News | Sept. 28, 2021

Doing Well by Doing Good? Strategic Competition and United Nations Peacekeeping

By Bryce Loidolt Strategic Perspectives 36

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Executive Summary

The Joseph Biden administration’s Interim Strategic Guidance emphasizes the importance of ensuring that international organizations “continue to reflect the universal values, aspirations, and norms that have underpinned the UN [United Nations] system since its founding 75 years ago, rather than an authoritarian agenda.”1 In this context, several trends in competitor contributions to UN peacekeeping operations could be cause for alarm and warrant greater U.S. engagement. Although Washington remains the largest billpayer for these missions, both Russian and Chinese personnel contributions to UN peacekeeping have surpassed those of the United States. Chinese financial contributions are slowly increasing and, unlike the United States, are paid on time, in full, and without conditions. China is also the largest troop contributor to peacekeeping missions among the Permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council.

Russian and Chinese investments alone do not require a response from the United States. Both countries could presumably offer much-needed political and material support to UN peacekeeping missions, which have grown in complexity and frequency since the end of the Cold War. Russian and Chinese support for peacekeeping could thus be benign—even helpful— to the United States. Nor is competitor involvement the only reason the United States might consider increasing its own participation in this important dimension of global governance. UN peacekeeping missions could indeed offer opportunities for U.S. military personnel to serve in diverse multinational coalitions, bolster America’s global image, or develop and implement peacekeeping capacity-building programs.

Still, Chinese and Russian influence on peacekeeping could have serious repercussions for U.S. interests. Engagement in UN peacekeeping could allow Russia and China to establish footholds in host countries, develop military experience, and then influence or topple the procedures and norms guiding the behavior of the over 60,000 peacekeeping troops currently deployed under a UN mandate. Much of this could undermine the effectiveness of the peacekeeping enterprise at a time when the United States may wish to rely more on multilateral approaches to managing civil conflicts and other forms of instability.

This study thus evaluates the benefits that U.S. competitors have gained through their engagement in UN peacekeeping and assesses the extent to which these benefits necessarily challenge U.S. interests. It finds the threat to U.S. interests from Russian and Chinese participation in UN missions and deliberations to be most pronounced at UN headquarters. At the UN, China has advanced initiatives that reflect its desire for a less-muscular brand of peacekeeping, just as Russia has been able to protect its access to lucrative peacekeeping contracts during budget negotiations. Both countries have sought to eliminate human rights posts in UN missions.

Competitor activities within UN missions have not yet systematically eroded their effectiveness or impartiality, however. This is not to say that Russia and China have avoided using their presence in UN missions to pursue national objectives. China has been able to use its peacekeeping deployments as a platform for its own development activities and, likely, information- gathering for local business opportunities. Beijing’s peacekeepers have also at times attempted to pilfer personally identifiable information about their foreign counterparts and gain insights into the operating concepts of more advanced militaries. Russian staff officers have sometimes obstructed the activities of UN peacekeeping missions that conflict with Moscow’s interests in host countries.

At the same time, though, U.S. competitors have also faced several obstacles in their attempts to wield peacekeeping contributions more forcefully or in ways that more directly infringe on mission priorities. Risk aversion and geographic separation have rendered Chinese peacekeepers unable or unwilling to directly protect Beijing’s economic interests in host countries, and Chinese pursuit of information about advanced militaries in or adjacent to UN missions has not yet distracted from mission effectiveness or undermined mission cohesion. Russia’s disruptive approach has also only occurred in rare instances where its interests in the host country were particularly intense. Neither competitor has been able to uniformly improve bilateral ties with host governments due to its personnel contributions alone.

Collectively, these findings imply a measured response from the United States to address this challenge. Though Washington should still seek areas of agreement with both Russia and China in the UN peacekeeping sphere, U.S. policy must shift from viewing it as a purely cooperative domain. Specifically, this study recommends that the United States focus on competing for senior-level positions within the UN Department of Peace Operations, while also working to prevent and identify competitor pursuit of parallel interests in missions. Doing so requires the United States to build a bench of qualified personnel who can serve in UN headquarters; establish a consensus and work to separate national contingents and personnel from parallel interests; prioritize missions with competitor presence and parallel interests for U.S. staff officer deployments; and develop mechanisms to identify, name, and shame competitor behavior that harms mission effectiveness.

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