Globalist Perspective

Will UN Peacekeeping Fall Victim to Budget Cuts?

Is United Nations peacekeeping fading away as a result of budget cuts — or are we just settling into a new normal?


  • Poorer countries like Bangladesh and Fiji make no secret that they profit from peacekeeping.
  • For a decade, there has been an implicit deal between the states that pay for UN operations and troop contributors to keep blue helmet missions going.
  • Peacekeeping looked like a bargain for Europeans for a few years when the euro was strong and the dollar was very weak.

The last decade was boom time for “blue helmets,” with the number of UN peacekeepers having grown from 12,000 in 1999 to 120,000 today.

The UN has done a decent job of getting countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone on their feet. It was making progress in Haiti before this year's earthquake. Although the Haiti mission lost its chief and 100 personnel in the disaster, the peacekeepers managed to maintain order. U.S. Marines deployed to Port-au-Prince came away praising the UN.

Yet, there's been a stream of bad news for the organization since then. Its highest-profile mission in Darfur reels between crises. In August, senior officials confessed that up to 500 civilians had been raped just miles from a UN camp in the Congo.

The greatest threats to UN operations in the years ahead may not come from individual atrocities, however. A mix of financial pressures and gaps in international military resources may cut off the money, troops and hardware like helicopters the UN needs.

For a decade, there has been an implicit deal between the states that pay for UN operations (the United States, Japan and Europeans) and troop contributors (including India, Pakistan and Nigeria) to keep blue helmet missions going. This could soon fail. Why?

Despite the financial crisis, the UN's peacekeeping budget — running at between $7 billion and $8 billion a year — has not yet faced drastic cuts. The Obama Administration has made a point of paying its dues (now 27% of the total) on time, compensating for Bush-era arrears.

However, other big financial contributors — especially members of the European Union, who cover 40% of the costs combined — are looking for cuts as part of broader spending reductions.

In June, Gérard Araud, France's ambassador to the UN, told the Security Council that "in the context of budgetary austerity, the cost of peacekeeping was increasingly difficult to manage."

These European sensitivities are exacerbated by the weakness of the euro. Governments' contributions to the UN budget are denominated in dollars — which made peacekeeping look like a bargain for a few years when the euro was strong and the dollar was very weak.

The euro crisis has changed that. In 2008-9, Germany's contribution to the UN peacekeeping budget was $607 million, or €390 million at pre-crisis exchange rates. Its contribution for 2010-11 will be roughly $620 million: €480 million at current rates.

EU governments are not going to invite odium by demanding major cuts to forces in hot-spots like Darfur. But diplomats warn that they will trim UN costs wherever they can.

This is likely to lead to tensions with those countries — primarily in Asia, Africa and Latin America — that contribute significant numbers of troops and assets to UN operations.

There have always been difficulties between "those who pay" and "those who play" in UN missions. The "players" are reimbursed through the UN for their forces, and poorer countries like Bangladesh and Fiji make no secret that they profit from peacekeeping.

That is no longer true of rising powers like Brazil and India. If your economy was growing at 8%, as India's is, you wouldn't worry too much about income from the UN.

Nonetheless, even wealthier troop contributors bridle at signs of Western miserliness at the UN. After all, they point out, the Europeans send hardly any troops on UN missions — with the notable exception of that in Lebanon. They could at least pay up properly.

Some leading troop contributors to UN forces are already reassessing their commitments.

This summer, India decided to stop sending military helicopters to the UN in the Congo and Sudan. This was a pragmatic call. The Indian Air Force is short on helicopters, and there is growing demand for air assets for operations against Maoist rebels at home.

But the Indian decision has already had an impact on UN operations. In the Congo, the blue helmets used to fly in by helicopter when they wanted to set up a base in a dangerous area. Now, say experts returning from Congo, they go in by road. This raises the risks of ambushes and casualties — UN officials are still struggling to fill the gap.

Delhi's decision is striking because it has a long tradition of backing UN peacekeeping, dating back to the Cold War. If India walks away from the UN, who will stick with it?

UN peacekeeping is not about to implode. But it is being corroded by a growing sense of indifference from all sides. Many of "those who pay" want to pay less. India is showing that "those who play" will not keep on playing for the sake of it.

A vicious cycle may emerge. Rising powers like India will assume that cash-strapped Western governments don't care about the UN, and so they will contribute fewer troops. Western donors will conclude that there's no point in paying for ill-armed, third-rate UN forces.

So UN peacekeeping may fade away. Pity the refugees and weak states it leaves behind.

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