US Foreign Policy
Restoring American Engagement: Priorities for the Biden Administration to Improve United Nations Peace Operations
Being “back” in the world and leading with diplomacy means bolstering support and reforms of UN peace operations to achieve American goals
The Biden-Harris Administration has an opportunity to restore American engagement on the most visible tool for maintaining international peace and security: UN peace operations. These missions support durable peace agreements, prevent atrocities, and promote stability. Rising competition among Security Council members risks undercutting a unified approach to crises, however, making this effort more urgent. Given its pledge to renew U.S. leadership in the world, the Administration should use its permanent seat in the Security Council to ensure that missions are effective: tailored to their environments, guided by clear, inclusive political strategies, and responsive to emerging challenges – from climate-related security to health risks to changing geopolitics. As the leading provider of peacekeeping capacity building, the U.S. can support troop- and police-contributing countries to meet mandates and performance and accountability standards. To signal its commitment and maximize its influence, the Biden-Harris Administration should also settle its accounts and increase American participation in UN missions.
The Biden-Harris Administration has called for a renewed, strengthened role for America in the world to address modern challenges. Preventing conflicts, facilitating lasting peace agreements, protecting civilians, and supporting stable democratic governments are part of that renewal of American leadership and the central aim of United Nations peace operations. Active engagement by the United States will help deliver on the goals of peace operations – which includes 12 peacekeeping missions, backed by uniformed personnel from more than 100 countries in the field, and 26 envoys and other political missions on five continents. By focusing on this wide-ranging tool at the Security Council, the U.S. can signal its robust support for maintaining peace and security as it rebuilds strained international relationships. Making these missions more effective will reinforce peace, security, democracy, and the rule of law around the world.
The Trump administration neglected important U.S. foreign policy interests and relationships over the course of four years – few more so than those at the United Nations. That neglect has taken a toll. Many countries are unsure of U.S. priorities and strategic goals, and the UN is less prepared to meet and respond to current crises without active U.S. engagement. Rather than work with natural allies on the Security Council, the U.S. often picked petty fights and failed to build unity. Tough talk belied inattention and weak organizational efforts — exacerbated by the lack of senior U.S. diplomatic engagement and personnel. In turn, this approach undercut areas of broad Council agreement, including UN peace operations, slowing engagement and often neglecting needed reforms.
In the vacuum created by American disengagement and erratic decision-making, some countries took the opportunity to undermine fundamental values, while others didn’t back peace operations fully, abstaining from votes or stronger political backing. U.S. standing was further undermined by its financial parsimony, which has pushed the UN to the brink of insolvency and forced peacekeeping missions to cut back on operations and forgo reimbursing the nations who contribute troops and capacities.
Preventing and resolving international conflict through peace operations is one of the most visible and important UN roles. Numerous well-informed analysts and experts have written on how to strengthen and modernize missions (many of whom we cite here), and there is a wealth of knowledge for the U.S. to tap. The Biden-Harris Administration has pledged to renew American engagement in the world and at the United Nations. This return to the table serves American interests by rebuilding alliances, bringing focus to major issues and enjoying the benefits of international cooperation when possible. As Secretary of State Tony Blinken has noted, “there remains no substitute for the work the UN does, the legitimacy it brings, the reach it allows.” As a permanent member of the Security Council and the UN’s largest financial contributor, the United States is instrumental in designing and deploying peacekeeping operations and the UN’s constellation of special envoys and political missions to end armed conflict and prevent atrocities. As a diplomatic powerhouse, the U.S. has employed its embassies, bilateral assistance, and political leaders to support these missions. Since the end of the Cold War, American presidents have embraced peace operations as an effective and cost-efficient means to reestablish stability and enable lasting peace agreements. The U.S. benefits from the success of the UN in preventing the spread of violence in tough neighborhoods.
A shift from large multidimensional operations to smaller “political” missions shows the range of options. Larger UN peacekeeping missions, with sizeable military and police footprints, have been finishing their mandates; civilian-staffed special political missions have increased. No new peacekeeping mission has been established since Mali in 2013; missions in Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, and Liberia have successfully ended; and a transition is underway in Darfur. Today, the largest UN peace operations – in the Central African Republic (CAR) (where security is rapidly deteriorating following recent elections), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, and South Sudan – contend with absent or stalled political processes, rampant human rights and civilian protection challenges, direct threats against peacekeepers, and, frequently, uncooperative host states. Longstanding missions in frozen conflicts like Western Sahara, Kashmir, and Cyprus are experiencing escalating tensions – a bad sign when the U.S. does not want to see a return to conflict. Meanwhile, flexible special political missions have proliferated. These range from regional political offices focused on conflict prevention to field missions in countries riven by geopolitical competition like Libya and Yemen, alongside military coalitions as in Afghanistan and Iraq, or where security is provided by a regional organization, like Somalia. Those UN missions often support core American goals – political mediation, humanitarian access, rule of law and governance.
Institutional politics reduce the effectiveness of missions. Within UN departments, planning should focus on how to support political solutions, including regional dynamics, and deliver operationally on their mandates. When it comes to designing these wide-ranging missions – whether run by the UN’s Department of Peace Operations or by the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs – there has been a reliance on “off the shelf” approaches based on which bureaucratic entity is the lead department. Secretary-General Guterres’ 2019 reform of the UN peace and security architecture intended to break down institutional silos, but those useful improvements haven’t halted bureaucratic turf wars that impede thoughtful mission design. Political strategies are most effective when the entire UN system, including the UN country team, is working together. Further, shared analysis and planning will help tackle cross-cutting goals, such as assessing those who threaten civilians, their motivations, and what role the mission can play politically, physically, and by shaping the environment.
Political strategies are even more important to get right as peacemaking and peacekeeping become crowded fields. In developing and implementing these strategies, the UN is increasingly working alongside other institutional partners, including the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the European Union, as well as coalitions like the G5 Sahel Joint Force.Such cooperation is premised on the idea that these partners have comparative advantages – an ability to rapidly deploy in the face of a crisis, regional legitimacy, and a willingness to engage in peace enforcement operations – that can directly support the fulfillment of the UN’s mission mandates.
Effective missions complement US strengths and interests. Improved mission-wide performance complements the traditional U.S. emphasis on strengthening troop capacity and performance to provide missions with the operational capacity they need to successfully carryout Council mandates. In practice, this takes many forms. Through the Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI) for example, the United States builds partner countries’ peacekeeping training, operational readiness, and sustainment capacity – including training over 10,000 female peacekeepers. Many of the troops and police contributed to missions, however, continue to grapple with insufficient training and inadequate equipment, lacking force multipliers like helicopters – a reality that reflects the need for continued engagement by the U.S.
At the UN, American leadership has also been essential for setting standards for infantry and other units deploying in peacekeeping, the push for evaluations of contingents in the field, and strengthened accountability measures, including for sexual abuse and exploitation. Moving forward, the US should continue to support efforts by the Department of Peace Operations to identify and improve – and, when necessary, remove – underperforming units; to generate and deploy units appropriate to today’s harsh, remote, and high-risk operating environments; to use performance data to inform future deployment decisions; and – via the light coordination mechanism – to match troops to training and equipment, including critical enablers like armored personnel carriers, helicopters, and mine clearance. The same is true when any staff or personnel violate standards, including sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), and other forms of misconduct.
Growing geopolitical tensions threaten ambitious mandates. Rising competition among the U.S., Russia and China in the Security Council risks undercutting a unified approach to ongoing and future crises, as in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Myanmar. UN-led peace operations, by contrast, enjoy relative consensus among the P5 – though there are concerning signs of strain around issues like human rights and the women, peace and security agenda. While Russian obstructionism at the UN is not new, China’s influence has increased significantly in the last four years. Both (as well as several elected members of the Council) are plain about their desire for less intrusive interventions, emphasizing sovereignty and mutual respect, and have become more assertive in pushing back on traditional liberal norms on which the UN was founded. American leadership is necessary to reverse this erosion, and ensure that peace operations continue to promote women’s meaningful inclusion in political processes, that missions are aware of and respond to the gendered impacts of conflict, and that they protect and promote the human rights of citizens.
Funding matters. The U.S. needs to sort out its finances to the UN, however, to back its actions. While the U.S. is assessed the largest share of the UN peacekeeping budget – just under 28 percent – it has failed to make full payments, leading to arrears of nearly $1 billion. This debt grew dramatically over the past four years, as the U.S. withheld a share of its assessed funding to UN peacekeeping, based on domestic restrictions that the Trump Administration failed to address with Congress, as well as funding for the Regular Budget.
UN peace operations must evolve. To remain relevant, UN peace operations must adapt – to operate effectively in contexts marked by violent extremism, climate change, intercommunal conflict, infectious disease, and emerging technologies, all of which will place further strains on international peace and security over the coming decade. Peace operations should also be required to support concurrent strategies for durable peace – including implementing Phase 2 of the UN Environment Strategy and working with the UN Country Teams to support the nation’s SDG goals and climate commitments, as a means to do no harm and support longer-term peacebuilding, for example. Ensuring that the UN has the capacity and resources necessary to do is in the vital interest of the United States.
Reform at the UN is often seen as slow, requiring compromise among member states with conflicting interests. Yet, when those interests align in response to a clear threat, the UN and member states are capable of rapid action – in removing chemical weapons from Syria, responding to the Ebola crisis, and providing relief to Haiti after the earthquake. Today is a moment for rapid action. American leadership at the UN helps ensure that these decisions align with U.S. values and interests, and that its diplomatic efforts can build coalitions and broker such agreements in the first place.
- Focus on Political Strategy, not Checklists. And Leverage U.S. Diplomacy. Improving peace operations begins with the Security Council setting a well-defined path for missions to deliver durable, stable outcomes. The U.S. should back mandates that articulate a clear strategic vision of what a peace operation is meant to achieve, rather than focusing on the multiplicity of tasks they need to fulfill to achieve this vision. Regular debates in the Security Council should focus not only on whether a mission is making sufficient progress towards this goal, but if the underlying political strategy makes sense and has backing. In contexts where the Security Council has authorized multiple tools, including peacekeeping missions, special envoys, and regional actors, the U.S. should push for a clearer division of labor to enhance the complementary of these entities. The United States and other members of the Council can use their bilateral and multilateral diplomatic leverage to ensure the cooperation of parties to peace and support of populations in these countries. To strengthen these decisions, the U.S. should also insist on regular, independently-led strategic assessments of missions, and that the full findings of such reviews are transmitted to the Council, as it did for DRC and South Sudan.
- Support Targeted, Bespoke Missions. In the Security Council, the U.S. should encourage the Secretary-General to provide a range of response options – based on a political strategy and risks to civilians – backed by solid analysis of their strengths and risks. Missions need to be tailored to the political and security environments in which they are deployed, not the UN department that backstops them. Mission designs should be based on well-informed analysis of the conflict, realistic goals, and a viable political strategy for how to achieve them. To do this, the U.S. should support strengthening the capacity and role of the Secretary-General’s office to provide analysis and set the overall direction for the organization’s conflict response planning.
- Strengthen Performance and Accountability. Gauging the effectiveness of peace operations is always a challenge—one reason American diplomats often visit missions. Reports to the Council and the General Assembly’s budgetary committee tend to describe missions’ activities, for example, rather than assess effectiveness in implementing a peace agreement or protecting civilians. In an ambitious effort to address this gap, the UN has started rolling out a new “comprehensive performance assessment system” (CPAS) that promises to give mission senior leaders a clearer evidence basis for operational and strategic planning and decision-making, including more efficient use of resources. The U.S. rightly and consistently champions improving performance and accountability; it should support CPAS by pushing for authorization of additional integrated civilian, military, and police capacity in missions’ strategic planning units, as was done in MINUSMA. In many cases, they have only a few planners; elsewhere, like Cyprus and Lebanon, they have none. To date, CPAS has not been extended to the UN’s political missions. While assessing the impact of the UN’s political activities – whether by SPMs or peacekeeping missions – is more difficult, the U.S. should push the UN to adapt clear, evidence-based approaches to such engagement. A strong advocate for the creation of the UN’s Office of Peacekeeping Strategic Partnership in 2013, which works with countries that contribute troops and police to identify and redress gaps in performance, the U.S. should also push to strengthen that office’s role as an independent inspector general to provide independent evaluations, as it was originally intended to do.
- Protection of Civilians. The UN continues to innovate in response to political and physical threats to civilians and to strengthen mission-wide protection of civilians (POC) strategies. Tools, political strategies, and best practices for protecting civilians have grown across the leadership of missions and the civilian, military, and policing components. This approach includes human rights and civil affairs staff working alongside military and police on patrols and using incident data to preventively deploy to likely hotspot areas and work with the local community. The UN benefits from using a threat-based planning approach to identify potential perpetrators, the nature of the threat, and if it is localized or more strategic. As a major provider of training and equipment, the United States should continue to work closely with troop and police contributing countries to support their understanding of POC as a mandated objective, since this is not usually part of national training. In response to protection failures, the U.S should insist on prompt investigations and accountability for UN mission leadership and troop and police contributing countries, particularly in instances of inaction and failure to carry out orders. With the transition of multidimensional peacekeeping missions in environments marked by continued risk of physical violence, as in Sudan, the U.S. should also support efforts by the UN to develop a system-wide approach to protection, including incorporating human rights, humanitarian action, and development activities by the UN country team.
- Strengthen Mission Mobility. Several missions are adopting more mobile force postures, but find their freedom of movement impeded by host government restrictions, often in violation of the status of forces agreement agreed with the UN. These forces can also struggle with adequate capacity, both in terms of personnel and equipment. Uniformed peacekeepers need to be able to deploy with and maintain equipment fit for the mission environment. In the Fifth Committee, the United States should work to provide missions the operational budgets they require for mobility and urge nations to pledge the needed capacity for every mission.
- Put Skin in the Game. The U.S. should use the December 2021 UN peacekeeping ministerial in Seoul – a process kickstarted by then-Vice President Biden at the first summit in 2014 – to build on its role as the leading provider of training and equipment to countries providing troops and police to UN peacekeeping. But the U.S. should go further. The U.S. currently has just 30 U.S. military personnel and police officers serving in peacekeeping – one third of what it deployed in 2015; the Biden-Harris administration should, at a minimum, return U.S. deployment to that level and commission an internal review of what it can contribute more broadly. America has the capacity to provide more needed capabilities to missions, including expertise on intelligence and force protection: advanced systems for detecting improvised explosive devices, counter-unarmed aerial system technologies, ground penetrating radar, and indirect fire detection and warning systems – all of which are urgently needed in response to continued attacks against peacekeepers. The United States could work with allies and use its Global Peace Operations Initiative to address persistent capability gaps, for example, to develop TCC helicopter capacity, support development of specialized police teams, and bolster better contributions of technology. Along with political backing, offering these capacities will have a disproportionately positive impact on mission effectiveness and would send a substantive signal about American commitment to UN peace operations. U.S. participation matters, substantively and symbolically.
- Prioritize Dialogue. Promote Responsible Use of Force. In several countries where absence of legitimate state authority has led to widespread violence against civilians or the loss of territorial control to armed groups – as in Central Africa Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mali – the Security Council has authorized “stabilization” mandates for UN peace operations. Such mandates have included restoring or extending state authority, providing support to national security forces and justice institutions, and often robust military operations to “neutralize” armed groups and protect civilians. Mandating missions to support states in reclaiming territory from armed opposition groups poses risks: closing off paths to lasting, inclusive resolution of conflict; reinforcing regimes plagued by poor governance; and jeopardizing the UN’s perceived impartiality and thus its comparative benefit as an open and honest political broker. When considering future stabilization mandates, the United States should ensure that such missions are guided by a political strategy inclusive of locally legitimate and accountable authorities, including non-state actors; that the UN is free to engage in dialogue with all parties to the conflict, and that any UN support to state security forces is contingent on compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law.
- Support for African-led Missions. The U.S. needs to address the support and funding of African-led peace enforcement missions, a question linked to its setting security priorities on the continent to reduce atrocities and the spread of violent extremism. Peaceful, stable African countries are in the U.S. interest. The Obama administration worked with the AU to identify a clear, consistent process for sharing costs with the UN for certain Security Council-approved AU peace support operations. The initiative was not approved but spurred deliberations and AU efforts to strengthen procedures.
- Some African countries will look to the new U.S. administration to revisit the proposal. The debate suffers from mixing the periodic need for AU-led peace enforcement missions to rapidly support a peace agreement and halt violence (as in Mali and CAR), with African-led counter-terrorism operations (like the G5-S). Just as UN peacekeeping is not an appropriate response to counter-terrorism operations on the continent, neither should the Council authorize UN funding for regional CT forces. Where such operations are necessary, they should be funded bilaterally to not confuse the UN’s missions. On the other hand, where such a funding mechanism might leverage the AU to deploy quickly to stabilize regions, a partnership with the UN makes more sense. The proposals by the AU should address a system approach to future missions, the relationship with the UN and systemic challenges, including weak command and control, greater clarity on when and how it would be used, planning and budgeting roles, and mission oversight. The U.S. should be smart and address both the need to support the AU and regional organizations and prevent the funding of activities through the UN that do not match UN mandates or goals.
- Pay Our Share. The U.S. must pay what it owes for UN assessments for peace operations. To avoid future financial risks, the U.S. must address its outstanding dues and bring the U.S. scale of assessment in line with what it pays, either by lifting the Congressionally-mandated 25 percent cap on U.S. contributions or renegotiating the U.S. rate. In the lead up to UN negotiations this fall, the U.S. should also immediately begin work on a new bargain with other major funders to increase the share others pay in exchange for a single “peace operations” account covering peacekeeping and special political missions. This would reduce the amount the U.S. pays for peacekeeping by nearly $200 million annually based on the current peacekeeping budget. A portion of these savings should be reinvested in the UN’s preventive diplomacy and mediation efforts – much of which relies inexplicably on voluntary contributions – to mitigate escalation of violence and likely reduce the need for more costly peacekeeping down the line.
- Emphasize Talent. The appointment of senior officials, both at UN Headquarters and in field missions, is increasingly politicized – underscored by wrangling over the leadership of missions in Libya, Sudan, and Mali (as well as the leadership over multiple specialized agencies, funds and programs).The Trump administration has set a poor example. The U.S. must embody a higher standard, and as its first priority, advocate for the placement of qualified leaders, particularly women, in line with UN’s gender parity strategy. Qualified Americans, women and men also deserve consideration for senior positions, and the U.S. must promote impartiality and professionalism. It should push back when other countries seek such positions to exert national influence – though credibly doing so requires relinquishing unofficial sinecures, reinforcing the independence of American senior UN officials, and leaving final decisions on personnel to the Secretary-General. Further down the chain, the U.S. must continue to push for human resources reform of UN staff, ensuring that poorly performing staff are held accountable, while providing a path for UN staff in the field to serve in headquarters and vice versa through mobility requirements.
- Strengthen Peace, Respond to Non-traditional and Emerging Threats. There is a lot on the Security Council’s agenda, and it needs to be pragmatic going forward. Beyond immediate crisis management, however, there are thematic issues with immediate or growing security consequences that the Council must address. The U.S. should press for action by the Council on climate-related security risks, pandemics, proliferation of nuclear, cyber and autonomous weapons, and mass violations of human rights. Peace operations, for one, can meet their mandates, reduce use of diesel generators, and better support the communities they serve by following the UN Environment Strategy and align with the Secretary General’s climate goals of shifting to renewable energy. The UN needs to meet the goal of 80% renewable energy usage by 2030, and mission action or inaction will either make or break that promise. There is also an opportunity for the U.S. to engage more deeply in the Peacebuilding Commission to advance discussions in the Council – by examining regional dynamics, and ensuring greater alignment with UN development system, the World Bank and other international financial institutions, regional organizations, and national civil society in order to meet longer term peacebuilding needs and avoid conflict relapse, including where UN presences are drawing down or reconfiguring.
Victoria Holt is a Vice President at the Stimson Center. Prior to joining Stimson, Holt was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Security in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 2009 to early 2017.
Jake Sherman is Senior Director for Programs and Director of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute. Prior to joining IPI he served at the United States Mission to the United Nations where he focused on strengthening the effectiveness of peace operations.