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Peace operations in a multipolar world: a surprising consensus

Some would argue that the shift of influence from established to emerging powers runs the risk of destabilizing contemporary arrangements for international conflict management. For instance, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recently stated that the efficacy of the UN Security Council is at stake 'when there is limited consensus—when our actions come late and address only the lowest common denominator'. Despite such pessimism, the preliminary results from an ongoing SIPRI research project suggest that consensus remains possible in the future peace operations landscape.

In 2012 SIPRI’s New Geopolitics of Peace Operations Initiative embarked on an examination of the effects of multipolarity on the future of peace operations and conflict management. The aim of the initiative is to better understand the points of view of emerging powers and troop-contributing countries (TCCs), and stimulate discussion on peace operations. This has been achieved through a series of regional dialogue meetings with diplomats, military representatives and academics in eight locations: Addis Ababa, Amman, Astana, Brasília, Brussels, Hanoi, Kathmandu and Ulan Bator.

The search for clarity on the limitations and opportunities for international conflict management in an increasingly multipolar world is particularly relevant in light of the recently announced review of UN peace operations. In contrast to the commonly feared and expected paralysis in the international system, and in light of the highly politicized and polarized debate at the UN in New York, some of the preliminary findings from the regional dialogues reveal a surprising convergence of views on the potential for future cooperation between emerging and established powers.


Challenges and consensus: great-power politics versus cooperation

Geopolitics certainly continues to present a challenge around the world. Competition between the USA and China has led to increased tensions in the South China Sea, while the recent events in Ukraine also demonstrate how the conflict between Russia and the West has escalated. Beyond great-power politics, traditional conflicts also persist within certain regions, such as between Pakistan and India in South Asia.

However, focusing on these challenges tends to overshadow international progress in Africa and in the area of non-traditional security threats, such as crime, terrorism and piracy. In fact, participants in our dialogue meetings welcomed the idea of peace operations to manage conflicts and address common security concerns in Africa and, to a certain extent, in the Middle East. In this sense, perceptions of common future threats can help facilitate cooperation and consensus.


Affirming the norms that underpin peace operations

Despite the debate about overarching principles at the UN in New York, the dialogue meetings pointed to an increasing global convergence on international norms that underpin peace operations. For example, participants generally agreed on the importance of the protection of civilians (POC). However, some took issue with how certain norms and concepts have been operationalized. China is concerned about the perceived trend towards more ‘robust’ peace operations, a development which was also criticized by a number of Western stakeholders. Nevertheless, in the context of Africa, a clear sense of urgency was expressed for the greater use of force in peace operations, when needed.

Furthermore, while some participants raised the issue of how to deal with local ownership and democratization as part of the broader peacebuilding agenda, the importance of democracy was never questioned—although the means towards that end were often the subject of debate.


Military interventions are not as contested as they often appear

Although the international disagreement following the intervention in Libya and the deadlock within the UN Security Council on how to respond to the situation in Syria would suggest otherwise, there is also increasing international convergence on the need for military intervention.

Emerging powers are still more reluctant to intervene, but increasingly recognize the limitations of absolute sovereignty in specific cases. Rather than refuting the responsibility to protect (R2P), emerging powers instead struggle with the question of why the concept is applied in some cases and not others. Brazil proposed the concept of responsibility while protecting (RWP) as a step towards operationalizing R2P. China, for its part, introduced the concept of ‘creative engagement’, pointing to its own evolving willingness to engage with international security matters.

At the same time, in Europe and North America the appetite to intervene appears to be declining, particularly in the absence of a UN Security Council mandate or if the support of the host nation and regional organizations is absent. Interestingly, both these criteria are highly valued by China. In fact, recent French interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic demonstrate that there is a growing consensus on the need for military interventions, particularly in cases where there is no clash of interests between Security Council members.


Troop-contributing countries are not only after money and power

The tendency in the West to view calls by emerging powers and major TCCs for greater influence on peace operations as an attempt to gain greater power in the international system—and perhaps make more money—is a simplification. While it is true that these actors seek more equitable representation within the UN system and desire a greater say in the direction of future operations, they do not necessarily call for alternative strategies, concepts or norms, and often have high stakes in maintaining their contributions to the current system.

Moreover, the call for greater representation is not driven merely by national and political interest but also by a justified concern for how mandates are operationalized. During most of the dialogue meetings, participants from TCCs called for greater consultation on the rules of engagement, scope and flexibility of mandates. Apart from making mandates more achievable, such consultation is justified since it affects the deployment and safety of their own troops. Furthermore, while many TCCs call for higher troop reimbursements, some of these calls—particularly in Africa—are made within the context of a perceived lack of respect for TCCs. 


Africa and the future of peace operations

In regions where great-power tensions persist, future peace operations will likely be limited in number, and have a traditional peacekeeping character. In areas that emerging powers claim as their own spheres of influence, operations will likely be more regional or unilateral.

Africa is the exception in this regard. Not only is it a region where the emerging and traditional powers perceive the most common security threats and where they have the least conflicting interests, Africa as a region is also more open to robust and intrusive peace operations and interventions on its soil.

The consensus that emerged from the dialogue meetings was that there is more room for pragmatism in Africa, and less need to talk about the principles of peace operations. There are greater possibilities for operating on a case-by-case basis without setting precedents, and looking instead at the requirements of each new mission area.

With these findings in mind, and with the first phase of the New Geopolitics of Peace Operations Initiative drawing to a close, SIPRI intends to continue investigating the direction of future peace operations with a special focus on African sub-regional security dynamics, and the international capacity and institutional arrangements for future operations in Africa.



Dr Jaïr van der Lijn is a Senior Researcher and Director of the SIPRI Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme.
Xenia Avezov is a Researcher with the SIPRI Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme.