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The main strengths and weaknesses of UN peacekeeping
Published By Barry Vale on 2012-07-27 5353 Views

This assessment will examine the the objectives behind both collective security, and the role of the UN in providing peacekeeping forces. The assessment will also set out to evaluate whether or not the scepticism of Mearsheimer amongst others is partially or wholly justified with regards to collective   security and UN peacekeeping missions. Finally it will explain why peacekeeping has apparently come back into fashion after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The notion of collective security itself can be traced back to the end of the First World War. It was supposed to be the core value of the ill – fated League of Nations (Evans & Newnham, 1998, p. 77).  When the UN was established it was designed  to be more effective than its predecessor had been (Hurd, 1997, p. 41). At that point  it did not envisage the exact nature of peacekeeping operations, when its forces would have to be impartial and try to give humanitarian aid in highly complex situations (Palmowski, 2008, p. 705). However from the late 1950s onwards the Security Council has been aiming to ensure that it can deploy peacekeeping missions anywhere across the globe within a matter of days  (Scholte, 2005, p. 71).

The strengths of the UN were meant to originate from the Security Council, and strong leadership from its Secretary General . It is the General Secretary that is responsible for finding the best means to ensure that Security Council resolutions are complied with in full .In practice as sceptics have pointed out that is not always the case (Griffiths, 2008, p. 646).

In theory at least UN peacekeeping has its strengths that should contribute to the successful completion of its missions. From its inception the major powers were the permanent members of the Security Council, which meant that it should have more resources for its missions (Hobsbawm, 1994, p 54). Having the most powerful states as members was regarded as been a notable strength as the absence of some of them  from the League of Nations was considered one of its major faults (Evans & Newnham, 1998, p. 77).

The structure of the Security Council favouring the permanent members was intended to be a strength as any resolutions would be enforced with a minimum of difficulty Palmowski, 2008, p. 706). That the organisation had a state centric outlook was also considered a strength as it was hoped this perspective could be used to persuade all countries to co-operate with each other with regard to all peacekeeping operations (Griffiths, 2008, p. 647).

Finally the notion that the UN was not allowed to interfere in any member state's internal affairs was claimed to be a strength (Hurd, 19997, p. 37).

Mearsheimer was certainly not alone when pointing to the weaknesses of UN peacekeeping missions though he might be the most sceptical (Griffiths, 2008, p. 47).
From the beginning the UN was undermined by the onset of the Cold War between its two most powerful members in the guise of the Soviet Union and the United States (Klein, 2007, p. 10).  One or both of the superpowers was always able to veto any UN resolutions they did not approve of, except in 1950 when the Soviets were not present to stop the American motion to intervene in the Korean War (Schlote, 2005, p. 84).  The Americans could usually count upon the support of the British, and sometimes the French to block resolutions (Lenman, 2004, p.847). During the Cold War the superpowers would often bypass the UN as they knew that they would veto each others actions (Hobsbawm , 1994, p. 229).  More recently the Americans and the British carried on with the invasion of Iraq despite France and Russia threatened to veto the resolution that would have given them specific permission to do so (Meyer, 2005, p. 281).

The fact that the UN can be stopped from launching peacekeeping missions by its permanent members has led to criticism that it is more imperial than impartial. Mearsheimer contends that the domination of the UN by the major powers might be regarded as a weakness yet it is also a reflection of reality (Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 360).
It is a weakness of the UN that peacekeeping missions only have a realistic chance of been successful if the United States backs operations. It is hardly surprising that the UN is accused of imperialism when it is most likely to intervene when it suits American interests for it to do so (Klein, 2007, p. 341).  It also makes it harder to contend that the UN is impartial, which Muslims doubt as resolutions against Israel are rarely enforced (Fisk, 2006, p. 645).  

The UN has another weakness when it comes down to collective security and peacekeeping, it is not supposed to interfere in the internal affairs of member states (Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 360). This weakness has become more obvious due to the increasing number of civil wars and collapsing states, especially since the end of the Cold War (Hobsbawm, 1994, p. 489). Such conflicts have proved notoriously difficult to resolve peacefully, with mixed results for the UN. The missions to Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia in the 1990s all ended in failure, with peacekeeping either been taken over by NATO (in Bosnia), or totally abandoned (Meyer, 2005, p. 280).  The uprisings in Libya and then Syria have again posed great difficulties for the UN intervening in internal conflicts. NATO once more took over operations in Libya, and thus far in Syria the UN has not been able to stop the government killing its opposition members en mass. Cynics might believe that if there had been crude oil in Syria then the UN might make more of an effort to stop the Syrian regime using brutal force. The situation in Syria highlights once again that the UN is dependent upon  the Americans if it wants to stop a government using mass murder to control its population (The Guardian, 27 April 2011).

To a large extent it is not surprising that peacekeeping missions have come back into fashion since the invasion of Iraq. The UN has completed some successful missions, such as in Angola and East Timor. Countries seeking a peaceful solution to disputes can hope that the UN can deliver just that. When American and NATO firepower can be brought into play then the chances of fighting in conflicts ending increases though it is not actually UN forces that are ensuring peace in every case,  for example Kosovo (Meyer, 2005, p. 281).  
Therefore the UN certainly has strengths and weaknesses, it is has a mixed track record in terms of collective security and peacekeeping missions. Some but not all of Mearsheimer's scepticism is justified, as the UN has its best chances of being successful when the United States and NATO back its missions. The UN is back in fashion as countries believe that it is now more likely to help them. Or it might they have lost all hope of finding a peaceful outcome and just ask the UN to intervene as a desperate last resort. In civil wars there is usually too much chaos for any of the sides to regard UN peacekeeping as fashionable and other member states decide to intervene on humanitarian grounds.  However how to end civil wars like that in Bosnia, or preventing governments killing their own citizens sometimes in their thousands as in Syria at present is very hard to resolve. The UN has always found it difficult to intervene in internal conflicts like that in Syria, and they would probably need American or NATO firepower to force the Syrian regime to stop their violent repression.


Evans & Newnham, (1998) The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin, London
Fisk R, (2006) The Great War for Civilisation – the conquest of the Middle East, Harper Perennial, London
Griffiths M (2008) Encyclopedia of International Relations and Global Politics, Routledge, London
Hobsbawm, E (1994) Age of Extremes, the Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, Michael Joseph, London
Hurd D, (1997) The Search for Peace A Century of Peace Diplomacy, Little Brown and Company, London
Klein N (2007) The Shock Doctrine, Penguin, London
Lenman B (2004) Chambers Dictionary of World History, Chambers, Edinburgh
Mearsheimer J J (2001) The Tragedy of Great Power Politic, Norton, New York & London
Meyer C (2005) DC Confidential, Weidenfield & Nicholson, London
Palmowski J (2008) Oxford Dictionary of Contemporary World History, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Scholte J A (2005) Globalization a critical introduction, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke
The Guardian – Libya, Syria, and Middle East Unrest, Matthew Weaver & Mark Tran 27 April 2011


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