The migrants trying to reach Europe give a renewed urgency to the debate on intervention: Can there be islands of peace and prosperity in an ocean of turmoil and despair? For the last 15 years, the answer was a resounding no. The unprecedented growth of UN peacekeeping operations, which saw the number of peacekeepers deployed increase from a few tens of thousands to more than 100,000, embodied a new activism of the international community.
Today that confidence has been lost. Peacekeeping is seen as costly, complicated, and high risk. Is the investment in blood and treasure worth it, when there are so few obvious success stories? Should the priority shift to securing borders and conducting targeted counterterrorism operations rather than pursuing the elusive goal of stabilizing countries?
World leaders are not sure what to make of a decade and a half of interventionism, even if they know that one bout of violence avoided may save tens of thousands of lives, and more than compensates many failures. That may be why there has been no sharp downsizing of UN peacekeeping. As the head of UN peacekeeping for eight years, at the time of its fastest expansion, I believe two important lessons should be brought into the present debate.
First, no amount of force, whether deployed by the UN, US, or NATO, can in and of itself stabilize a country. Stabilization is about politics. Too often in the last 15 years, the focus has been on the hardware of military deployments rather than the software of a smart political strategy. Peacekeepers, instead of providing leverage, can actually become a disincentive for governments to conduct necessary reform.
That is now the risk in Mali, where President Modibo Keita, elected and secure in his position, sees little reason to open up political space and address the many problems of his country. Decisive military action has not been followed by a well-thought out, and inclusive, political strategy.
Second, force can play a critical supporting role in a political process but to do so it needs to be applied early and intelligently. In Afghanistan, the US-led coalition initially relied on warlords, abandoning Kabul and the countryside to militias instead of establishing a strong and impartial international presence. When it became apparent that the Taliban were reconstituting, it had to play catch up. However, applying military force as well as engaging the Taliban was much more difficult once the initial window of opportunity had closed.
The same can be said of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The UN mission there was strengthened in response to crises, and it has become more robust at the time when its political capital is exhausted. On the contrary, a robust posture in the early days of Sierra Leone (after an initial debacle) and Liberia has allowed those two missions – albeit in rather less challenging contexts – to come closer to success.
The Security Council remains ambivalent on the relationship between force and politics. The priority given to protection of civilians – partly a reaction to its abstention at the time of the Rwandan genocide – can become a diversion: the creation a year ago of a special brigade mandated to protect the population of eastern Congo from armed groups is not a sustainable response. Civilians will be protected only when there is a trusted Congolese state.
The Security Council cannot hide behind humanitarian goals to avoid its political responsibility. Nor can counterterrorism operations substitute for politics. In Mali, a rushed political process risks leaving out groups that may then be pushed into the terrorist orbit. In Libya, a military operation without reconciliation between the two main centers of power would most likely further fragment the country.
From Syria to Libya, from South Sudan to Congo, the West would like to have it both ways: using force without putting too many boots on the ground, and achieving peace without risking serious political engagement. That won’t work. Protecting civilians from the sky has major limitations, and the developing countries that provide the bulk of peacekeeping troops are increasingly reluctant to deploy in dangerous environments, leaving the UN reliant on interested parties with the risk of regionalizing war and losing its most critical asset, impartiality. Meanwhile destroying through drone strikes the chain of command of “terrorist” groups is not a political strategy. Most conflicts end with a negotiation, for which you need interlocutors.
What is needed is a combination of humility, determination, and political savvy. Humility, because there is a moral hazard in pursuing overambitious and unsustainable goals of social engineering, and we need to scale down ambitions. Determination, because abstention is not an option, and even limited goals require a willingness to take risks, including through deployments of high capacity forces in support of UN missions. Political savvy, because peace is usually achieved through imperfect compromises that avoid a binary opposition between them and us.
The fog of peace is as treacherous as the fog of war, and it is high time for the international community to acknowledge that the messy conflicts of the 21st century cannot be described and resolved through the prism of simplistic non-political categories.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno is the president & CEO of the International Crisis Group.