Can UN Peacekeepers Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time?

Paul F. Diehl
Daniel Druckman
Grace B. Mueller
May 29, 2023

For decades, UN peacekeepers have performed traditional duties of monitoring cease-fires and preventing the renewal of violence. Scholars and policymakers continue to assess outcomes in UN operations based on their performance of these tasks. Nevertheless, contemporary UN peacekeepers do far more than traditional duties. Peacekeepers are now thrust into the unconventional roles––what we label as “missions”––of monitoring elections, facilitating transitions to the rule of law, distributing humanitarian aid, and resolving conflicts in civil societies that are undergoing transformation. Other mission types include tasks related to disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR), preventive deployment, pacification, human rights, security sector reform, local governance, and reconciliation. The average UN peacekeeping operation had 4.5 missions, and this number is even greater for post-Cold War operations and those deployed to conflicts with exclusive or substantial internal conflict components. We know little about these non-traditional missions of modern-day peacekeepers and even less about how different tasks influence each other.

Based on the analysis of 70 UN operations between 1948-2016 and five in-depth case studies in Bosnia, Congo, East Timor, and Sierra Leone, our forthcoming book, When Peacekeeping Missions Collide: Balancing Multiple Roles in Peace Operations (Oxford University Press, 2023), provides an original assessment on how different peacekeeping missions intersect with and impact one another. This is drawn, in part, from a “compatibility” analysis of the different missions, based on their similarity across 12 different dimensions. A key take-away is that missions are interdependent. This can have positive repercussions as when accomplishing security goals early can lead the way to successful elections. It is also the case, however, that successful elections are not a gateway to success in peacebuilding missions.

Security First – Basic Security Missions Determine the Success of Other Missions

Traditional Peacekeeping and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) missions – what we call ‘basic security missions’ – have consequences for all the other missions that a given operation attempts. The ability to establish or monitor cease-fires in particular, as well as the outcomes of DDR missions, influences the processes and success of the other peacekeeping missions. The relationship holds for both positive and negative outcomes; that is, success in basic security missions enhance success in the other missions, and failure in the former undermine the prospects for success in the latter. Nevertheless, the impact of these basic security missions is stronger with respect to other missions that are shorter-term and more compatible with traditional peacekeeping and DDR, namely missions such as humanitarian assistance. The success of basic security missions has only a small positive impact on missions concerning rule of law and local governance, as their overall success is driven by other dynamics.

One implication for policy is to be aware of the ripple effects of the early security missions. From an operational perspective, this means focusing efforts on abating the violence and ensuring an effective cease fire before turning attention to other missions.

Successful Elections do Not Guarantee Peacebuilding Success

Surprisingly, successful elections often do not translate into positive performances in the peacebuilding operations. Elections usually come early following a peace agreement, so there is ample time to see their effects in the aftermath. For example, this is clear from the successful elections during the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) and the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) operations. For this reason, policymakers and peacekeeping operations should not rest on their laurels for having helped to pull off elections. Peacebuilding challenges loom large in the aftermath of elections. This is due, in part, to the awesome challenges of rebuilding societies without legacies of democratic systems and to the need to collaborate with a variety of NGOs and other types of organizations.

Interdependency in Peacebuilding Mission Packages

For operations that include missions in all of the three fields of security sector reform, local governance, and rule of law, problems in one mission cause difficulties in others, most notably with respect to security sector reform and rule of law. Thus, policymakers need to be aware that actions taken by peacekeepers assigned to local governance operations have implications for the way the rule of law is developed and enacted.

In all three case studies that include a combination of security sector reform, rule of law, and local governance, reconciliation is determined by all three tasks, as these missions establish a solid foundation that is necessary for healing in a previously conflict-ridden society. Peacekeepers can facilitate the process of reconciliation, even if changes in attitudes–such as acceptance of truth and forgiveness––is more influenced by long-term processes that occur well after peacekeeping withdrawal, such as bringing war criminals to justice.

Recursive Effects

Complementing the prevalent focus in peace and conflict studies on the importance of introducing different peacekeeping missions in a certain sequence, all of our case studies show that there is a feedback loop from later missions to missions begun earlier. Such effects were most pronounced where the different missions occurred in a similar time window. For example, successful humanitarian assistance can help basic security missions, when both are carried out in early stages of the peace operation. In addition, recursive effects occur take place between missions with a higher degree of compatibility, that is between missions with similar profiles. For example, success in elections assists traditional peacekeeping, as both involve substantial monitoring activities. On the other hand, results from peacebuilding missions do not tend to loop back to influence missions begun at the outset of the operations.

For policymakers, an important implication is that violence can return later during the operation, especially if subsequent peacebuilding missions encounter problems. Violence abatement may only serve as a band-aid that does not resolve deeper issues, and thus early success in halting armed conflict requires continued vigilance for the remainder of the operation.

Greater Mission Variety is Not a Recipe for Failure

Our holistic expectation was that the greater the incompatibility of the missions carried out by a peace operation, the less likely it was to be successful in any or all of its missions. Two operations – the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) and the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) – seem to fit this association. Both have relatively large numbers of missions, score high on some indicators of incompatibility, and experience substantial problems in mission performance almost across the board. Nevertheless, the other three operations belie the proposed impact. The UN Operation in the Congo (ONUC) and UN Protection Force in Bosnia (UNPROFOR) have relatively compatible mission profiles (and relatively good scores on indicators of compatibility), which theoretically implied that peacekeepers might not experience difficulties carrying out their assigned missions. Yet they experience significant failures in spite of this. Conversely, the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) carried out a broad portfolio of missions and was successful in many of them, albeit less so in peacebuilding than in more traditional activities. Overall, our research cannot confirm that a greater variety of roles and responsibilities of peacekeeping operations is a recipe for failure. On the other hand, great internal coherence between an operation’s mission does not guarantee overall success either. Peace operations are nuanced and depend to a large extent on the contexts and other factors of particular cases.

Mission Compatibility Makes a Difference

Compatible missions have a stronger impact on operation outcomes than incompatible missions. Some of the clearest effects occurred between the relatively compatible traditional peacekeeping and DDR missions. When one was unsuccessful, it tended to undermine the other, as was the case for UNPROFOR. One element of the security sector reform (SSR) mission – initially establishing local security and stability – was also negatively impacted by the failures in basic security missions. Still, connections among missions could be positive as well. Success in some missions were tied to progress in others. SSR outcomes, both positive and negative, were tied to other peacebuilding results as indicated in an earlier section.

The complexity of interacting missions is heralded by these findings. Policymakers must also learn to understand that some sets of compatible missions may be more intertwined than others. They should then act on this knowledge by proximate sequencing of compatible missions.

Limited Learning from Peacekeepers

Surprisingly, over the course of the operations, peacekeepers do not seem to adapt to the changing environment and to the hurdles inherent in performing incompatible missions. There is little indication that peacekeeping performance improved over time. In fact, missions’ ineffectiveness or limited success tend to persist over time. When some improvement did occur, it could not be attributed to learning.

This is a sobering finding for policymakers. One possible remedy is to review and change existing training programs. Better learning results are also likely to occur when frequent after-action debriefings are installed during an operation.  In addition, it is important to create more meaningful monitoring and evaluation processes throughout the operation.

These insights have important implications for those designing, approving, and evaluating UN peacekeeping operations. It is paramount to consider mission interdependence. This entails distinguishing between more and less compatible missions when making assignments. Peacekeepers are likely to be more effective when assigned roles in more compatible missions. But mission compatibility can also ramify the effects of failure from one mission to another. A key challenge is to ensure that peacekeepers learn from their experiences in both compatible and incompatible missions. To this end, training, regular debriefings and meaningful monitoring and evaluation are critical to the success of an operation.

About the authors

Paul F. Diehl is an independent scholar of international relations.

Daniel Druckman is Professor Emeritus at George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He is also an Honorary Professor at Macquarie University in Sydney and at the University of Queensland in Brisbane Australia

Grace B. Mueller is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow for the Army Cyber Institute at West Point.

This think-piece is based on the authors' book When Peacekeeping Missions Collide: Balancing Multiple Roles in Peace Operations (Oxford University Press, 2023).

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.