Monday, September 20, 2010

The UN, peacekeeping operations, and great power politics

by Peter Henne

As world leaders and pundits get ready for the upcoming United Nations session, the usual discussions of the UN's relevance are emerging. The UN is in a paradoxical situation of a favorable change in the United States--with Obama relatively less UN-hostile than Bush--but an increasingly difficult international and bureaucratic situation. As
one story discussed, this can be seen in the small number of peacekeeping missions the UN is undertaking, compared to earlier eras.

It is interesting to note the crises in which the UN has not intervened. These include the Congo, Kyrgyzstan, Somalia, and Sri Lanka. A pattern can be discerned. These are all situations where there is little public attention paid to the conflict (the Congo, Somalia, Sri Lanka) or a great power is opposed to action (Kyrgyzstan-Russia).

I am not an expert on UN peacekeeping missions, but it is fair to say UN action is caused by the convergence of two factors: public attention to the crisis (the "CNN effect") and the absence of great powers opposed to intervention. Both must be present. If publics are clamoring for action but a powerful state has an interest in letting the crisis continue, UN action will blocked. If, instead, no state is stopping action but people don't care about a crisis, leaders will not feel compelled to act.

The dynamics of UN peacekeeping decisions are therefore complex. We have an asymmetric causal relationship (explanations for action are not the same as those for inaction) and equifinality (multiple paths to the same outcome). This is interesting for social scientists, but is also important for those hoping for UN action on humanitarian crises. Namely, it is much easier to prevent a UN peacekeeping operation from occurring than it is to mobilize a response to a crisis. The latter needs both public support and great power acquiescence; the former can occur in the absence of only one of those conditions.

With the American public distracted from anything of real substance, and states like China and Russia becoming more involved in regional and extra-regional politics, the likelihood of the UN stepping up and trying to resolving ongoing crises is slim. But there are plenty of crises that the great powers care little about, and of which the American people could presumably be made aware. Theoretically, that is.

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