Document created: 8 December 03
Air University Review, March-April 1973

U.N. Peacekeeping 
and U.S. National Security

Dr. Raymond J. Barrett

 Strengthening United Nations peacekeeping is in the best interests of the United States, as we adjust our national security policies in a changing world. Clearly diminishing are the American profile in the world and the readiness of the United States to involve itself in crisis situations not directly threatening it. At the same time, episodes of violence and instability are likely to continue, and many of them will have worrisome possibilities for damaging important American interests. Direct United States involvement is likely to be inhibited or, worse, counterproductive. A viable international means for dealing with lower-level violence would thus offer many practical advantages to the United States. It would offer us a formula that could help contain violent or chaotic situations without unilateral U.S. involvement. It would provide an internationally acceptable concept, while still being compatible with the security concerns of the United States. In short, strengthened United Nations peacekeeping could provide us with a means to deal with lower-level violence, something we are in danger of losing.

There are other important advantages of U.N. peacekeeping that would also be distinctly beneficial to the United States. A constructive and realistic peacekeeping ability could revitalize the integrity and utility of the United Nations, something that is badly needed. The development of peacekeeping capabilities and the consequent reinvigoration of the general concept would also have an important collateral impact on the international community. Most nations, in a world dominated by a few superpowers, are uncertain or anxious about having any meaningful role in international affairs. Making peacekeeping viable and active could give them a useful and meaningful purpose. In addition, development of peacekeeping units and doctrine would have further benefits in many of these countries by strengthening their own internal security and providing professionally satisfying roles for their military.

United Nations peacekeeping, of course, is not a panacea. It has had a checkered history, and its present status is dubious. Its role is a limited one. The limitations are real, but so are the advantages.

U.N. peacekeeping operations have evolved from emergency situations. Their broad purpose has been to keep international crises from getting out of hand. Three large peacekeeping forces have been assembled, at one time or another, under the U.N. banner: the United Nations Emergency Force in Egypt (UNEF); the Opération des Nations Unies au Congo (ONUC); and the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). UNEF was established at the time of the 1956 Suez Crisis as a buffer between Israel and Egypt, and its withdrawal in 1967 preceded the Arab-Israeli war of that year. ONUC was created in 1960 to protect the territorial integrity and political independence of the Congo when chaos developed after independence. UNFICYP, assembled in 1964 to help restore order and keep peace between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, is still in being.

Discussion of U.N. peacekeeping generally refers to this type of complex and quasi-military force. The United Nations has also engaged in a number of smaller operations involving essentially the dispatching of observer groups. For instance, small U.N. units have reported on compliance with cease-fires in Indonesia and Kashmir and on the disengagement agreement in the Yemen and are currently trying to maintain the shaky truce between the Arabs and the Israelis.

The U.N. Charter (Articles 43-45) provides for member states to place military forces at the disposition of the United Nations. These provisions were designed to supply the organization with effective sanctions against aggression of the kind encountered in World War II or earlier. The United Nations Command in Korea was the only U.N. force of this type, and it seems unlikely that this kind of operation will ever be repeated.

As this background suggests, the role of U.N. peacekeeping is a limited one. The U.N. could not conduct peacekeeping operations in an area of vital security concern to the United States (e.g., Cuba) or the Soviet Union (e.g.. Hungary or Czechoslovakia). Nor, in the realities of world power, are there adequate substitutes for nuclear deterrence and national power to forestall conventional warfare. In talking of peacekeeping operations, we are clearly referring only to the lower level of the spectrum of violence.

Experience has shown, however, that U.N. peacekeeping operations can serve a useful function in certain situations. The United Nations, on several occasions, has been able to obtain and enforce cease-fires in quarrels and border disputes. U.N. peacekeeping operations have also helped to reduce the possibility of big-power confrontation or the spread of violence that threatened to draw in outside meddlers. In other situations the United Nations has reduced the explosive potential by exposing subversion and infiltration. In more than a dozen instances since World War II, the United Nations helped to end violence and preserve order.

United Nations peacekeeping operations may not “solve” problems, but they have, in several very tense and complicated crises, kept bad situations from getting very much worse. They have been able, at least, to achieve conditions of “suspended violence” or deter degeneration into chaos.

These are achievements not to be lightly dismissed in today’s changing world. The social and political turbulence within and between the many new nations naturally fosters occasional violence or pronounced instability. Such episodes, in and of themselves, are not likely to be threats to world peace or directly inimical to U.S. national security. But if left to fester, they could arouse concern in wide areas of the world community. They also present the temptation for exploitation by outside elements likely to widen the problem substantially or even to escalate it in terms of big-power concern. In any such situation, unilateral intervention by the United States (or the U.S.S.R or any outside power) is almost certain to make the problem more complex, tense, and therefore dangerous. In today’s climate of opinion, U.S. intervention is also likely to engender intense and debilitating opposition in Congress and among the American public.

A U.N. peacekeeping force, with all its complexities and limitations, could thus be an attractive alternative to help keep problems manageable. The existence of a U.N. peacekeeping capability also would increase the likelihood that nations would opt to use it. This would, among other things, reduce the danger of other outside intervention. Not the least of the advantages for the United States would be the ability to endorse a broadly backed international effort as a counterpoise to Soviet or other outside intervention.

The present status of the U.N. peacekeeping concept is cloudy. In recent years the United States and the Soviet Union have tried to develop mutually acceptable models for peacekeeping operations. Some progress apparently has been made in developing guidelines on observer-type operations but little on the larger, more complex peacekeeping forces. The central question at issue has been the degree of flexibility to be left to the U.N. Secretary General to adapt operations to the circumstances of each case. The United States feels that he needs considerable latitude in managing an operation. The Soviets have wanted all major decisions kept in the Security Council’s hands, where they can use their veto. There seems to be an impasse on this point.

The financial basis of U.N. peacekeeping has also been uncertain. The Soviets and several other countries have refused to pay their shares of the costs of the Middle East and Congo operations. They argue that these operations as directed by the Secretary General did not take into account their views and interests and were partial to ours. The small observer missions in Kashmir and on the Suez Canal are being financed out of the regular U.N. budget, with the costs assessed against all members. The larger Cyprus operation, on the other hand, is being sustained by voluntary contributions from about 24 countries, out of a total U.N. membership five times as large. It has incurred a large deficit. These arrears have been an important cause of the United Nations’ currently precarious financial situation. If agreement can be achieved with the Soviets, presumably these financial problems can be eliminated, at least for the future.

Meanwhile, it should be possible take a number of steps toward strengthening U. N. peacekeeping. The effort to get Soviet agreement should be continued. Soviet concurrence, if it can be obtained without excessive constraints, would obviously bolster the U.N. peacekeeping concept. It would also be beneficial to have a more reliable understanding on ground rules and procedures for the establishment, direction, and conduct of peacekeeping missions.

One important step now feasible is the development of a roster of national peacekeeping capabilities. The U.N. Secretary General could ask member nations what type of personnel and equipment they would be prepared to provide for peacekeeping operations authorized by the Security Council. The U.S. Representative to the United Nations, then Ambassador Charles W. Yost, made a proposal along these lines at the 1970 General Assembly. The United States suggested that a register of availabilities might include information on the number and type of contingents, military observers, and auxiliary personnel that member states were prepared to provide. The register, Ambassador Yost added, might indicate the state of readiness and the type of equipment, facilities, and services that could be made available on short notice. The U.S. proposal also suggested an effort to identify and fill any potential shortages, whether of personnel or logistics, that might be revealed in forming the register. If a shortage of a particular type of specialized personnel did emerge, appropriate member nations could be encouraged to train such specialists, or the United Nations itself might provide or arrange for such training.

The lack of concrete progress on these and other proposals has been disappointing. Soviet foot-dragging has obviously been a hindrance. So has concern for the United Nations troubled financial status. The difficulty seems to be lack of a careful and constructive effort to mobilize the considerable potential interest in peacekeeping needed to effectuate those steps that are feasible.

The concept of U.N. peacekeeping, on its own merits, has considerable attraction for many of the developing countries of the world. There is also a group of nations, such as Canada and the Scandinavian countries, that has long been interested in the practical aspects of peacekeeping. There thus seems to be appreciable potential support for increased U.N. abilities in the peacekeeping field if both these groups are adequately encouraged.

This is clearly an area in which a vigorous campaign by the United States would be inappropriate. Overidentification of peacekeeping with the United States, one of the superpowers, would probably vitiate the whole idea. It would probably arouse strong Soviet suspicions and, perhaps, counterproductive opposition fostered by the U.S.S.R. Equally inhibiting, U.S dominance would cause many nations that might otherwise support peacekeeping to shy away, for fear of being caught in a superpower confrontation.

However, clear indications that the United States really did favor improved U.N peacekeeping efforts and was prepared to support others in developing this concept might well revitalize the interest in peacekeeping. An effort in this direction was the first recommendation of the Commission set up by the President to propose measures to increase the effectiveness of the United Nations and of U.S. participation therein. The President’s Commission on the Observance of the 25th Anniversary of the United Nations was chaired by Henry Cabot Lodge, who had been U.S. Representative to the U.N. The Commission’s first recommendation, in its report dated April 25, 1971, urged that the United States “undertake bold new initiatives to revitalize the peacekeeping and peacemaking capabilities of the UN.” The Commission also recommended that the United States “indicate its readiness to cooperate fully with the UN and other countries in developing contingents and specialized units for a UN Peace Reserve.”

With a clear indication of American readiness to cooperate, the countries particularly interested in peacekeeping might take the initiative to develop support from other countries and propose practical measures for U.N. consideration. These countries are not prepared to be front men for the United States, nor should we allow them to seem to be. The atmosphere fostered by the United States would be crucial. America would have to make manifest her sincerity in strengthening U.N. peacekeeping as a viable means of dealing with lower-level violence and in a sense foregoing the possibility of unilateral U.S. intervention. The United States would also have to be ready to accept and work with the initiatives and proposals of others. We can encourage viable arrangements by others, but excessive U.S. activity in proposals and negotiations would give the concept an overly American cast and might well doom it.

In the context of active and substantial interest among U.N. members, the U.S.S.R. might moderate or cease its present uncooperative stance. Perhaps the Soviets might not actively oppose such measures as the development of a register of capabilities that would not involve any commitments to specific modes of peacekeeping.

More broadly, the possibilities for developing momentum on the question of U.N. peacekeeping seem distinctly improved in today’s changing world. There is great interest everywhere in finding modes of accommodation that avoid big-power confrontations and strengthen the possibilities for an era of negotiation. One constructive area for focusing this interest could be U.N. peacekeeping in a way that produced broad support, strong itself and powerful enough to induce the Soviets to go along.

The prospects for encouraging the development of U.N. peacekeeping would be measurably improved if it were clear that the United States is prepared to support it in practical ways. Measures to create the specific American wherewithal to assist and support peacekeeping would be the most convincing demonstration of U.S. support for the concept. Unfortunately, nothing like this has yet been done.

The idea of U.N. peacekeeping has been generally blessed in U.S. policy and in initiatives at the United Nations. But implementing specifics, such as detailed inclusion in the military doctrine of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the earmarking of American units, have been absent. The general attitude has been that the U.S. armed forces have a broad spectrum of capabilities; if a need should emerge in a specific U.N. peacekeeping operation, the United States would identify and provide the needed capability from among the many that it possesses.

This approach to the problem is hardly adequate in an era of reducing American military forces and lowering visibility around the world. Our forces must be multipurpose and carefully targeted. We are going to continue to have problems with lower-level violence. At a minimum, it would be prudent to have U.S. military doctrine and capabilities to support U.N. peacekeeping fully spelled out; they can then be promptly implemented if this were judged most advantageous to the United States in a particular crisis. More broadly, other countries are not going to work to ready their own doctrine and capabilities for U.N. peacekeeping unless we demonstrate our seriousness by visibly doing so.

Significantly, the President’s Commission on the United Nations followed its policy recommendations, cited earlier, with several specific ones. The Commission said that the United States should “pledge air/sealift facilities for immediate transport of UN peace troops.” In many U.N. peacekeeping operations the U.S. has, in fact, supplied the trooplift. But the Commission recommends that the United States take the significant further step of pledging the continual availability of this support. If nothing else, by such action we could highlight the peacekeeping value of such uniquely American capabilities as naval transports and resupply and the C-5A aircraft.

The Commission also recommended that the United States “earmark within the U.S. defense forces specialized units in signals, transport and logistics for backstopping UN peacekeeping operations and for possible participation in such operations.” This is an area in which the United States has been deficient. Actually providing a unit for a peacekeeping operation is more than a mechanical process; there are many practical requirements, ranging from familiarity with the special hazards and guidelines of international operations to up-to-date inoculations and passports. Earmarking is essential to be sure that these requirements are properly met.

Perhaps even more important would be specific U.S. support for U.N. peacekeeping in our military assistance program and in our relationships with the military of other countries. Another recommendation of the President’s Commission on the U.N. was that the United States “insure through existing and/or new legislation that the United States is fully prepared to support UN peacekeeping operations, including assistance in training and equipping contingents for UN service through use of existing (but unused) provisions of the Foreign Assistance Act.”

Our military assistance programs can readily be adjusted to assist other countries to develop peacekeeping forces. The capabilities required in peacekeeping are also needed by these countries in protecting their own security. Particularly is this true in maintaining internal security, which is the primary purpose of most U.S. military assistance programs. In most cases the development of peacekeeping units is a question of cross-training existing forces to provide multipurpose units. The principal mission of the latter is internal security, but they would also be capable of and ready for participation in international peacekeeping operations. Thus, without detriment to existing U.S. military assistance programs (MAP) and procedures, we could incorporate specific advice and equipment designed to encourage peacekeeping capabilities.

Helping other nations develop units earmarked for U.N. service should be an accepted part of our military assistance programs. We can help train and equip contingents for those MAP recipients who desire to earmark units. We can identify needs and help develop capabilities to meet them. Perhaps we can help these countries devise and carry out exercises to improve their peacekeeping potential. We may be able to help modify equipment or procedures to make them more adaptable to peacekeeping operations. In those countries with more preliminary interest in peacekeeping, our military assistance personnel can help the military of their host country by furnishing documents or getting for them information from other countries with earmarked units or previous U.N. experience. The practical ways in which we can assist are many and varied. Directives and guidance to carry them out need to be specifically incorporated in our military assistance training, planning, and programming.

The basic concept of U.N. peacekeeping involves national units, appropriately trained, equipped, and earmarked as available for U.N. service. Member nations would offer these units to the United Nations, if they deemed it desirable, in response to the U.N.’s call to organize a peacekeeping force for a particular crisis. It is up to each nation to decide whether to develop such a unit, what its composition should be, and whether to make it available when requested by the U.N. To date, some 54 countries have assigned personnel to U.N. operations, and some 27 nations have made major contributions of military units (over 100 men) to one or more of the U.N. forces.

Experience has shown that a great variety of units is needed. U.N. forces have had to do much more than police and patrol. They have had to disperse rioting mobs, guard key political leaders, operate airports and radio stations, and exert the utmost in persuasion and diplomacy to stop or head off hostilities. They have had to help civil administration in a multitude of ways in order to prevent disorder or chaos. Circumstances have often made them de facto mediators and quasi magistrates. In addition, a variety of language capabilities (e.g., French-speaking personnel in the Congo) has been needed and not always readily available.

Along with regular infantry units, there has been a need for such related elements as air transport, naval support, river patrol, reconnaissance, communications, and logistics forces. Also urgently needed have been such specialized units as air traffic controllers, military police, sanitary engineers, postal clerks, medical personnel, and paymasters. In short, the range of useful capabilities is great.

Most of these capabilities are feasible (in terms of talents and resources) for most countries of the world. In fact, many of them already exist. These capabilities are directly related to internal security, the principal military concern of these countries. With little difficulty, it should be possible to suggest quite a few countries around the world that could readily adjust existing capabilities to provide dual status as designated standby peacekeeping units. Simply as an almost random selection, without any political judgments intended, some or all of the following countries might be listed: Mexico, Venezuela, Yugoslavia, Romania, Tunisia, Kenya, Spain, Iran, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, and Ethiopia. There are many others; this list is not meant to be complete.

A number of other countries have already demonstrated an interest. A few already have standby peacekeeping units. Others are participating in the U.N. force in Cyprus or in other U.N. peacekeeping activities, such as the U.N. truce supervisory organization in the Middle East.

In fact, the development of peacekeeping concepts, units, doctrine, and equipment would offer these countries a significant role in the world, something they now largely lack because of superpower dominance. The problems of peacekeeping, by and large, are similar to those that they deal with internally. By concentrating diplomatic and professional talents in the area of peacekeeping and the problems of lower-level violence, they could become the acknowledged international experts in their fields. Their expertise would give them credibility and confidence in international relations. An intimate awareness of the difficulties involved would probably also produce a salutary strengthening of responsibility and appreciation of feasible arrangements. A sense of leadership for these countries in peacekeeping should also be conducive to their constructive participation more generally in maintaining world peace on a realistic basis.

In similar fashion, a leadership role in peacekeeping would provide the military of these countries with a legitimate professional role. Satisfactory outlets for military professionalism now are generally lacking in the developing countries. This situation has an important bearing on the proclivity of the military of these countries to seek advanced weaponry or to intervene in the political process. U.N. peacekeeping offers a meaningful external mission for small armed forces of limited capabilities and one that relates well to their primary mission of maintaining internal stability in their own countries.

The practical problems of peacekeeping, as noted, are very similar to those of internal security. They are also appreciably simpler than those generally faced by sophisticated military forces, such as those of the United States or the other powers. A good deal needs to be done in thinking through the doctrine and equipment best adapted to these lower-level situations.

There is, for instance, no well-developed or widely agreed doctrine for peacekeeping operations, with their many diplomatic, psychological, and other complexities. Peacekeeping forces could conceivably be used in a variety of ways: to re-establish law and order; to backstop local police forces so as to preclude a breakdown of order; to evacuate foreigners; to establish or maintain a truce; to police an election; to isolate conflicts from outside influences, supplies, and agitators; or to observe or monitor tense situations. Each of these categories presents a host of special complications. Clearly it would be an important step forward if the likely problems of peacekeeping were thought through and more specific doctrine or guidance developed.

The question of equipment also needs examination. Presumably, relatively simple equipment would be most appropriate for peacekeeping and internal security. Some random ideas include small boats for riverine or coastal patrol, a simplified jeep-type vehicle for cross-country and trait movements, or perhaps even mule-pack artillery for mountain and jungle use. In relatively undeveloped conditions simple equipment may well be more useful and less costly than trying to adapt advanced equipment available from sophisticated military forces. Furthermore, simplified equipment is likely to be within the industrial capabilities of many developing countries, thus giving them another interest in peacekeeping.

In other words, there is a broad area of military expertise not now being much used. It is one in which the military of the developing nations are uniquely situated to become the international experts. Such international military recognition would provide a sense of professional fulfillment now lacking.

The availability of a wide variety of appropriate peacekeeping units should, itself, be conducive to dealing with critical episodes of destructive violence. The likelihood that the United Nations would agree to deploy a peacekeeping force would almost certainly be greater if it were well known that effective capabilities were regularly available. Past operations have been organized in haste, with a good deal of inefficiency and makeshift arrangements. The more earmarked units available, the more likely it is that enough will be suitable in a particular crisis, both on political and practical grounds. The formation of a U.N. peacekeeping force would obviously be easier and more successful if a number of trained units, with a variety of capabilities, are readily available. Furthermore, a small and effective U.N. contingent that arrives early in a situation may be of much greater benefit than a large force later.

Even if the United Nations is ultimately unwilling to act, the availability of a wide variety of national peacekeeping units may help in containing a crisis. It would enable like-minded countries that were prepared to participate to provide peacekeeping assistance to a friendly nation in a crisis. For instance, an Asian country might form a peacekeeping force and help a neighbor weather a period of instability or violence. The availability of national peacekeeping units in the countries of the western hemisphere might give the Organization of American States another useful option in dealing with a crisis of general concern. Other types of international peacekeeping were originally considered during the Cyprus crisis, when it appeared that the Soviet Union might prevent organization of a U.N. force. In short, the availability of peacekeeping units adds one more possibility for the solution of crises of violence or instability. Even if the peacekeeping units were never used, the assurance of their existence and availability should have some constructive impact on the prospects for world peace.

We have nothing to lose and much to gain by taking the practical steps open to us to improve our own ability to support peacekeeping operations and help friendly nations develop their capabilities to meet peacekeeping emergencies. Lower-level violence and instability are certain to persist. Under present circumstances we do not have an effective way to deal with such situations so as to preclude their developing into threats to U.S. national security. Strengthened, viable U.N. peacekeeping offers a means to handle such dangers in a manner compatible with U.S. interests. It would, in effect, give us a strategic option to contain lower-level violence, an option we are now in grave danger of losing.

John F. Kennedy Center for 
Military Assistance
Fort Bragg, North Carolina


With one exception (the USAF C-130 photograph on page 32), all photographs are courtesy of the United Nations Washington Information Center.


Dr. Raymond J. Barrett (Ph.D., Trinity College, Ireland) is Department of State Advisor, John F. Kennedy Center for Military Assistance, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. At State Department he was Deputy Chief, Program Staff, Office of International Conferences. As Foreign Service Officer, he served in Mexico, Managua, Dublin, Cairo, and Madrid; also in the Office of Southern and East African Affairs, as Canadian Desk Officer, and a U.S. Secretary of the U.S.-Canadian Permanent Joint Board on Defense. He has served an exchange tour as Assistant Chief, Global Plans and Policy Division, Directorate of Plans, Hq USAF.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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