International Order & Conflict
Policy Paper

The Purposes of Peace Operations

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Part of the Peacekeeping Reform Project

Fifteen years ago, peacekeeping was doctrinally and operationally segregated from war-fighting by major powers, but recent evolution of major power doctrines suggests that the old walls that initially segregated the two are crumbling. The distinction is not semantic, but strategic, in that peace operations have not traditionally declared enemies—where an enemy is defined and identified to be a legitimate target of lethal military force wherever encountered, and toward whom the operational objective is victory. The motivation now, as defense resources in many countries thin out, seems to be the construction of an omni-competent force that can spin on a dime—physically, operationally, and psychologically—from peacekeeping to war-fighting, including counter-insurgency or counter-terrorist operations, as complex circumstances dictate.

It is not at all clear, however, that soldiers are collectively capable of doing as much role-shifting, as rapidly, as doctrine now seems to require. And often  peacekeeping operations will have far too few resources and, as in Congo, not only find themselves outnumbered by local fighters but the object of civilian anger as the goal of civilian protection remains unmet. Peacekeeping is a very useful tool of international politics, but an inherently limited tool. It can and must take on violent local challenges to peace implementation, but only at the margins of a peace process.

This essay traces the evolution and adaptation of peace operations, first to the Cold War and then the post-Cold War environment, and more recently to a new post-9/11 era in which the ever-expanding purposes of peace operations is blurring the line between peacekeeping and war-fighting, posing a threat to its identity as a security-related military function that is honorably separable from war.

This article is the lead essay in New York University Center for International Cooperation’s Annual Review of Global Peace Operations 2009. The article can be found here.

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