Last week, at the headquarters of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered an address that asked an important question – a question that should be on top of every Americans’ mind: does the modern international order, 70 years removed from its founding, still work?
For many bread-and-butter voters, it may seem like the answer to that question is a resounding no. Terrorists routinely threaten our cherished liberties, deadly opioids flood into our country from overseas, and countries such as China and Russia increasingly challenge America on the world stage.
Where is that “beloved” international order in all of this, they ask; where are the institutions born in the aftermath of two world wars that were supposed to elevate us to a new plane of peace, security, and prosperity?
These are legitimate concerns — but are unfortunately rooted in an overarching misperception of not only the reason the UN was created but of the very real ways our involvement in the UN has made our country safer, stronger, and more respected.
Now, I’m not going to try and argue that the UN is a perfect institution – far from it. But it undoubtedly serves a near-perfect mission. In its simplest form, the UN was established to be a common venue for nations to try and work out their problems diplomatically and, when necessary, take collective action to secure a common peace.
There is no clearer example of this than UN peacekeeping: dangerous and massive international efforts to rescue fragile nations beset by sectarian conflict, civil war, and radical terrorism.
In his speech, Secretary Pompeo calls out peacekeeping missions that “drag on for decades, no closer to peace” as evidence of some sort of systematic failure within the United Nations. This rhetoric seems to succumb to the common confusion of cause and correlation. Yes, it’s true, peacekeeping is no quick fix, but that is a reflection of the incredibly complex environments in which peacekeepers operate – and thus why these missions are so necessary in the first place.
Having visited six UN peace operations, including the “big four” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Mali, and the Central African Republic, I’ve seen these truths with my own eyes. These missions are in some of the most dangerous, remote, and unstable places on the planet, conflicts even America’s military, the best fighting force in the world, would have difficulty quickly resolving.
More to the point, though, is the notion that peacekeeping missions simply never end. Peacekeeping missions do indeed complete their mandates and close. Over the past 20 years, blue helmets helped war-stricken West Africa emerge from chaos, bringing back peace, rule of law, and stability to Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, and Liberia. Today, the region has been transformed, thanks in large part to the UN’s presence. In fact, in March, the mission in Liberia became the last of the three UN peacekeeping missions in the region to complete its mandate and leave its host country in a safer, more stable place than they found it.
Those successes didn’t happen overnight, though. In Liberia’s case, the mission lasted 15 years. But just as with U.S. military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s the conditions on the ground that should dictate mission length, not the other way around. Peacekeeping missions, many of which are becoming increasingly complex and dangerous, are simply no different.
I agree with the Secretary that we have to challenge the norms; there is nothing worse than a bureaucracy that grows complacent. But the argument that the United Nations has outlived its usefulness, particularly as blue-helmeted peacekeepers work to prevent genocides in Africa and keep a lid on political tensions in the Middle East, is simply wrong.
We need continued U.S. leadership at the UN more now than ever because, as the Secretary pointed out recently, “It’s a mean, nasty world out there.” As bad actors seek to twist and weaken the international order to satiate their own self-serving interests, we need a venue to hash out our differences, call out nations that threaten our values, and when need be, take action to defend all the progress we’ve made over these last 70 years. That’s why we have the UN and why it’s still so needed today.