African Studies Quarterly

Why Peacekeeping Fails. Dennis C. Jett. New Rork: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000. 240 pp.


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Former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once described the United Nations as “the sandbox for the Third World.” This humorous image expresses the often petty, often peevish, and nearly always politically self-interested behavior of the member states which make up the United Nations. The continued viability and future role of the United Nations, in light of the global events following September 11, has been hotly debated in recent months, especially as United States-led coalitions are in the process of “nation-building” in both Afghanistan and Iraq without any significant role reserved for the UN. As these peace-building efforts proceed, the UN’s roles as the preeminent international debate forum, neutral mediator, peace enforcer and nation-builder are being seriously challenged. In the past, the most visible and controversial activities undertaken by the UN have been their wide-ranging peacekeeping operations (PKOs). These PKOs have been analyzed in detail, and the future success of such operations presciently predicted, in Jett’s book.

The book was originally written as a doctoral thesis, but the author adds his personal experiences as a foreign service officer in Africa and South America and as an Ambassador to Mozambique, to his in-depth academic research. The result is a coldly logical and cutting critique of the PKOs undertaken by the United Nations. Jett’s thesis is that modern PKOs typically fail because of the UN’s internal structure, the way the member states use the UN and the nature of modern global conflicts. He effectively uses the examples of two recent peacekeeping efforts in Mozambique and Angola to explain the inherent structural ailments within the UN, while also highlighting some unique contextual barriers to effective international peacekeeping. In the process, Jett navigates the reader through thick log-jams of the clumsy acronyms that are so prevalent in the UN, with names such as: MIPONUH, UNPREDEP, and UNAVEM III. The book, while only 195 pages, is a slow march, but is extremely well researched and a sagacious and fair appraisal of the subject matter.

The book’s foreword alludes to what Jett sees as one of the deeper philosophical problems of the United Nations. This problem is its unwillingness to assign blame in global conflicts. The UN generally views conflicts through the lenses of materialism, meaning that conflicts are the result of poverty, and therefore not the result of human agency. Jett writes that, “if poverty is the cause of war, political leaders are absolved of the responsibility for starting conflicts or ending them.”  As Jett correctly points out, “the more general poverty-causes-war theory is wrong” as it “ignores the issue of who is responsible for starting such conflicts,” which, he goes on to say, are caused by “leaders like Saddam Hussein who are unrestrained by democratic institutions.”  It should be immediately obvious why this argument does not resonate among many of the member states of the UN, a large number of whom are certainly not “restrained by democratic institutions” themselves.

The nature of global conflicts and therefore the nature of PKOs have also changed in recent years, from traditional interstate wars to complicated civil wars. In traditional wars, Jett argues, PKOs are typically more successful because the UN has to simply deploy their blue helmeted soldiers between the warring states. In modern conflicts, however, PKOs have been much less successful and have been asked to expand their roles from traditional peacekeeping to multidimensional peacekeeping efforts involving democracy building and other lofty objectives.

Peacekeeping operations have often been rightly accused of merely being pusillanimous political cover for the Security Council members who are unwilling to fully commit to aggressive action to bring lasting peace. The PKOs on the ground, bound as they often are by weak mandates, cannot enforce their own decrees, pressure individual parties to comply or even avert atrocities. A tragic example of this was the infamous occasion in Srebrenica, Bosnia, in the summer of 1995, where peacekeepers, restrained by a weak mandate, stood by helplessly as thousands of civilians were murdered in front of them, in what was supposed to be a "safe haven.”

Jett’s predictions for the future are equally pessimistic. The continued success of future PKOs, he argues, will require more political will on the part of the international community. The PKOs should only be attempted when the conditions are right, they should be fortified with a strong mandate and staffed with creative and politically savvy staffers. He is convinced, however, that there will continue to be a decline in the UN’s peacekeeping activities, that real reform will be unrealistic and that PKOs will continue to be misapplied and doomed to failure.

His predictions are proving sickeningly correct in the case of the UN’s peacekeeping efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the Ituri region of that enormous country, seven hundred UN peacekeepers, bound again by a weak mandate that makes them unable to protect civilians or even themselves, have had to impotently witness the on-going massacres. These peacekeepers, who are mostly Uruguayans, have themselves been targeted by the warring factions, who harbor no fear of reprisal from the international community and whose outrageous actions produce only embarrassed throat-clearing at the Security Council. The Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, whose country unabashedly supports one of the leading tribal factions in the Congo, sardonically describes the UN peacekeepers as “dangerous tourists.”  The Ituri region is Srebrenica all over again.

Jett’s book is particularly interesting in the light of recent international events following the attacks on September 11, 2001. The Afghan and the Iraqi Wars have both been fought to the completion of major hostilities, and the process of nation-building has begun in both countries. This phase, which Jett and others have characterized as “peace building,” has traditionally been the phase in which the UN was the most successful. But these recent conflicts are unlike earlier ones, in that the UN as an organization wants to intervene to prove its relevance, but may be denied a significant role.

Perhaps Jett’s most prescient prediction is the increased use of “coalitions of the willing,” of the sort recently employed in Afghanistan and Iraq. These international alliances fill the PKO vacuum by performing the jobs that have in the past been performed by the UN. It seems likely that these new shifting coalitions and more established alliances such as NATO will continue to bypass the UN as long as the UN exists in its current structure.

Various remedies have been proposed to heal the ailing UN, ranging from the most outlandish to the merely cosmetic. As Jett writes, “the ways to improve peacekeeping are far easier to list than to implement effectively.” Much as he predicts, the UN will most likely remain in its current form and will continue to be politically timid, hopelessly bureaucratic and increasingly irrelevant. This continued course will only lead to further cooption by other international structures and to further pointless and counterproductive squabbling in the dirty mess of the sandbox.

Josiah Brownell
Attorney, Washington, D.C.