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Is 'US Peacekeeper' an oxymoron?

The title of this page was the start of the discussion evening held at 27 November 2002. People form different nationalities attended (Irish, Canadian, US and Dutch), and although the discussion topic tended to diverge into various areas, some of them more related to the main question than others, the overall idea was that the US is not ideally equipped at performing peacekeeping duties, nor has a good track record of doing so.

The following is not quite an accurate description of the discussions, but hopefully will give you an idea about (official) US foreign policy and some of the aspects that make it difficult, if not impossible, for the US army to actively contribute to peacekeeping operations (PKOs).


First, what exactly defines a peacekeeping operation? The former Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold called peacekeeping 'chapter six and a half' of the United Nations Charter, i.e. in between traditional methods of resolving disputes peacefully, such as mediation and fact-finding (Chapter VI) and more forceful action, such as embargos and military intervention (Chapter VII). A more explanatory description would be "the prevention, limitation, moderation and cessation of hostilities between or within States due to the intervention of a third party, which is organized and directed at the international level and which calls upon military, police and civilian personnel to restore peace" (Rikhye). In practice, this meant that 'traditional' PKOs could be military observer missions and/or peacekeeping forces observing such things as a cease-fire between the parties involved in a conflict (after some sort of peace agreement was signed by the involved factions).
After the end of the Cold War, conflicts around the world became more complex, according to the standard idea (previous conflict weren't all clear cut, but in the '90s the time was there to see conflicts as being more multi-dimensional). Further, more countries are eligible to offer peacekeepers (e.g. Eastern European countries) and there's a growing-up of peacekeeping theory in UN and academia.
Therefore PKOs changed into more complex operations composed not only of military, but also including civilian police and other civilian personnel who were mandated to help create political institutions and broaden their base, thereby working alongside governments, NGOs and local citizens' groups to provide emergency relief, demobilize former fighters and reintegrate them into society, clear mines, organize and conduct elections and promote sustainable development practices. (The latter bordering peacebuilding operations, those being defined as to reconcile the affected population, rebuild trust and confidence and to develop economic opportunities.)

Now, where does (or does not) the US fit in?

Weinberger Doctrine

A first attempt by the US to determine if, and if yes when, they should become involved in PKOs, was made during the Reagan-period in the early '80s. Several soldiers had lost their lives during US-incited fights in Lebanon and the Administration wanted clarity for future possible involvement in UN operations. This resulted in the so-called Weinberger Doctrine, listing six criteria:
  • US vital interests should be at stake
  • Overwhelming force should be used to ensure victory
  • Objectives, both political and military, must be clear
  • Proper resources must be available
  • Before deployment, Congress must give bi-partisan agreement
  • Use of military support should be last resort
Well, over the years the Cold War ended in the late '80s and more complex UN operations were started. One of them was UNOSOM in Somalia, to which the US not only contributed troops, but also held key positions in the whole operation (the Special Representative to the Secretary General was US admiral Jonathan Howe and Thomas Montgommery as Commander of the Army). To cut a long story short: UNOSOM was a mess. Or worded slightly different, it was an opportunity for the Bush, and later Clinton, Administration to redefine future US involvement in UN operations.

Presidential Decision Directive 25

A first start in the direction of redefining US involvement in PKOs, though not mentioning the politically more sensitive issue of US military involvement, was the speech President Bush (Sr) held during his UN speech in 1992 (21-9):
"As much as the United Nations has done, it can do much more"
setting out five areas in need of improvement: better peacekeeping equipment and training at the national level, enhanced interoperability, planning and training of multinational forces, an improved system for providing logistics support, an enhanced capability for planning, crisis management and intelligence capabilities and an adequate and equitable financing of UN operations. Of course, all of this requires quite some money to implement, where the US is not really a good example in paying their membership fees (see Global Policy for the latest figures). Further, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, most notably General Colin Powell and Defence Secretary Dick Cheney, held the view that the US should only contribute its "unique" capabilities, like airlift, command, control and communications & intelligence capabilities. At the end of the Bush administration National Security Decision Directive 74 was finished, but the 2.5 page document was still vague surrounding US participation in PKOs.

Anyway, Clinton wanted to devise his own policy, moreover because this new Administration viewed both peacekeeping and the UN in a positive light.
First, Madeleine Albright, the new US Ambassador to the UN, worded the US position as follows:
"Though sometimes we will act alone, our foreign policy will necessarily point toward multilateral engagement. But unless the United States also exercises leadership within collective bodies like the United Nations, there is a risk that multilateralism will not serve our national interest well -in fact, it may undermine our interests. The two realities -multilateral engagement and US leadership within collective bodies- require an "assertive multilateralism" that advances US foreign policy goals"
General Colin Powell, in September 1993, described the US position in a somewhat more straightforward manner:
"Notwithstanding all of the changes that have taken place in the world, notwithstanding the new emphasis on peacekeeping, peace enforcement, peace engagement, preventive diplomacy, we have a value system and a culture system within the armed forces of the United States. We have this mission: to fight and win the nation's wars...(emphasis added)
He is currently Secretary of State under Bush jr.

A Presidential Review Directive (-13), Somalia, lots of discussion, meetings and two drafts later (May 1994), PDD-25 was signed, which is supposed to a (rough) checklist to be met before joining a PKO.

Key Element Final Policy PDD-25
Guidelines for supporting UN operations 1. Threat to international peace/security
2. Clear objectives, and agreement on whether mission is peacekeeping or enforcement
3. Appropriate mandate, forces, financing available
4. International consensus and advances US interest
5. If Ch VI, cease-fire in place; if Ch VII, threat to peace and security is significant
6. Realistic criteria for ending operation
7. Consequences of inaction unacceptable
Guidelines for US participation in UN operations 1. Advances US interest
2. If necessary for success of mission
3. Clear objectives and identifiable end point
4. Acceptable command and control relationship
5. Domestic/congressional support exists or can be marshalled
6. Unique/general risks to US troops are acceptable
Guidelines for US participation in combat 1. Sufficient forces to achieve clearly defined objectives
2. Decisive use of force
3. Adjust force size to achieve objectives
Guidelines on UN command 1. Forces under US command, but can be under UN control
2. Appeal orders that are outside mandate or illegal, first to UN command then to US authorities
3. High-risk operations not under UN control
Position on "Article 43 Agreements"
(a standby rapid reaction force)
1. Reject "at this time"; study issue in future
2. Notify UN of specific types of capabilities that can be made available on case-by-case basis

Having a list of guidelines looks impressive, but what does/can it mean? How do you define a certain situation as a "Threat to international peace/security"? What constitutes a 'real' threat (as opposed to media hype and fear)? Does 'international peace/security' mean truly international, or just the US and Europe? How far stretches "international consensus"? Consensus may seem a clear concept, but the latest influential UN report on peacekeeping (Brahimi) includes 'forced consensus', and maybe it's my feeling of conspiracy theories, but I did not have the idea that there was a widespread consensus in the Security Council when the 15 Members voted on the Resolution to send weapons inspectors into Iraq (nor was there a consensus between the US and EU); moreover, consensus/compliance from the side of Iraq was extorted with the (proverbial) gun against Saddam Hussein's head.
Another guideline is "Consequences of inaction unacceptable". Does that mean that the US considered the genocide in Rwanda acceptable?
Admitted, "Advances US interest" is a considerably clearer statement than the others, although a notion of 'well, every now and then we like to do things for altruistic reasons' would have been nicer.
With regards to the last point, i.e. a standby rapid reaction force in order to be able to react swiftly when fast, urgent intervention is needed, I cite Colin Powell again:
"As long as I am chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I will not agree to commit American men and women to an unknown war, in an unknown land, for an unknown cause, under an unknown commander, for an unknown duration."
There still are no standby troops, nor earmarked resources.

Overall, the PDD-25 marked three significant changes in the policy of involvement in PKOs: the US is now prepared to make available the full spectrum of its military capabilities to multilateral peace operation (and not just the "unique" ones); second, US contributions, even of combat forces, can be subject to the operational control of the UN commanders; last, the new formula for shared responsibility between the State and Defense Departments may increase financing for UN operations.
To give you an idea, the US monthly contributions, as of 31 January 2001, was 43 observers, 844 police and 1 troops (you can compare and contrast this with other contributing countries here; it's not particularly impressive).

The present

Having briefly discussed US policy, this does not really address the question if US troops can be peacekeepers or not. The US defining how they look at the matter is one thing, how potential recipients think of it is a whole other story.
Direct participation of US combat forces can be problematic. First, as Colin Powell eloquently stated, the US soldiers are trained to fight, kill and win wars. Although the Brahimi report opened the doors officially to allow peace enforcement, its intentions are different than those of the US. Brahimi speaks of "consolidation of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programmes", which sometimes might require a bit of peace enforcement, thus looking at using forces to achieve lasting peace in a more constructive way and followed up with peacebuilding, and not just to master the enemy. Secondly, fighting wars and having enemies goes in tandem with taking sides, the "good guys - bad guys" approach, whereas UN PKOs require impartiality. Related to the problem of taking sides is, that it has invited, and will invite, local retribution, thereby jeopardizing not only US troops, but also discrediting the UN as an unprejudiced third party.
Third, though it doesn't sound nice, US citizens tend to think they're the best ("psychology of primacy" as Daalder calls it) and don't like to turn the other cheek when challenged, which peacekeeping sometimes requires. Moreover, they're sentimental people and don't fully understand when the subjects of US assistance start to bite the hands that feed them: UN involvement attempting to assist in resolving a conflict generally is with the best intentions, but that doesn't mean that all involved parties are always 100% content with UN presence during an UN operation.
Further, the US being a large, rich country, both its successes and failures are 'splashier' than from other countries. (Take for example the failure of DutchBat in Srebrenica, there are no grave repercussions imposed on the Netherlands.) Last, US foreign policy objectives in the post cold war era are much less focused; it's the domestic politics that tend to dictate the choice, extent and duration of US support for and participation in UN operations. It seems more like a 'searching' for an opponent, as a tool to unify Americans and something to keep the gun lobby and war industry happy.

Summarizing, despite the US Administration having devised guidelines for themselves to join or not to join a PKO, US foreign policy still lacks a clear focus ("those terrorist" is very ill defined, hypocritical and at least partially based on fear and suspicions instead of clear evidence) and their army is not trained for peacekeeping (they are trained to kill, to take sides and have a psychology of primacy). Therefore the question the discussion evening started with can be answered with

YES, 'US peacekeeper' is a contradiction in terms.

Consulted literature

Durch, W.J.(ed). UN peacekeeping, American policy and the uncivil wars of the 1990s.

The E-module of the University Of Calgary

Global Policy Forum: Briefing Book on UN Peacekeeping Released

Tripp, G. M. United States as 'peacekeepers'. Course handout: Peacekeeping & Peacebuilding. University of Limerick, Ireland.

Madeleine Albright's quote from: US Congress, House Committee on Foreign Affairs, US Participation in United Nations Peacekeeping Activities, Hearings before the Subcommittee on International Security, International Organizations, and Human Rights, 103rd cong., 2nd sess., statement by Amb. Madeleine K. Albright, 24 June 1994, 3-21.

Colin Powell's quote: cited in Daalder, I. US policy for peacekeeping. In: UN peacekeeping, American policy and the uncivil wars of the 1990s. Durch, W.J. (ed.). p41 and p43.

PDD-25 table adapted from: Daalder, I. US policy for peacekeeping. In: UN peacekeeping, American policy and the uncivil wars of the 1990s. Durch, W.J. (ed.). pp 52-53.

Brahimi, L. Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations. United Nation reference: A/55/305 S/2000/809. Aug 2000. 74p. (downloadable via the website of the UN)

This page was written by Marijke Keet.

Last updated on: 2 December 2002
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