Great Powers, great baggage

I agree with Mark that the gap between the Security Council’s mandates and what is achievable on the ground has often been startling. In part, this is just hope prevailing over good sense. But it also reflects a deeper reality: when the Security Council authorizes a mission, it may actually be less concerned with the situation on the ground than it is with the political effect of the action at home or vis-a-vis other Council states. This points to an important political role that peacekeeping missions can play: providing political cover for the Great Powers. Historically, peacekeeping evolved in this way and, in a sense, little has changed. The early observer missions to Palestine and then the larger Suez mission in 1956 were explicitly designed to help major powers out of tight spots. Having small states provide troops made sure that the peacekeeping forces didn’t themselves become triggers for great power conflict. Obviously, there have been exceptions to the rule that peacekeeping contributors should be small states and “middle powers.” (The British have contributed large numbers of troops to several missions, including Cyprus and Bosnia.)

It’s important to keep this context in mind, however. In the larger geopolitical game, peacekeeping forces have been buffers between the major powers. Bill Durch suggests that the major powers — or at least more developed states — should start providing manpower for the missions. I think he may be right. But we should acknowledge that this would be a significant conceptual shift and that it might involve political complications. The danger of great power conflagration is much reduced, though it will obviously be prudent to keep certain great powers out of certain regions. China has shown increased interest in peacekeeping, and there was grumbling by human rights activists about the participation of Chinese personnel (mainly engineers) in Sudan. The great powers have troops, but they also bring some heavy political baggage.

Great Powers, great baggage

I agree with Mark that the gap between the Security Council’s mandates and what is achievable on the ground has often been startling. In part, this is just hope prevailing over good sense. But it also reflects a deeper reality: when the Security Council authorizes a mission, it may actually be less concerned with the situation on the ground than it is with the political effect of the action at home or vis-a-vis other Council states. This points to an important political role that peacekeeping missions can play: providing political cover for the Great Powers. Historically, peacekeeping evolved in this way and, in a sense, little has changed. The early observer missions to Palestine and then the larger Suez mission in 1956 were explicitly designed to help major powers out of tight spots. Having small states provide troops made sure that the peacekeeping forces didn’t themselves become triggers for great power conflict. Obviously, there have been exceptions to the rule that peacekeeping contributors should be small states and “middle powers.” (The British have contributed large numbers of troops to several missions, including Cyprus and Bosnia.)

It’s important to keep this context in mind, however. In the larger geopolitical game, peacekeeping forces have been buffers between the major powers. Bill Durch suggests that the major powers — or at least more developed states — should start providing manpower for the missions. I think he may be right. But we should acknowledge that this would be a significant conceptual shift and that it might involve political complications. The danger of great power conflagration is much reduced, though it will obviously be prudent to keep certain great powers out of certain regions. China has shown increased interest in peacekeeping, and there was grumbling by human rights activists about the participation of Chinese personnel (mainly engineers) in Sudan. The great powers have troops, but they also bring some heavy political baggage.

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