The Coming Peacekeeping Crunch

By September, predicts Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Peter Pace, we may know whether or not the "military part" of the surge is working in Iraq. By then we may also learn whether another surge -- one that eclipses the 20,000 additional troops approved for Iraq in January -- has been successful as well.

In the last eight months, the demand for United Nations peacekeepers has increased by some 37,000 police and military personnel, a jump of nearly 50 percent in the total number of peacekeepers deployed around the world. But while the president is pressing Congress to pay for his Iraq surge, the same cannot be said of UN peacekeeping -- American arrearages to UN peacekeeping are now on pace to exceed $1 billion by year's end.

A deadbeat of that caliber would be a significant drain on any organization. But with a record number of peacekeeping operations deployed around the world -- and new missions just getting off the ground in Lebanon, East Timor, and Darfur -- UN peacekeeping is poised to stretch beyond its breaking point. A peacekeeping crunch would not only be a tragedy for hundreds of million people living in conflict zones; it could pose significant challenges to American foreign policy as well. With American forces bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the UN has quietly taken up the burden of stabilizing conflict zones in the rest of the world.


In 2006, 18 UN peacekeeping missions around the world cost about $5.5 billion. Every few years, UN member states agree to a weighted dues payment scale to fund these missions. The United States is the single largest financial contributor to the peacekeeping budget and is assessed at 27 percent of the annual budget. But thanks to the legacy of former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, notorious for his antagonism toward multilateralism in general and the United Nations in particular, the United States does not pay its dues in full. In 1999, Senator Helms teamed with a fellow traveler in the lower chamber, the former House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, to pass a bill that capped American contributions to UN peacekeeping at 25 percent. Since then, the gap between what the United States is billed and what it pays has ballooned into significant arrears.

So far, the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has been able to cope with these shortfalls without too much disruption to the missions. In part, this is because overhead for peacekeeping is very low -- only around 7 percent. DPKO has also learned to make the most of a skeleton staff; over 100,000 uniformed and civilian personnel around the world are managed by only 700 staff at UN Headquarters in New York, giving UN peacekeeping a so-called "tooth-to-tail" ratio of around 143:1. Comparatively, that same ratio is somewhere between 1:2 and 1:3 for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Indeed, for what the United States spends on Iraq in one month, the United Nations could fund all of its 18 peacekeeping missions for a full year.

Soon, however, that kind of frugality in Turtle Bay may no longer be an option. In the last eight months, the Security Council has authorized new missions to Lebanon, East Timor, and Darfur -- and is considering fourth and fifth possible missions in Somalia and Chad/Central African Republic. Taken together, the three authorized missions alone would raise the total UN peacekeeping budget to an estimated $8 billion. But rather than sending a budget to Congress to meet these new needs, the White House’s FY 2008 request asked Congress to appropriate $1.1 billion for UN peacekeeping, only about 24 percent of the UN’s current peacekeeping budget. If President Bush's request passes as is, it would add another $450 million to the existing American debt of $569 million -- and that does not even count the costs of prospective missions to Somalia, Chad or the Central African Republic.

The coming crunch will not directly affect the deployments in East Timor and Lebanon, which are already off the ground. But the proposed mission to Darfur, totaling about 17,300 troops, will suffer if funding sources for the soldiers are not guaranteed. The United Nations might also be forced to withdraw blue helmets from still-volatile places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia or Haiti, and redeploy them elsewhere. Indeed, the White House budget request assumes that two missions could be shut down and seven others can be significantly scaled back. This includes a 50 percent cut in funding for the United Nations Mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country just emerging from years of war and hardly ready for any significant scaling back of international forces.

The problem, indeed, is most acute in Africa, where some 75 percent of all UN peacekeepers are deployed. The surge of peacekeeping in Africa has not been met by a surge in the number of staff in the African Division of DPKO. And as the number of peacekeepers in the field grows while the number of support staff remains static, risks from the resulting lack of oversight accumulate. Peacekeeper misconduct, like the sexual abuse scandals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2003 and 2004, could become more commonplace. So too will basic equipment shortages, already a problem in some missions.

A cash flow crisis is also possible. Right now, the vast majority of UN blue helmets come from developing countries, whose militaries are compensated at $1,110 per solider per month. If the peacekeeping budget grows and wealthy member states refuse to ante up, payments could theoretically be missed. Not only would this be problematic for soldiers in the field, but countries that historically supply the bulk of peacekeepers around the world (soldiers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh make up some 40 percent of the UN's peacekeepers) may not be forthcoming with any new troop contributions.

A shortage of peacekeepers would not only harm the international community's efforts to respond to conflicts in disparate parts of the globe, but it could seriously undermine American interests as well. There are over 20,000 UN peacekeepers in Haiti and Liberia, two countries where U.S. marines have deployed in the last decade. Were UN peacekeepers not available for these assignments, the United States military -- already burdened by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan -- would either be forced to choose between intervention or letting these unstable nations fall back into chaos. Indeed, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once remarked to Kofi Annan (recounted in James Traub's book Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power), "If there were not 6,000 Brazilians in Haiti, there would be 6,000 American Marines."

The irony here is that, as a permanent member of the Security Council, the United States could simply veto new missions. But it does not. Rather, it votes for new missions without providing for their funding, all while shortchanging existing missions. This habit is clearly unsustainable.

In January, Senator Joseph Biden introduced legislation that would temporarily raise the peacekeeping dues cap. Simply introducing the bill, however, is far different than shepherding it through Congress. Writing on the blog of Citizens for Global Solutions, a grassroots lobby, Executive Vice President Don Kraus expressed fear that without Biden's personal intervention, a bill to lift the peacekeeping cap could die from neglect. If Congress does not increase the president's budget request, UN peacekeeping may not be able to handle the new responsibilities entrusted to it.

Where peacekeepers have deployed, they have performed well, particularly in post-conflict reconstruction efforts. A 2005 RAND Corporation study found that UN-led nation building efforts enjoy a success rate far greater than unilateral nation building operations. And with recent elections in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor, and Haiti, the United Nations is quietly racking up a significant record of accomplishments. That record of success, however, may be in jeopardy should the United States fail to settle its arrears and pay its peacekeeping dues, on time and in full.

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