Moving from Peacekeeping to Prevention at the UN: Opportunities for Europe

11 May 2017   ·   Richard Gowan

The UNs new Secretary-General Guterres is keen on pushing his prevention agenda forward, making the UN more agile and cheaper. As a result, the UN is slowly handing over security responsibilities to African actors on the continent. This shift opens up opportunities for European players to revitalize and expand their approach to crisis management. Germany is a potential lynchpin for efforts to pool European resources.

The United Nations (UN) may be on the verge of major changes to how it manages crises. A mix of political and financial pressures could spell the end of the large-scale peacekeeping operations in Africa, like those in Darfur and South Sudan, which have been the UN’s trademark since the early 2000s. The decline of these missions presents a strategic challenge for European policy-makers. Although European Union (EU) members have only rarely deployed significant numbers of troops under UN command in Africa, with the exception of the high-stakes mission in Mali, they rely on the blue helmets to help keep Europe’s southern flank stable.

Without the deployment of UN forces, the bloody crises in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) could have spiraled into genocide. Without UN back-up, France would need to maintain a far larger military presence in Mali and some other former colonies in West Africa. And while the African Union (AU) has taken the lead in trying to stabilize Somalia, the UN has provided crucial logistical and political support. 

Is the UN still the go-to institution for peacekeeping and stabilization?

Nobody – least of all UN officials – would pretend that blue helmet forces are optimal. They are slow-moving, often ill-disciplined, and frequently too wary in responding robustly to outbreaks of violence. Yet they do provide a degree of baseline stability and protection in places like South Sudan, where hundreds of thousands of civilians shelter on peacekeeping bases, and take on significant risks. The killing of four UN troops in CAR this week highlighted those dangers, while insurgents have killed scores more in Mali.

UN deployments have also offered the EU and individual European governments a solid framework for smaller-scale and lower-risk crisis management missions of their own. These currently include EU-flagged military training missions in Mali and CAR. Concerns over mass migration towards Europe through the Sahel have alerted European policy-makers to the need to bolster what one diplomat calls the “security belt” running from West Africa to Somalia. EU agencies have been looking at some innovative ways to do this, such as assisting countries in the region on border management. But when it comes to the heavy lifting required for long-term peacekeeping and stabilization, the UN has still been the go-to institution.

From large-scale peacekeeping to light-weight prevention

Yet this may be about to change for three reasons. First, UN officials are increasingly unconvinced that the old model of large blue-helmet operations is still sustainable. Second, the new U.S. administration wants serious cuts in the UN peacekeeping budget. Third, African organizations and regional coalitions are insisting that that they can deploy more robust stabilization forces of their own, based on the Somalia model. There has been growing skepticism about the utility of large-scale peacekeeping among UN officials for some time, although the organization suffers from a good deal of bureaucratic inertia. 

The new Secretary-General, António Guterres, appears keen to shake up the system. He has a clear preference for light-weight preventive diplomacy and mediation efforts over large-scale military commitments. While UN officials are still working up a range of operational and managerial reforms, it is probable that Guterres will urge member states to shift resources from peacekeeping to preventive efforts in the coming years.

Moving towards a nimbler, cheaper UN?

In this, the Secretary-General may find that he has an ally in the new U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley. Haley, who has won other diplomats’ plaudits for deftly managing a turbulent first few months representing President Trump in New York, has a strong mandate from Washington to cut back UN costs. 

UN peacekeeping is a particularly juicy target for these cuts. There has been talk of reducing overall U.S. funding to the blue helmets by up to a $1 billion. Fortunately, Haley is not a wrecker, and seems willing to negotiate pragmatically about how to achieve these cuts. But she and Guterres could converge on a common agenda of shrinking peacekeeping forces in the name of moving towards a nimbler, cheaper UN.

Transitioning UN security responsibilities to African actors

In the meantime, Guterres is also investing heavily in the African Union and ties with African leaders more generally – after a decade running the UN refugee agency, he has an excellent network on the continent. The Secretary-General and his advisers appear to believe that the AU and sub-regional African organizations can take up many of the military duties that the UN can no longer manage. The successful, if small-scale, West African intervention in the Gambia reportedly excited Guterres as a model to follow.

It is not clear that African organizations have the resources to take up all the UN’s duties at short notice. It is more realistic to think about a gradual, trial-and-error transition of UN security responsibilities to African actors. European powers and institutions need to think about how they can facilitate such a process, both as major donors to the UN and AU, and also as operational crisis management actors in Africa in their own right. It may be necessary for the EU to deploy more civilian and military operations in future, without the comforting framework of UN peacekeeping missions to provide more general security. 

New opportunities for European engagement

The need for Europe to prepare for this “post-peacekeeping” strategic environment is the theme of a new paper, “Bordering on Crisis: Europe, Africa and a New Approach to Crisis Management”, from the European Council on Foreign Relations. This argues that in recent years, the EU has taken an excessively technocratic approach to stabilization and conflict management in Africa, emphasizing easily quantifiable tasks such as military education rather than delving deep into the political sources of regional crises. With the UN’s future posture on the continent in question, the report argues that European donors should invest in (i) boosting capacity-building efforts to prepare the AU and other African actors for political-security tasks the UN once adopted; (ii) expanding the EU’s own assets for early warning, conflict prevention and mediation across the Sahel and East Africa; and (iii) working closely with António Guterres to flesh out his preventive agenda, which risks descending into futile waffle if it is not properly executed.

Germany, France, the EU and Britain should pool their resources for crisis management

The report argues that these are all policy issues on which Britain – with its depth of expertise on both the UN and Africa – can cooperate closely on with the EU-27 during and after Brexit. It should be possible for London, the European External Action Service and concerned European states to set up mechanisms to pool their strengths for crisis management in Africa beyond the UK’s departure from the Union. Other key actors will include France and traditional leaders on crisis management such as the Netherlands and Nordic countries. Germany, which has invested heavily in crisis response and building new ties in Africa in recent years, is a potential lynchpin and guide for such efforts to align its allies resources in this field.

So while the potential diminution of the UN’s security presence in Africa creates considerable risks, it also opens up opportunities for European players to revitalize their approach to crisis management. As the current series of famines and conflicts across the Sahel underline, this is a matter of urgency – the prize is shifting to a more sustainable African security architecture that can contribute to Europe’s security, too.

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Richard Gowan

Richard Gowan is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), teaches conflict resolution at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and is a Non-Resident Fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation (CIC).