Peacekeeping Force

Kevin Drum is impressed with a Max Boot editorial calling for a peacekeeping force:

Nationally, the United States needs to create a standing agency devoted to nation-building; it should have a director with the authority to force disparate departments in the U.S. government to work together, something that didn’t happen before the invasion of Iraq. The military too needs to devote more attention to nation-building, perhaps by adopting a proposal from the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation to add a couple of divisions specially trained for peacekeeping.


It’s time to resurrect the idea of a standing U.N. army, as a supplement, if not replacement, for the other forces mentioned above. The key to making it work would be eschewing the old U.N. way of doing things, which consists of asking for military contributions from a lot of countries with minimal capabilities, no record of working together and differing strategic interests. This produces low-quality blue helmets that are the laughingstock of thugs everywhere.

The U.N. needs a tough, professional force like the French Foreign Legion that would not quail before Haitian gang leaders or Serbian ethnic-cleansers. Members of such an outfit would have to be recruited on merit and trained together; it could not be cobbled together at the last minute from the military riffraff of Third World dictatorships. To make it work, the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations would have to beef up its command, intelligence and logistical capabilities. The U.N. would also need to improve its ability to run failed states in a Kosovo-style receivership.

Says Kevin,

Boot himself admits that these ideas are currently “wishful thinking” both because of problems with the UN itself and with the deep animus toward the UN within the United States. But even so it’s nice to hear a conservative voice willing to face the obvious: we can’t police the world by ourselves, and that means having to rethink our willingness to cooperate with multinational institutions if we want to achieve our goals.

I’d argue that we’ve long been willing to cooperate with the UN and other multilateral organizations–indeed, prefer to do so–so long as they’re not a major obstacle to our policy objectives. But a standing UN force would not have changed things in Iraq, for example. France would still have had a veto power on the Security Council, which would, under terms of the UN Charter, order such a force into action.

As to the domestic peacekeeping force, I tend to be skeptical of it. The problem is simple: operations in places like Iraq are fluid. One minute, a soldier is doing humanitarian operations and quite literally the next minute he’s a light infantryman performing counter-insurgency operations. I actually chatted with Admiral Cebrowski, the Director of Force Transformation, about this at the Fletcher Conference a couple months ago and got the impression that he agrees. What he’s talking about is something a little broader than just peacekeepers, as this Dec. 30 DefenseLINK article suggests:

[A] stability and reconstruction force would include such elements as combat arms, military police, civil affairs, military intelligence, psychological affairs, engineers and explosive ordnance teams. But he emphasized that the heart of the force would be the combat arms element.

“Stability operations are difficult, are very important and very dangerous,” he said. “This is no place for a pick-up team. This is meant to be part of the broad combat arms capability of the military. This is not the place where you put other than your best people and best equipment, because these are the people who are going to wrest victory and wrest our political objectives from an enemy dedicated to defeating us.”

While pointing to the importance of the combat arms elements, Cebrowski said such a force must include the long-held belief that “everyone’s a rifleman.”

“The fact that you may be working civil affairs, psychological operations, military intelligence, or whatnot does not make you less of a Marine or less of a soldier,” he said. “All would need to be prepared and ready to engage in combat, because these are dangerous types of operations.”

Cebrowski envisions such a force also interacting with and building relationships with allied forces, coalition partners, U.S. government agencies and perhaps some nongovernmental bodies, such as relief agencies.

“What we’re really talking about here is a joint capability,” Cebrowski said — “one that would require a strong mix from all the services in some cases, while relying more heavily on one service in other cases, and including the ability to work with others outside of DoD.”

These things are quickly becoming a reality. The problem is that, given that stability ops are quickly becoming the modal mission, two divisions aren’t enough.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kathy K says:

    No one, including soldiers, can be all things to all people. We do need a peacekeeping force. But it needs to be a force, not the sort of wimps the UN presently deploys. I’m about halfway between Drum and that Defense Link article. Our ‘peacekeepers’ do need to know counter-insurgency and some psyops and certainly need to know how to shoot. But they can’t be everything to everyone.
    Infantry is not going to make good peacekeepers. The mindset is different. Peacekeepers have to think before shooting. Peacekeepers won’t make good infantry either. Same reason.

  2. James Joyner says:


    I’ve argued since Somalia that Infantry can’t do these missions. Unfortunately, there’s not much choice. The problem is that we very seldom encounter true blue beret-type peacekeeping anymore. Stability ops are fluid, requiring well armed, well trained combat troops who understand the ROE of a less permissive environment. The key is the integration of civil affairs, psyops, and other specialists into the units rather than having them as add-ons.

  3. Kevin Drum says:

    I’m not especially trying to push any particular vision of a peacekeeping/nation building force. I just generally like the idea of taking it seriously and also taking seriously the idea of working with other countries. Obviously we’ve done that in the past, but the Bush administration (and conservatives in general) are pretty allergic to it.

    I’m happy to discuss various alternatives, but I’d sure like to see the general allergy go away.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Sure. My guess is that Iraq was the aberration rather than the norm. Conservatives are allergic to being subservient to the UN, not working with it. I suspect we’ll wind up with some sort of UN op in Haiti, for example.

  5. Jalal Abu Jarhead says:

    I’m an example of the “allergic conservatives” Kevin mentioned. I sometimes have to agree with some of the US’s critics that we stick our noses into other people’s business a bit too often, but I’ll concede that nation-building is sometimes necessary, as is the case in Iraq.

    My biggest problem is with the concept of taking the “break things/kill people” troops and have them perform what is mostly a policing function. I think much of what our military is doing in Iraq these days should be done by a more paramilitary force. I don’t want our troops to dull the edge on the tip of that sword, if you know what I mean.

    There’s definitely still a role for combat arms in Iraq, and that’s where the Army and Marines come into play. I don’t like the idea of Marines having to learn how to “play nice,” even though that appears to have been their approach before they left last year, and their intended approach when they go back soon. *sigh*

    But providing building security and crime prevention and solving are not areas of high expertise for our military, nor should they be.

    And other than that, I don’t pretend to have a solution to the problem. Maybe the idea of a standing U.N. paramilitary peace-keeping force would be the best compromise. If there also needs to be a combat arms component, though, I believe it should still be composed of units from U.N. member states.