Although it is over half a century old, the term ‘peacekeeping’ still has the power to evoke opposite – at times virulent — reactions in people.
To the Utopian Internationalist, peacekeeping evokes images of military personnel sporting blue berets (or helmets as the situation dictated) positioning themselves between two erstwhile opponents while a diplomatic end to the conflict was sought in the halls of the UN General Assembly. This scene is, to a degree, truthful. What’s missing in these nostalgic recollections from well-intended people is the fact that the world was a lot simpler. Peacekeeping’s apogee took place in a bipolar globe: on one side there was the USA, and on the other the USSR. Their hegemonic interests drove the way nations aligned with either or interacted with each other; if conflict broke out between two such countries, all these giants had to do was (subtly) pull back their respective proxy’s leash and the conflict would cease. Peace was much easier to attain when client rulers were reminded who buttered their bread. The fall of the Soviet Union, however, has made peace much more elusive as the number of players (state, non-state, and transnational organizations) striving to reach the top of their dung heap has increased, and there is only one power who could try to pull back the reins.
To the salty cynic (and I count myself among their ranks), peacekeeping was merely an illusion to mask more complex geopolitical motives. Towards the end of his book Wars of Empire, American military historian and academic Douglas Porch compared military interventions under the aegis of peacekeeping as an extension of the colonial imperial mission: to reduce zones of instability in areas of interest. William Shawcross goes further by detailing in Deliver us From Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords, and a World of Endless Conflict how peacekeeping has been used to serve some countries’ national interests, e.g., peacekeeping operations in Haiti and the Balkans to prevent a flow of unwanted refugees washing over the US and Western Europe respectively, and Operation Turquoise, a French “peacekeeping” mission to Rwanda intended more for safeguarding French-speaking Hutus from English-speaking Tutsi reprisals than actually finding long-term peace in the country. Such complex motives, coupled with a more schizophrenic environment, has led military planners to replace the term ‘peacekeeping’ with the more realistic ‘peace operations.’
Regardless of where you fall in this debate, on this National Peacekeeper’s Day, please take the time to keep in your thoughts the average military personnel serving on these UN missions. These men and women are either deployed with equipment not suited to the actual – and often violent – situation on the ground; are constrained by unrealistic rules of engagement which fail to protect them and those they are meant to defend; and oftentimes are merely instruments of revenue generation for their home countries as their governments keep the UN bonus payments meant for the soldiers on the ground. Keep them in your thoughts as they struggle now, as much as they did in the past, to bring a bit of peace and civility in an increasingly fractionalized world.