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The Future of the United Nations: Implications for Peace Operations

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz.

October 5, 1993

30 Pages

Brief Synopsis

President Clinton has expressed clear support for greater U.N. effectiveness in the peaceful resolution of conflict and the organization of collective security. This entails finding ways to improve U.N. peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peace-enforcement. The U.S. Army will have a vital role in this process and thus must better understand both the U.N. itself and the key issues and questions associated with peace support operations.

The foundation of such understanding is debate on a series of broad issues such as the macro-level configuration of the international system, alterations in global values (especially the notion of sovereignty), and the function of the United Nations in possible future international systems. While questions concerning such problems cannot be answered with certainty, they will serve as the basis for future decisions on doctrine, force structure, and strategy. It is thus vital for American security professionals to grapple with them.

To encourage this process, the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, sponsored a roundtable on October 5, 1993 that brought together distinguished experts from both inside and outside the government. They included widely-published writers, analysts, and practitioners of peace operations. Their goal was less to reach consensus on the future of the U.N. than to agree on what the vital questions, problems, and issues will be. This report is not a verbatim transcript of discussion at the roundtable, but an attempt to capture the debate and identify the core issues which emerged.


The roundtable examined grand strategic issues such as the nature of the future international system and the evolving role of the United Nations. Discussion was organized around a series of topics:

The Future of the International System. The participants generally agreed that the future international system would be two tiered with most conflict occurring in the second tier. This will include the emergence of "failed states." They disagreed on:

• The degree of stability and cooperation within the first tier;
• The extent to which instability and violence in the second tier can threaten first tier states, especially the United States;
• The importance of non-state actors in the system;
• The wisdom or feasibility of attempts to reconstruct failed states.

On the very vital question of when the United States should become involved in second tier conflicts, a majority of the participants supported U.S. involvement in second tier conflict--preferably in preemptive, coalition efforts. They did not agree on coherent strategic criteria for engagement.

The Role of the United Nations. Most participants were skeptical of expanded U.N. activities. There was a feeling that the U.N. does traditional peacekeeping activities fairly well, but would meet with much less success if it attempted to undertake operations requiring a robust military capability.

Strengthening the U.N.? The roundtable participants offered a number of suggestions for strengthening the United Nations. It should focus on the minimum necessary structural, political, and economic changes to deal effectively and in a timely fashion with traditional peacekeeping. This would include improvements in force recruitment, supply of fielded forces, and transportation. The U.N. should also seek to enhance its "peace building" capabilities by developing better methods to recruit, train, and field competent electoral observers, civil administrators, and civilian police. There should also be a limited planning and support staff within the U.N. Secretariat and better coordination between the military and civilian components of peace support operations. The participants did not favor giving the U.N. control of large-scale military missions.

The United States and the United Nations. The roundtable participants generally anticipated a fair degree of compatibility between U.S. and U.N. objectives, and felt that the U.N. could play an important role in American national security strategy as we attempt to avoid a strategic ends/means mismatch. They agreed that gauging the extent to which we wanted to strengthen the U.N. was a vital foreign policy decision, but one on which no clear consensus currently exists. In the future, the United States will be forced to choose between a U.N. with limited utility which we control, or a more influential but autonomous organization.

Conclusion: Issues and Questions. All of the participants at the roundtable were moderates who saw at least some utility in the United Nations, but none considered it a panacea. There was deep agreement that most efforts of the U.N. in the promotion of peace and security would continue to take place in the second tier of the international system or, to use more traditional terminology, in the Third World.

Three "mission types" emerged from the discussion, each with its own problems and prospects: 1) traditional peacekeeping which usually entails monitoring a cease-fire or implementing a negotiated settlement; 2) reconstruction of a failed or destroyed state; and, 3) enforcement actions.

A series of questions will shape future U.S. support for U.N. operations. When should we care enough about second tier conflict to put ourselves at risk? How much should we empower the U.N.? And, is it possible to impose reconstruction on a society in deep conflict? Clear answers to these questions would simplify the task of making the U.S. Army a more effective tool for the support of U.N. operations. Unfortunately, the Army will likely be called on to assist the U.N. even before the American public and policymakers frame coherent answers to these vital questions.

The Army will face at least two major dilemmas as it attempts to increase its proficiency at peace operations. The first is assuring that this increased proficiency does not come at the cost of decreased proficiency in other vital areas such as conventional land warfare. New missions or, at least, new emphases in a time of declining resources can generate great dangers. The second dilemma is one that has run throughout what was once called low-intensity conflict for several decades. The military in general and the Army in particular have devoted far and away the most effort to attempting to understand this sort of conflict and craft coherent responses. Yet the military is, by definition, a secondary actor standing in support of civilian agencies. The difficulty is finding ways to share the Army's accumulated knowledge with the key civilian agencies without militarizing the problem.

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