Blue Helmets Under Fire – From Trump

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The Trump Administration plans to cut the U.S. contribution to United Nations peacekeeping by $1 billion, from its current level of $2.2 billion, as part of a broader effort by the White House to make other nations contribute their fair share in supporting what it considers bloated international institutions.

The U.S. contributes the most money in actual terms to UN peacekeeping, but “peacekeeping costs are divided according to a formula based on wealth and the ability to veto,” explained Heather Peterson, an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and a former civil servant in the Defense Department policy office responsible for UN peacekeeping.

“So the United States is paying roughly the same percentage as other countries; it’s just a lot richer,” she commented.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who was President of the 15-nation UN Security Council last month, initiated an April 6 briefing on UN peacekeeping to review the 16 ongoing peacekeeping missions and their effectiveness.

 “We don’t want to just cut for the sake of cutting. There are places we can cut. Everybody knows there’s fat at the U.N. Everybody knows there’s fat in the peacekeeping missions,” she said during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in March.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said during the April briefing that recent reforms have “reduced the cost per capita of uniformed peacekeepers by 18 per cent since 2008 and decreased the number of civilian staff significantly.”

Two peacekeeping operations – in Côte D’Ivoire and Liberia – are expected to close down this year, after completing their missions, while the UN peacekeeping missions in Haiti and Darfur are to be reduced significantly.

What exactly determines whether a mission is successful or not? “To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” in accordance with the UN Charter, said Guterres.

But this mandate has changed significantly over the years. “The range of functions that peacekeeping operations conduct today is … much broader than before,” Richard Caplan told The Cipher Brief.

Caplan, a professor of international relations at Oxford University, said that previously, UN peacekeepers’ main duty was to monitor ceasefires; now, peacekeepers are tasked with a variety of responsibilities, including, in some cases, acting as “the surrogate government.” Although this is partially due to mission creep, it is more so “a reflection of the changing nature of the challenges that UN peacekeeping faces. Whereas in the past, the vast majority of armed conflicts had been wars between states, most armed conflicts today are wars within states,” Caplan said.

The situation in Rwanda in the 1990s proved to be one of the starkest examples of the shift to having to deal with inner state conflict. “Rwanda represented a failure by the UN to protect civilians,” Aditi Gorur, Director of the Stimson Center’s Protecting Civilians in Conflict program, told The Cipher Brief. She called this, along with UN failures during the civilian massacre in Srebrenica in 1995, “a turning point for UN peacekeeping,” adding “as a result of these and other acts of violence, peacekeepers began to be mandated to protect civilians.

Around 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the genocide, and an estimated 8,000 Bosniaks died in the Srebrenica massacre.

The UN, over the past two decades, has adapted to this new environment. Today, UN peacekeepers in Darfur, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, are all dealing with internal state conflicts. Still, Guterres noted, “We face a gap between ambitions and capacities; between our goals and the means we have to achieve them. As a result, peacekeeping is often perceived as overstretched, and under siege.” The UN Security Council must provide “unity [and] clear, achievable mandates,” he urged.

As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the U.S. has significant say over which UN peacekeeping missions to fund. Paul Heinbecker, Canada’s former Permanent Representative to the UN, told The Cipher Brief that with less U.S. involvement, “China and Russia can be expected to try to replace American leadership.” China and Russia are also permanent Council members.

Talks about U.S. funding cuts to the UN are nothing new, said Heinbecker. This conversation was ongoing in the 1990s, but both the Clinton and Bush Administrations decided to maintain levels of funding because influence in the UN partly derives from size of contribution. “They also recognized that no country has benefited more from the UN than the United States has,” Heinbecker said.

UN peacekeepers help mitigate the possibility of future conflicts, reducing the likelihood of major U.S. military interventions in the future; moreover, these missions are much cheaper than U.S. forces acting alone. “To put this in perspective, it would cost the United States $2 million to deploy a single U.S. solider but only $17,000 to deploy a UN peacekeeper,” Peter Yeo, President of the Better World Campaign and Vice President for Public Policy and Advocacy at the United Nations Foundation, told The Cipher Brief.    

Yeo also noted a significant reduction in migration and refugees attributable to UN peacekeepers – a Trump Administration priority. 

“Mr. Trump has very little experience with the UN beyond its interference with traffic in Manhattan. The comments he’s made have been offhand and deprecating,” said Heinbecker. “The threats in his budget proposal to make dramatic cuts in the U.S.’s contribution to [the] UN budget are ill-advised but real and potentially highly damaging.”

Ultimately, Congress has the final word on the budget. Although key senators have expressed support for retaining overall foreign aid, it is unclear whether they would support maintaining the UN budget. 

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.