Middle Powers Reengaging in UN Peace Operations: Strategic Policy Recommendations

Middle Powers Reengaging in UN Peace Operations: Strategic Policy Recommendations

Though a debated category, “middle power” countries use multilateralism and peacekeeping to pursue their interests, build relationships and exert influence globally. Recently, however, commitments have shifted toward regional military alliances and “smart”, technical engagements, reducing the risks to personnel and appealing more directly to national interests. The result has been declining contributions to United Nations (UN) peacekeeping since the 1990s. 


Recently, the UN and the Secretary-General have called for renewed commitments, which alongside the pursuit of Security Council seats, have triggered middle power countries to pursue reengagement in UN peacekeeping. 

The global order is shifting, as both liberalism and liberal interventionism are increasingly contested by state and non-state actors alike. With power dispersing and new actors emerging,  the lessons from past peace operations must be reinterpreted for the UN to retain its leadership in security governance. From a comprehensive review, 3 key lessons emerge from the past 70 years of UN peace interventions to inform middle power countries looking to reengage in a world much different from when they disengaged. 

Taken together, peace interventions must become less directive, enabling post-conflict societies to define their future according to their own values and identities. Sustainable peace- and statebuilding must be representative and inclusive, rather than reflective of liberal norms and structures. The price of local legitimacy may be a loss of control for foreign actors, necessitating higher risk tolerance and greater adaptive capacity, responding to complex and relational conceptions of change. Though middle power countries may be hesitant to move away from liberal interventionism, their dependence on multilateralism and peacekeeping for their own security and influence means that preparing for a post-liberal intervention environment is in their best interests, as is ensuring the continued relevance of the UN. 

Preparing to work in an intervention environment that is no longer normatively liberal in all contexts will require training to “unlearn” liberal assumptions…

As middle powers seek to reengage in UN peace operations, their bureaucracies, military training programs, and public information  practices must adapt, coherently, to enable such interventions. By virtue of their existing competencies and reputations for diplomacy and credibility, middle power countries can be leaders in this new post-liberal, collaborative, adaptive and relational generation of UN peace operations.

Bureaucratic Reforms

In a post-liberal world, the diplomatic soft-skills in which middle powers have historical reputations and competencies should be leveraged as bargaining advantages in global security governance. Without negotiation and mediation between actors with different values and end-goals, strategic collaboration will be impeded by institutional rivalries and bureaucratic politics. Through repeat and continued interaction, a culture of cooperation can emerge, enabling collaborative action following locally-designed plans for peace. 

Military and civilian roles in peace interventions must be reconceptualized to centre on local actor support, thereby reducing bureaucratic infighting and facilitating operational adaptivity. Complex conceptions of change that value micro impacts enable adaptive response, which requires nuanced contextual understanding and knowledge sharing from the tactical through to the strategic level. 

This knowledge can emerge from direct engagementexperimentation and dialogue between local and international actors in UN peace interventions, driving transformational organizational change and micro-peacebuilding from the bottom up. Enabling the space for such relational interfaces requires reducing thebunkerization and securitization of UN peace operations. This demands both risk tolerance and physical presence from middle power countries on the ground. 

Training Reforms

Preparing to work in an intervention environment that is no longer normatively liberal in all contexts will require training to “unlearn” liberal assumptions and enable post-conflict states and communities to define their own futures according to their own values. 

To cultivate a culture of collaborative working in peace interventions, the military and civilian institutions involved must, first, understand the complexity of conflict and peace, including the interdependence of security and development, the transnational dynamics that impact conflict, and the tensions that exist between building peace and building a state. 

Second, training must provide them with the tools needed to accomplish the suite of non-traditional military tasks in which UN peacekeepers will be implicated, such as mediationcommunicationsinteractive problem-solvingcivil-military coordinationfield cooperation and information sharing and management. In a multi-order world, UN peacekeepers will need to be “soldier-diplomats”.

Context-sensitive, adaptive and relational peace operations demand military and civilian understanding of the nuances of local culture, history, politics and systems of meaning-making. Training in peacekeeping intelligence and information gathering, including languages, cultural awareness, and inter-cultural communication will improve interoperability, experimentation and adaptive capacity. Middle powers with their technological capacities and international credibility may have “comparative advantages” in this pursuit. 

Public Information Reforms

The typical liberal rationale for intervention relies upon values-based and fear-based narratives to bandy public support for troop and financial commitments. In a post-liberal world, responsibility and complicitly should become the defining rationales to garner public support for peace interventions that are not normatively liberal, by fostering public understanding of the ways in which colonialism and globalization have causally and materially linked all nations and peoples. 

Support for deployments is connected to both costs and risks, as well as perceived efficiency, meaning that with heightened complexity and coordination demands, the emphasis must shift from efficiency to effectiveness, cultivating public understanding that peace is only sustainable if it is legitimate and culturally coherent. Encouraging incremental understandings of conflict resolution and peacebuilding enables public support for holistic funding mechanisms and unconditional investments, which are necessary for adaptive operational approaches.

Post-liberal, collaborative, adaptive and relational peace interventions are not low risk activities. Peacekeeping should be understood by the public as an elite, high-competency deployment requiring specialized candidates with diplomatic skills and capacity. 

The world order is changing and as such UN peacekeeping must also change, shifting away from liberal normativity in intervention design, operations and tactics. Those countries that rely on the United Nations for both their influence and security must prepare to meet this changing context. The suggested bureaucracy, training and public information reforms will enable middle power countries to meet their stated commitments to UN peacekeeping and become leaders in a post-liberal security environment. 


This is article is part of a four-part symposium on the Action for Peacekeeping? Middle Powers, Liberal Internationalism, and the Future of UN Peace Operations

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