, which stand at 27.89% of the budget in 2021.[10] All members of the United Nations are required to make payments to the organization in order to fund it. These are known as assessed contributions, and they are largely based on gross domestic product and population. The United States has veto power on the Security Council and as such it is assessed higher than it otherwise would. Yet, in 1994 Congress placed a cap on the proportion of the peacekeeping budget that can come from the United States because it felt that the US was paying too much.[11] This cap currently sits at 25%, and as such the United States consistently misses its assessed target, especially under the Trump Administration. From Fiscal Year 2017 to Fiscal Year 2020, the United States has accumulated about $920 million in arrears to the Peacekeeping budget.

Funding of peacekeeping operations is crucial to their success. UN peacekeeping missions are often underfunded and overstretched, which can and has limited their effectiveness.[12] The peacekeeping budget makes up just 0.3% of global military expenditures[13], and peacekeeping operations regularly face shortages of equipment, personnel, and logistical capacity. The American contribution to the annual peacekeeping budget stood at $1.45 billion for FY 2021, out of a total budget of $6.58 billion.[14] This budget seeks to fund around 100,000 peacekeepers operating in difficult, often harsh environments.

In addition to the intangible benefits of restoring America’s reputation, peacekeeping is a good deal for the United States.

The United States can and should do more to fund peacekeeping. The most immediate thing the Biden Administration can do is to pay its arrears to the organization as soon as possible. This has been done before. Then-Senator Joe Biden helped negotiate the repayment of US arrears in 1999 under the Helms-Biden Agreement.[15] President Biden should repeat this during the federal budget negotiations for FY 2022, as well as seeking to permanently abolish the 25% cap. Initial steps in this regard have been taken. On April 9th, President Biden released his Discretionary Budget Request, which includes a provision increasing American contributions to peacekeeping by roughly $500 million to a total of just under $2 billion.[16] It also includes $300 million towards American arrears and sets the US on a path to fully fund arrears within 2 years.[17] These initial steps are important, as they show President Biden is committed to returning American support to the UN to historical norms. The United States should at least do the bare minimum to fund the operations it consistently votes for on the Security Council. This being said, the United States should do more than the bare minimum. About ⅔ of the total US contribution to the UN budget was voluntary in 2018,[18] and the United States should regularly provide more voluntary contributions to peacekeeping in order to counteract the longstanding issues of capacity that beset their operation. In fact, the United States could more than double its contribution in FY 2022 by reappropriating the funding for one Virginia Class nuclear submarine, whose per unit cost stands at around $2.8 billion.[19] The United States could consider just this option to provide more peacekeeping funding, but it should make certain to appropriate funding in a sustainable manner year over year. If President Biden is serious about his desire for the United States to restore its reputation on the world stage and to restore its position of leadership, doubling its assessed contributions to peacekeeping voluntarily would be a powerful and effective way to do this, especially if it can persuade other allies to make similar changes.

This is absolutely in the interests of the United States. In addition to the intangible benefits of restoring America’s reputation, peacekeeping is a good deal for the United States. The Government Accountability Office has consistently found UN missions to be cheaper than hypothetical identical American deployments. Considering a hypothetical American deployment to Haiti in 2004, such a force would have cost the United States $876 million instead of the $116 million it actually paid for the UN Stabilization Mission there.[20] A similar report on the current UN deployment in the Central African Republic found that an all-American force identical to MINUSCA would have cost nearly $5.7 billion instead of the $2.4 billion MINUSCA cost the entire combined peacekeeping budget over a 39-month period.[21] While increasing American contributions would obviously raise the bill for the United States, capacity and effectiveness of UN operations would increase as well. One extraordinary study found that a doubling of the peacekeeping budget coupled with use of stronger mandates for missions could reduce armed conflict in the world by between ½ and ⅔.[22] Even if this is an overestimation, the general track record of peacekeeping reducing conflict and death means that greater financial support would likely have a major effect on armed violence the world over. Doubling American monetary contributions to peacekeeping from $1.45 billion to $2.9 or $3 billion would have a direct beneficial effect on peacekeeping itself and illustrate American commitment to human rights and to global engagement. Persuading allies to do the same would have an even better effect.

In addition to providing more funding, the United States can lend more material support to UN missions. One major shortcoming facing peacekeepers is a shortage of helicopters, particularly utility helicopters.[23] In April 2011, peacekeepers globally possessed a total of 56 out of 129 requested helicopters.[24] Helicopters-particularly multirole utility helicopters-are vital for modern peacekeeping due to their ability to move troops across long distances quickly, to move supplies quickly, and to aid in reconnaissance and medical evacuation. Missions such as the ones in Mali, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan operate in large geographic spaces, and a helicopter shortage will naturally impact peacekeepers’ ability to carry out civilian protection mandates. Here too, the United States can have an impact. The United States Army has recently retired the OH-58D Kiowa helicopter. This is a multirole helicopter which can be configured for combat or used as a scout. Many of these helicopters are available for export under the Excess Defense Article and Foreign Military Sales programs. Likewise, the United States Air Force possesses approximately 60 UH-1N Twin Huey helicopters which are due to be phased out of service beginning in 2021.[25] These helicopters can be configured to carry up to 13 personnel and have a range of roughly 300 miles.[26] The United States could easily slate a portion of these helicopters to serve UN operations instead, potentially making up the current helicopter shortfall entirely. The addition of some or all of these to the inventory of peacekeeping operations would undoubtedly increase the operational capacity and flexibility of missions.

 The United States can also help peacekeeping operations more broadly on the logistical side. Modern UN peacekeeping missions take an average of just over 10 months to reach their peak deployment level.[27] This naturally creates a window for violence to continue and for a given region to become even less stable than when the Security Council authorized the deployment. The United States and other Western countries may be hesitant to provide its own military formations to peacekeeping missions on the ground, but the unrivaled ability of Air Mobility Command to move large numbers of people and equipment means that the United States Air Force can serve to move foreign peacekeepers into their areas of operations, speeding up deployment schedules and allowing more peacekeepers to begin doing their jobs faster. If it chooses, the US Air Force could also take a greater role in supplying already-established UN missions. Though this would drive up costs and could put assets in harm’s way, it would also improve missions’ logistical arrangements and enhance effectiveness. This is especially true given that host countries like the Central African Republic and South Sudan are landlocked and as such aerial supply is essential for these missions.

Finally, the United States can supply more personnel to missions. The United States provided only 34 people to peacekeeping missions in 2019,[28] a number which reflects its continuing reluctance to provide “boots on the ground” to UN missions. While it is unlikely that the US will provide regular infantry detachments to missions, the US can provide more specialist advisors. For instance, one issue facing UN air assets is a shortage of personnel with expertise in their use.[29] This provides an opening for the US to detail officers with expertise in helicopter use and operations planning to UN missions along with donating more helicopters themselves. In addition, perhaps the greatest benefit US personnel can offer is female advisors. It is no secret that armed conflict affects women differently than it affects men, but only 4.8% of peacekeepers are women[30], compared to 19% of US Army officers.[31] Security Council Resolution 1325 calls for a gender perspective to be applied to armed conflict, and the provision of female advisors to peacekeeping operations offers a way for the United States to illustrate its commitment to this principle and to help deliver real results in the peacebuilding process, as the meaningful participation of women in the peacebuilding process can increase the probability of a peace agreement lasting more than 15 years by 35%.[32]

The mechanism by which the United States provides peacekeepers is the United States Military Observer Group-Washington (USMOG-W).[33] This small section of the United States military-housed in Section G-3/5/7 of the Joint Chiefs of Staff-coordinates the deployment of the roughly 30 Americans deployed to peacekeeping missions. To facilitate the provision of more advisors to UN missions, the Joint Staff should expand USMOG considerably. The United States Army’s Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command should also build on its current civil affairs teams to form detachments focused entirely on gender-consciousness. In order for the United States to illustrate its support for Resolution 1325 and to best improve peacekeeping as it relates to gender and armed conflict, Army Civil Affairs should offer small teams to missions focused entirely on assessing and improving missions’ responsiveness to the needs of women in conflict zones. If at all possible, these teams should be composed mostly or entirely of women, as no one can better speak to the needs of women than women themselves. If desired, the military could expand this program further to specifically include the LGBT+ community and/or other marginalized groups in its considerations, although it should be careful to avoid over-militarizing the mechanisms of progress in these areas. Expanding USMOG-W to support the pre-deployment training, actual deployment, and dialogue with the UN Office of Military Affairs of this increased American deployment to peace operations is necessary for the United States to maximize the effectiveness of the missions for which it provides so much financial support.

President Biden begins his term with a desire for the United States to reenter the world stage and retake its historical role as leader of the free world. An excellent way for his administration to do this is by increasing American support to UN peacekeeping operations financially, logistically, and even by direct contribution of troops. In addition to bolstering a generally effective tool for conflict resolution and peacebuilding, this serves American interests by being a cost-effective signal that the United States is invested in the world and in the wellbeing of people in conflict areas. It also serves American national security interests by preventing the proliferation of armed groups which can eventually pose a terrorist threat to American citizens abroad and at home. If the United States can gather a coalition of nations to follow suit, peacekeepers will be even better equipped and able to carry out multidimensional mandates and therefore will be more successful in their mission to build stable, prosperous, peaceful states.

[1] Dobbins, James, Seth G. Jones, Keith Crane, Andrew Rathmell, Brett Steele, Richard Teltschik, and Anga R. Timilsina, The UN’s Role in Nation-Building: From the Congo to Iraq. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2005. https://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG304.html. Also available in print form.

[2] Walter, Barbara F., Lise Morje Howard, and V. Page Fortna. 2020. “The Extraordinary Relationship Between Peacekeeping And Peace”. British Journal Of Political Science, 1-18. doi:10.1017/s000712342000023x.

[3] Kathman, Jacob, and Reed Wood. 2016. “Stopping The Killing During The “Peace”: Peacekeeping And The Severity Of Postconflict Civilian Victimization”. Foreign Policy Analysis 12 (2).

[4] Hultman, Lisa; Kathman Jacob; and Shannon, Megan. “Beyond Keeping Peace: United Nations Effectiveness in the Midst of Fighting.” The American Political Science Review 108, no. 4 (2014): 737-53. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44154190.

[5] Beardsley, Kyle, and Kristian Gleditsch. 2015. “Peacekeeping As Conflict Containment”. International Studies Review 17 (1): 67-89.

[6] Walter, Barbara F., Lise Morje Howard, and V. Page Fortna. 2020. “The Extraordinary Relationship Between Peacekeeping And Peace”. British Journal Of Political Science, 1-18. doi:10.1017/s000712342000023x.

[7] Gizelis, Theodora-Ismene, and Xun Cao. 2020. “A Security Dividend: Peacekeeping And Maternal Health Outcomes And Access To Education”. Journal Of Peace Research 58 (2): 263-278. doi:10.1177/0022343320917198.

[8] Ibid

[9] Congressional Research Service. 2021. “United Nations Issues: U.S. Funding Of U.N. Peacekeeping.”

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Center on International Cooperation, “Peace Operations Review 2019” (New York, Center on International Cooperation, 2019).

[13] Ibid

[14] “How We Are Funded”. 2021. United Nations Peacekeeping. https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/how-we-are-funded.

[15] Congressional Research Service. 2021. “United Nations Issues: U.S. Funding Of U.N. Peacekeeping.”

[16] The White House. 2021. “The President’s FY2022 Discretionary Request.”

[17] Ibid

[18] Shendruck, Amanda, Laura Hillard, and Diana Roy. 2020. “Funding The United Nations”. Council On Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/article/funding-united-nations-what-impact-do-us-contributions-have-un-agencies-and-programs.

[19] Congressional Research Service. 2018. “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress.”

[20] Government Accountability Office. 2006. “Peacekeeping: Cost Comparison Of Actual UN And Hypothetical U.S. Operations In Haiti.”

[21] Government Accountability Office. 2006. “UN Peacekeeping: Cost Estimate for Hypothetical U.S. Operation Exceeds Actual Costs for Comparable UN Operation.”

[22]Hultman et al. 2019. “Evaluating The Conflict-Reducing Effect Of UN Peacekeeping Operations.”

[23] Sherman, Jake, Alischa Kugel, and Andrew Sinclair. 2012. “Overcoming Helicopter Force Generation Challenges For UN Peacekeeping Operations”. International Peacekeeping 19 (1): 77-92. doi:10.1080/13533312.2012.642163.

[24] Ibid

[25] Reim, Garrett. 2018. “Boeing Wins UH-1N Replacement Contract From USAF”. Flight Global. https://www.flightglobal.com/networks/boeing-wins-uh-1n-replacement-contract-from-usaf/129632.article.

[26] “US Air Force Fact Sheets: UH-1N Huey”. 2021. U.S. Air Force. https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104464/uh-1n-huey/.

[27] Rappa, Ryan. 2016. “The Challenges Of Full Deployment On UN Peace Operations”. Global Peace Operations Review.

[28]United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations. 2019. “Summary Of Troop Contributing Countries By Ranking.”

[29]Sherman, Jake, Alischa Kugel, and Andrew Sinclair. 2012. “Overcoming Helicopter Force Generation Challenges For UN Peacekeeping Operations”. International Peacekeeping 19 (1): 77-92. doi:10.1080/13533312.2012.642163.

[30] “Women In Peacekeeping”. 2021. United Nations Peacekeeping. https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/women-peacekeeping.

[31] “Demographics Of The U.S. Military”. 2020. Council On Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/demographics-us-military.

[32] UN Women, 2015, Facts and Figures: Peace and Security

[33] Holshek, Christopher. 2011. “US Military Observers And Comprehensive Engagement”. Small Wars Journal. https://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/673-holshek.pdf.

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