April 1, 2010

Peacekeeping: India’s chance to lead

Are Chinese peacekeepers more interesting than Indian ones? Many Western security analysts seem to think so. China has just over 2,000 soldiers and police serving in United Nations operations. India has nearly 9,000. Yet while there is a steady flow of American and European think-tank reports with titles like China’s Expanding Role in Peacekeeping—mostly praising it—very little is written about India’s far larger contribution to the UN.

New Delhi’s policy-makers should pause to ask why. Over the last decade, Indian forces have been on the frontline in many of the UN’s hardest missions, from Sierra Leone to the Congo. In the same period, China has gone from hardly engaging in peacekeeping at all to deploying engineers, medics and policemen—a useful but still limited offering.

Beijing has nonetheless presented it as proof that it is a responsible power. When China organised a conference on peacekeeping in 2009, the Financial Times rather breathlessly reported it as an “unprecedented” initiative to “shape the future” of UN operations.

Having spent a happy hour under the protection of Chinese policemen in Haiti, this author has no complaints—but it’s clear that China is getting a lot of kudos at little cost.

By contrast, India’s engagement with UN peacekeeping has seemed rather tortured of late.  Some of its units have been dogged by accusations of corruption. At the UN headquarters in New York, Indian diplomats repeatedly spar with their Western counterparts over how missions are run. Last year, there were credible rumours that India was threatening to cut back its peacekeepers unless it got more command positions.

The net result is that, if China looks like a responsible power thanks to its engagement in peacekeeping, India doesn’t get the same pay-off.  It is natural that some commentators—like Pragati‘s Nitin Pai—think it is time for India to cut its losses and begin a “graduated withdrawal of all its troops operating under the UN flag.”  But this would be a mistake.

India should take a leaf from China’s great power playbook. It should not service UN missions for their own sake. Nor should it tie its involvement to limited rewards like senior posts in UN missions—such things are nice to have, but aren’t the currency of great power politics. Instead, India should use its investment in the UN as the basis to stake its leadership as a driver of new thinking about peacekeeping in a multipolar world.

Since its spectacular failures in the 1990s, UN peacekeeping has regained credibility as a useful tool for dealing with what are—to be frank—second-order strategic problems.  It has become the standard mechanism for stabilising small-to-medium size weak states (like Haiti, Timor-Leste and Liberia) or tackling large-scale crises in places where nobody else will go (like Darfur and the eastern Congo). But the Blue Helmets have not gone to first-order trouble spots like Afghanistan and Iraq. They’d struggle if they did, thanks to the UN’s unwieldy logistics structures and highly variable quality of forces.

Yet the alternatives have not proved incredibly effective either. President George W Bush’s coalition of the willing crumbled in Iraq. NATO has stumbled awfully in Afghanistan, and its largest European members are set to shrink their military budgets drastically. In Washington, serious security thinkers are wondering if the UN could help fill the gap.

One of those thinkers is President Barack Obama.  “The more effective UN peacekeeping forces are in handling civil wars and sectarian conflicts,” he wrote well before entering the White House, “the less policing we have to do in areas that we’d like to see stabilised.”

Although distracted by Afghanistan, his administration has followed up on this insight, launching an inter-agency process to review how the United States can do more to help the UN. This has gained new urgency after the Haitian earthquake, as American marines and Brazilian UN forces have scrambled to maintain order together—and largely succeeded.

Looking ahead, some policy wonks wonder whether a UN force could take on duties from NATO in Afghanistan after a peace-deal between President Hamid Karzai and his foes. Others think that is operationally and politically unfeasible—but if it did come off, it would make the UN suddenly far more relevant to both US and Indian national security policy.

So there is a strategic opening for new thinking about UN peacekeeping works. Over the last year, there has been a small host of initiatives to come up with new ideas on the topic in New York. The UN secretariat published a respectable but far from radical paper. Britain, France and Japan have had things to say. There’s been helpful tinkering with the rules for mandating operations. But there has certainly been no Eureka moment.

One reason for this is that Western governments, scared of paying the costs for any reforms, are not open to expensive new proposals. The other is that none of the UN’s politically weighty force contributors (China included) have offered a new vision to galvanise the debate. India has been a conservative voice, questioning even minor reforms.

That is a pity for India as well as the UN. If New Delhi laid out fresh ideas for future UN operations—where they should go, when they should use force, how they should be commanded and so forth—it would be taken as a positive sign of India’s growing global clout.

Talking about these ideas at the UN would not be enough: a great way to kill a good idea for UN reform is to introduce it in New York alone. India could convene a high-level discussion of peacekeeping in New Delhi involving senior defence and foreign affairs officials from the top military players in peacekeeping plus the UN, NATO and EU.

This could act as “Peacekeepers’ G20”, creating momentum for improved co-operation—although without undermining the UN’s authority over specific mandates and missions.

Alternatively, India could propose co-hosting such an event with the US administration in Washington—a useful show of harmony, given US-Indian differences on other multilateral issues like trade and climate change. With luck (and some good public relations work) the press might well call this another “unprecedented” initiative to “shape the future” of UN operations.  And on this occasion, the journalists might just be right.

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