Over decades, several truths have emerged about United Nations peacekeeping forces. They can do immense good by separating combatants and pacifying civilian areas. They are, on occasion, guilty of sexual violence and financial corruption in the societies they have been sent to help. And increasingly, the troops are drawn from less wealthy countries, rather than the rich nations that finance the operations.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has focused on improving the peacekeepers’ performance in the challenging combat environments of “host” states like Mali and South Sudan. President Obama has committed the United States to supporting roughly 40,000 additional soldiers and police from 50 donor countries.
But a major task remains. The training, combat experience and relatively high salaries the peacekeepers from developing nations get can equip them to affect politics at home when they return. The United Nations needs to study and clarify what influence — for ill or otherwise — returning troops exert. The question applies in many countries and has gone unanswered for too long.
The current environment — many conflicts at once — has created a seller’s market for peacekeepers, and many less developed countries have responded by letting the United Nations in effect rent their soldiers. Compared with previous decades, the average peacekeeper now comes from a country that is not just poorer but also less democratic and institutionally underdeveloped. Between 1994 and 2014 the average gross domestic product per capita of states providing peacekeepers has declined by 64 percent. Four of the five largest contributions currently come from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Rwanda; their large militaries play an outsize role in domestic and regional politics, including violence against civilians.
For the current fiscal year, the United Nations budgeted more than $8 billion to keep roughly 120,000 peacekeeping personnel deployed. The United States and other rich nations pay generously to support those operations and to train and equip troops. But America sends fewer than 100 soldiers and other personnel directly into the United Nations missions.
The average peacekeeping operation has at the same time grown in intensity; today it more closely resembles active counterinsurgency than the traditional separation and monitoring of two sides after hostilities cease. Indeed, the United Nations is experimenting with what it calls a Force Intervention Brigade made up of troops from Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania that is tasked with offensive operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The United States has devoted considerable resources to predeployment training for such missions. Since 2013, for example, nearly one of every five Rwandan soldiers has received peacekeeper training from America. A United Nations peacekeeper’s monthly stipend of $1,332 often represents a threefold to -twentyfold increase over a soldier’s normal salary.
But what happens when those troops’ missions end? For better or worse, peacekeeping training and combat experience provide tools that can be used for internal security (or repression) back home.
Take Burundi, for example. Minorities in its military, a third of which is deployed as peacekeepers, instigated a failed military coup last year, cracked down on civilian protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s extraconstitutional third term, and then defected to form a new armed opposition. For now, most soldiers seem to be on the sidelines, with some defending civilians, as violence escalates. This may hint that peacekeeping experience can be a stabilizing force, even as payments for the peacekeepers’ services help a president cling to power.
The combined effect of monthly peacekeeper reimbursements, training, equipment and increased financial aid are a valuable source of revenue for cash-challenged Fiji, which has contributed more soldiers per capita than any other nation since 1970. But the political effect of this income can mimic the “resource curse” more commonly associated with oil. For Fiji, peacekeeper salaries alone amount to nearly $10 million in annual revenue, one-fifth of its entire defense budget. Predictably, that props up a political system dominated by the military.
Such an influx of cash can also spawn instability. Maggie Dwyer, a scholar of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh, said that at least 10 mutinies in West Africa since 1991 have been linked to grievances by returning peacekeepers disappointed by the cut in their wages, alongside perceived corruption among their home-based superior officers.
Finally, regimes can use their peacekeeping contributions to replace aid packages from international donors while resisting pressure for domestic reforms. The United States reduced aid to Uganda in response to anti-gay legislation two years ago, but that country remains one of six funded by a new $500 million African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership.
Of course, other militaries with extensive peacekeeping experience have played positive domestic roles. Burkina Faso, which has just experienced back-to-back military coups, deploys roughly a quarter of its army on peacekeeping missions annually. It now appears that the military rank and file has rallied behind the public against the latest group of coup plotters, who had threatened to undermine impending elections.
The bottom line is that a great influx of money, training and combat experience for peacekeepers is likely to have large political consequences in their homelands. But, given current demands, the United Nations simply cannot afford to be choosy in where it gets its peacekeepers.
So if the West wants to reverse the downward trend of wealth and democracy in the largest troop-contributing countries, it’s not a matter of putting money where its mouth is. America and other countries need to put soldiers there too, relieving somewhat the need to supply troops from the most problematic states.
And the United Nations needs to better understand how returning peacekeepers contribute to — or undermine — the politics of their home states. Increased study and attention for peacekeeping veterans also seems not only prudent but ethical, perhaps accompanied by medical or other post-deployment support.
In the United States, we are reconsidering the implications of providing surplus military equipment from foreign counterinsurgency efforts to our domestic police. We should be equally concerned about what happens when surplus soldiers return from similar operations to countries that are much less wealthy, democratic and stable.
Jonathan D. Caverley is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a research associate in the M.I.T. Security Studies Program. Jesse Dillon Savage is a lecturer at the University of Melbourne.