Paving the Road to Hell: The Failure of U.N. Peacekeeping |By Max Boot

Paving the Road to Hell: The Failure of U.N. Peacekeeping


The United Nations started the 1990s with such high hopes. With the end of the Cold War, the U.S.-Soviet rivalry that had paralyzed the Security Council had become a thing of the past, supposedly freeing the U.N. to become more assertive. The Gulf War, the U.N.’s second-ever military victory, seemed to vindicate those hopes — even though, as in the Korean War, the baby-blue banner was used as a mere flag of convenience for an American-led alliance. President Bush spoke of a “new world order.” Candidate Clinton talked about giving the United Nations more power and even its own standing military force.

It is hard to find any U.S. officials making similar suggestions today, only a decade later. They have been chastened, presumably, by the U.N.’s almost unrelieved record of failure in its peacekeeping missions.

The United Nations itself has recently released reports documenting two of its worst stumbles. According to these confessions, U.N. peacekeepers in Rwanda stood by as Hutu slaughtered some 800,000 Tutsi. In Bosnia, the U.N. declared safe areas for Muslims but did nothing to secure them, letting the Serbs slaughter thousands in Srebrenica. The organization’s meddling was worse than useless: its blue-helmeted troops were used as hostages by the Serbs to deter a military response from the West. Presumably, Secretary-General Kofi Annan — who was head of the U.N.’s peacekeeping department at the time — hopes that an institutional mea culpa now will wipe the slate clean and allow the organization to play a more vigorous role in the future.

The arrival of Deliver Us From Evil, a new book by British journalist William Shawcross, provides a good opportunity to ponder whether this is a realistic expectation. Shawcross presents a highly readable, if at times repetitive and scattershot, chronicle of U.N. diplomacy and humanitarian interventions in the past decade. Though predisposed to favor U.N. peacekeeping — much of this book is written from the viewpoint of Annan, with whom the author traveled the world — Shawcross is too honest a reporter to gloss over its failures. He even concedes that humanitarian aid may sometimes do more harm than good by prolonging a war.



Despite the failures he chronicles, however, Shawcross’ faith in U.N. peacekeeping — and in Annan — does not appear to have been seriously shaken. Although the book is generally sober, at points Shawcross gives in to giddiness, as when he describes the secretary-general as “the world’s ‘secular pope'” and “the repository of hope and the representative of such civilized standards of international behavior as we have been able to devise.” At another point, Shawcross quotes (with no discernible irony) a U.N. official who describes the peacekeeping mission to Cambodia as “a model and shining example” because of the election staged there in 1993 — never mind that Hun Sen promptly usurped power after losing at the ballot box.

Wherever possible, Shawcross blames such messes on the permanent members of the Security Council, whom he indicts for blocking the expansion of these missions. He dutifully quotes U.N. bureaucrats who complain that they did the best they could with inadequate resources, and he suggests they be given more support in the future. He’s being too kind by half.

The failures of the United Nations should not be blamed just on the great powers. They owe as much to the mindset of U.N. administrators, who think that no problem in the world is too intractable to be solved by negotiation. These mandarins fail to grasp that men with guns do not respect men with nothing but flapping gums. A good example of this incomprehension was Annan’s opera bouffe negotiations with Saddam Hussein. In 1998, Annan undertook shuttle diplomacy to Baghdad, reached a deal with Saddam to continue weapons inspections, and declared him “a man I can do business with.” Almost immediately Saddam flouted his agreement with Annan. But even then the secretary-general told Shawcross, “I’m not convinced that massive use of force is the answer. Bombing is a blunt instrument.”

Annan has actually been more pragmatic than many of his predecessors. But his outlook is inevitable in anyone who has spent years working at Turtle Bay. Just as the U.S. Marine Corps breeds warriors, so the U.N.’s culture breeds conciliators.

A large part of the problem is that Annan and his staff work not for the world’s people but for their 188 (and counting) governments. Annan proclaimed last fall that sovereignty is on the decline — and so it is, everywhere except at the U.N. There, at least in the General Assembly, all regimes, whether democratic or despotic, have an equal vote. Annan and other employees must be careful not to unduly offend any member state, and so they wind up adopting a posture of neutrality among warring parties, even when one side (such as Serbia or Iraq) is clearly in the wrong.

When the United Nations does use force, the results are often pathetic. The various national contingents that make up U.N. peacekeeping operations — Bangladeshis, Bulgarians, Brazilians, and the like — are chosen not for martial prowess but because their governments are willing to send them, often for no better reason than to collect a daily stipend. The quality of these outfits varies widely: Shawcross writes, for instance, that the Bulgarians in Cambodia were “said to be more interested in searching for sex than for cease-fire violations.” Trying to coordinate all these units, with their incompatible training, procedures, and equipment (to say nothing of languages), makes a mockery of the principle of “unity of command.” Little wonder that blue helmets strike no fear in the hearts of evildoers.

Of course, as Shawcross repeatedly points out, this sorry state of affairs would change instantly if only the United States and its allies would commit more muscle to U.N. operations. But why should great powers limit their freedom of action by giving bureaucrats from not-so-great powers control over their military interventions?


At the end of the 1990s, then, the United Nations remains what it has always been: a debating society, a humanitarian relief organization, and an occasionally useful adjunct to great-power diplomacy — but not an effective independent force. This does not mean we should kill the organization. But it should temper the high expectations of the U.N.’s more idealistic supporters.

It is worth noting that the only interventions that achieved anything worthwhile in the 1990s were conducted outside the U.N. For example, although the Balkans today are not a multicultural paradise, they are relatively peaceful: mass murder has been halted, refugees returned. All this was achieved through great-power action and traditional balance-of-power calculations — both anathema to the Wilsonians at Turtle Bay. In Bosnia, a Croat onslaught and NATO bombing and artillery bombardment combined to roll back Serb forces and to push Slobodan Milosevic to cut a deal. In Kosovo, a rebel ground offensive, NATO air power, and the threat of a NATO invasion again bludgeoned Belgrade into submission. The U.N.’s role was negligible in both cases.

Given his own history, Shawcross is surprisingly receptive to unilateral U.S. action. He made his name, after all, with Sideshow, a 1979 book excoriating U.S. attacks on North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia as a “crime” and blaming Henry Kissinger for the Khmer Rouge takeover. In Deliver Us From Evil, the same author now describes the United States as a “benign force.” This is progress, though Shawcross still seems to put less faith in U.S. leadership than in “a new global architecture” made up of international criminal courts and unenforceable treaties like the ban on land mines.

Such views will strike some realists as woolly-headed. But are realists any more realistic when they deny the need for “humanitarian” interventions? Buchananite isolationists and Kissingerian realpoliticians argue that we need to respect state sovereignty by staying out of other countries’ internal affairs. They speak reverently of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, and warn that we tinker with the inviolable state system it created at our peril.


But most of the world’s nations do not have Westphalian legitimacy in the first place. They are highly artificial entities, most created by Western officials in the twentieth century. Now many of these offspring of European empires, from Indonesia to Yugoslavia, are breaking apart. There is no compelling reason, other than an unthinking respect for the status quo, that the West should feel bound to the boundaries it created in the past. There is even less reason why the West should recognize the right of those who seize power within those borders to do whatever they want to the people who live there — just as long as no one crosses the artificial line separating that domain from the one next door. If taken to its logical conclusion, this sovereignty-centered attitude leads to semantic silliness. On the day in 1991 when Germany recognized Croatia’s independence, did this suddenly transform what had been, the day before, a Serb attack on a rebellious province — an internal matter — into a Serb attack on a sovereign state — an action presumably worthy of international intervention?

Western states certainly never felt bound to respect the sovereignty of others in the past. Surely Prince von Metternich, Kissinger’s hero, would have lost no sleep over the violated sovereignty of Afghans or Zulus. Sovereignty has never been an absolute right, but one “for them’s that can defend it” (or can get others to defend it for them). When, in the nineteenth century, the Ottoman and Chinese empires grew too weak to enforce their proclaimed borders, the great powers of Europe carved them up into zones of influence where European citizens enjoyed extraterritorial privileges.

Today the West is once again intruding on the sovereignty of failed states around the world. The only difference is that this time around, the great powers abjure any desire to annex new territory and act primarily for what are billed as humanitarian motives — not national security reasons as traditionally understood.


Such interventions offend the sensibilities of those who argue, as former Secretary of State James Baker did about Yugoslavia, that “we don’t have a dog in that fight.” The realists want U.S. forces to keep their powder dry until North Korea invades the South, Saddam makes another lunge for Kuwait, or China goes for Taiwan. Ignore two-alarm fires, the realists advise, and await the five-alarm blaze that may (or may not) come.

This cautious attitude, shared by many at the Pentagon, flies in the face of recent history. Democracy, capitalism, and freedom have spread across North America, Europe, and Latin America, and to many parts of Asia — everywhere except Africa. At the same time, notes Shawcross, many parts of the world are being ravaged “by tribalism and by warlordism.” As another book title has it, it is Jihad vs. McWorld. The United States obviously has a stake in promoting the latter and preventing the spread of the former. The nineteenth-century free trade system was protected and expanded by Britain’s Royal Navy; today’s must be safeguarded by the U.S. Navy (along with the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army). This requires taking steps, such as stamping out the slave trade or curtailing ethnic cleansing, that are hard to justify on a narrow calculus of self-interest. But idealism — whether embodied in religion or a secular doctrine of “human rights” — is a real force in human affairs, and one that policymakers cannot ignore in the CNN age.

Nor is idealism solely a force on the American left. Ronald Reagan used American ideals as a powerful weapon to help bring down the Soviet empire. Even George Bush, the arch-realist, felt compelled to undertake “humanitarian” interventions in Somalia and northern Iraq. Bill Clinton expanded this trend, and it is unlikely to change any time soon, no matter who wins the Oval Office this year. Like Britain in the nineteenth century, the United States today has power to spare. So when the public demands action and when the cost of acting is relatively low, it is hard for any president to resist the pressure.

Of course, no nation, no matter how rich, can afford to wage war without end. Wherever possible, the United States should encourage its allies to act without American involvement, as the Australians did in East Timor. And sometimes, as in Rwanda — a place far removed from American interests — the United States may have to make the heartbreaking choice to stay out (or at least to not send ground troops). But when genocide occurs in a region vital to American interests, such as Europe, it is hard to see how Washington can remain aloof.

When the United States does act, of course, it must get it right. Shawcross is correct to criticize the fickle public that demands action but soon loses interest. The two U.S. interventions of the 1990s that failed most spectacularly — Somalia and Haiti — fell into this trap. U.S. troops left both countries too quickly, and both places immediately reverted to a Hobbesian state. Both interventions occurred under the U.N. banner, but Shawcross is right to lay the blame for their failure at the feet of the American leaders who retained control of U.S. combat forces.

Interventions such as these that address symptoms (famine or repression, for example) instead of their causes (such as bad government) are doomed to disappoint. This is a lesson the Clinton administration learned belatedly in Kosovo and Bosnia, and perhaps even in Iraq.

What Shawcross — and his views are reflective of a certain internationalist mindset — fails to fully grasp is how useless, and sometimes counterproductive, U.N. involvement has been.NATO won a victory in Kosovo but then unwisely turned over management of the province to the world body. The U.N. viceroy there, Bernard Kouchner, now faces an impossible task, having to coordinate myriad agencies while carrying out a contradictory mandate: to run Kosovo but to do nothing to prevent its eventual return to Serbian rule. As a result, his administration is in a shambles and reconstruction lags behind schedule. Although it may sometimes make sense to seek the U.N.’s imprimatur for a mission, the organization should not be given operational control. Effective empires require strong proconsuls, not bureaucrats — Kitcheners, not Kouchners.

Perhaps because he fails to grasp the problem, Shawcross doesn’t explore alternatives to the United Nations. But others do. David Rieff has forthrightly and courageously argued for the United States and its allies to undertake “liberal imperialism,” while William Kristol and Robert Kagan have called for the United States to assume a “benevolent global hegemony” — which will necessarily involve fighting some small wars in places like Kosovo.

Contrary to received wisdom, this would not be a new role for the United States. Washington has been involved in other countries’ internal affairs since at least 1805, when, during the Tripolitan War, the United States tried to topple the pasha of Tripoli and replace him with his pro-American brother. Between 1800 and 1934, U.S. marines landed abroad 180 times. In the nineteenth century, they tended to stay for only a few days. Yet they helped open up the world to Western trade and influence, their most spectacular successes being Commodore Perry’s mission to Japan and the defeat of the Barbary pirates. After 1898, U.S. involvements lasted longer: American forces remained behind to run such countries as the Philippines, Haiti, and Cuba. U.S. rule was not democratic, but it gave those countries the most honest and efficient governments they have ever enjoyed.

There are significant obstacles, to be sure, in the path of reviving “liberal imperialism” today. But based on the record, I — unlike Shawcross — have more confidence in U.S. than in U.N. power.


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