Former French Ambassador Jean-Marie Guéhenno spent eight years as the U.N.’s head of peacekeeping, directing blue-helmeted, international troops to both joyous success and frustrating failure as they tried to keep civilians safe in the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
As undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations from 2000 until 2008, Guéhenno gained firsthand perspective on the bloodiest, most politically complicated crises — Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the Congo — of the early 21st century.
Today, as president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, Guéhenno is still helping to douse conflagrations in hotspots around the globe. The Crisis Group’s authoritative, on-the-ground reports from intractable conflicts are required reading among experts. And in the seven years since leaving the United Nations, Guéhenno has reflected deeply on the lessons he learned. His new book “The Fog of Peace,” a thoughtful, candid memoir, details those years and the hard decisions and compromises he was often forced to make.
“In 2015, when one looks at those [U.N. peacekeeping] interventions, it sends a mixed message,” Guéhenno told The Diplomat in a wide-ranging telephone interview from Moscow. “Certainly, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are not the shining successes that we hoped for, nor are a number of U.N. operations. The Democratic Republic of Congo is still a question mark. The war has almost ended in the Congo, but it’s hard to say the structural problems are resolved.”
In his interview, Guéhenno — also a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution — discussed a growing sense of frustration with the U.N. Security Council, the unique challenge of keeping civilians safe among terrorists and sexual abuse perpetrated by the peacekeepers themselves.
As undersecretary-general at the United Nations during eight explosive years, Guéhenno became the U.N.’s longest-serving head of peacekeeping and led the biggest expansion of forces in the history of the organization.
But the experiences of Iraq, Afghanistan and Congo have caused Guéhenno to question just how effective the United Nations can be in mediating and resolving conflicts — and whether noble aspirations can be reconciled with realities on the ground.
“There really is a big question of what can the international community do … in intervention,” he said. “I think just as the pendulum was swinging toward optimism and confidence in the early 2000s, now it’s the opposite. We’re wondering if we should just hunker down because it’s too complicated. Should we just give up?”
Guéhenno hopes his book, while sobering and at times pessimistic, can also help nations better understand how smart, targeted action can, indeed, help prevent senseless violence and save lives.
“I thought I needed to share my experience as the head of peacekeeping during its greatest growth in history and give my own judgment,” he said. “We have to lower expectations, and we have to also be much more careful in what we do.”
Any discussion of the U.N. peacekeeping mandate has to start with the bloc’s controversial and oft-contentious Security Council. The Security Council — which includes the U.S., China, Russia, France and Britain, as well as 10 non-permanent member countries elected every two years — has the sole authority for authorizing international peacekeeping missions, as well as their size and scope.
Guéhenno is skeptical that one frequently proposed reform — adding veto-wielding permanent members — would help improve the organization’s effectiveness in peacekeeping.
“It is a problem that the Security Council does not reflect the distribution of power today with countries like India or Brazil, or Japan or Germany, or South Africa or Nigeria,” the former diplomat said. “If you want to talk about major powers, the list gets quite long, and the Security Council is not representative of today’s world.
“At the same time, I’m not sure that increasing the Security Council will make a large difference if the countries sitting on the council don’t have any common vision,” he added. “The decision-making process is complicated. I’m not sure making the Security Council larger would be more efficient. It might be more representative, but it might not be more efficient.”
The inefficiencies and geopolitical divisions at the heart of the Security Council have been laid bare by the conflict in Syria. Asked about the lack of peacekeeping in that war-torn country, Guéhenno grew reflective.
“Syria is just an illustration of the broken nature of international relations at the moment,” he said. “The major powers can’t really agree on the way forward in Syria. They have not been able to agree for the last two to three years and that has caused a quarter-million dead. In that context to talk about institutional reform is a bit unreal.”
He said lasting peace in Syria is impossible without at least some political consensus.
“The institutions are always a reflection of politics, so if the politics are broken the notion that institutions are going to fix the politics is naïve,” Guéhenno said. “But as difficult as fundamental reform of the U.N. is, my experience in peacekeeping is that the U.N. as an operational organization has much more leeway and capacity to do things if the secretary-general is smart — and peacekeeping is one of them.
“In peacekeeping, you have to make sure you don’t cross fundamental interests of major powers, but within that space there is often room to maneuver,” he said. “The problem is that the U.N. as a machine doesn’t function that well. There have been improvements in the last 10 or 15 years, but there is still a ways to go.”
Guéhenno also voiced doubt that significant reform is possible because of the variety of geopolitical conflicts now percolating around the globe.
“It’s the fact that the international community hasn’t rallied and shared ideas for how to deal with conflict and war — there is no agreed concept,” Guéhenno said, noting that the very definition of conflict has changed, complicating the Security Council’s mandate further.
“The separation between war and peace is now blurred,” the former U.N. official said. “When you have the hybrid warfare conducted in Ukraine, when you have the war against terror … what is self-defense today when you have a terrorist movement, when you are defending yourself in a country in which no one is in control of the government, as was the case with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, or the Islamic State in Syria or Iraq? Is it self-defense then to strike?
“These are questions that really would not have been asked in 1945 [when the Security Council’s operating procedures were created in Yalta] because the notion of aggression was clear: It was Hitler crossing the border of Poland, or an army crossing the border of another country,” Guéhenno continued. “Now you have much more complex forms of war which challenge the concepts on which the U.N. Charter was negotiated.”
It has also challenged the basic assumption that peacekeeping is intended to keep the peace, which means there must be a peace on which to build. But as missions have evolved over the last two decades — there are now 16 operations on four continents totaling 125,000 troops — blue helmets have been dropped into increasingly chaotic war zones. The mandate has expanded, but the training and resources have not kept pace with the expansion.
On that note, Guéhenno credited the administration of President Obama for its commitment to peacekeeping and lauded many of the goals that Obama laid out during a U.N. summit in New York in September.
“The Obama administration has probably gone further in supporting peacekeeping than any recent U.N. participation of the last 25 or 30 years, and that is a strong political signal,” he said.
At the U.N. summit, Obama announced that more than 50 countries had promised 40,000 peacekeepers for possible deployment on U.N. missions, as well as helicopters, medical units and training, and equipment to counter roadside bombs. The pledges, which include 15 military engineering companies and 10 field hospitals, are intended to help the U.N. deploy to conflict zones faster and beef up existing missions. China made one of the biggest commitments as President Xi Jinping promised to establish a “permanent peacekeeping police squad” and a standby force of 8,000 troops.
The United States will contribute logistical support and double the number of U.S. military officers, though the number of American personnel is negligible. According to the U.N. website, the U.S. has only 79 of its own blue helmets on the ground worldwide, divided between police officers and soldiers
Guéhenno said U.S. leadership and budget support is important. The United States picks up 28 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping tab, which totals $8.2 billion for the upcoming fiscal year. But he also appreciates that the superpower doesn’t impose itself too deeply on the missions.
“The U.S. doesn’t put its own troops under the flag and I can think of many situations if there were U.S. troops, with the enormous geopolitical weight of the U.S., it might not be such a good idea,” he explained. “One of the strengths of the U.N. is its independence of any power, or especially any superpower. So, in a way, the reluctance by the U.S. to commit troops to the U.N. is not such a big problem. It is important that the U.S. helps by training and providing logistics and technical support and in some cases intelligence. Here, the U.S. can lead by example and encourage other countries.”
Guéhenno also endorsed, to some extent, the growing expectation — known as the so-called Kigali Principles — that U.N. peacekeepers take the fight to the bad guys in order to protect civilians; in 2013, the Security Council authorized an “intervention brigade” to launch a first-ever offensive against rebels who had been massacring villagers. Twenty years earlier, the United Nations came under fire when peacekeepers stood back and watched as thousands were slaughtered in Rwanda’s genocide, an indelible stain that continues to haunt the organization.
“You need force to be respected and sometimes you need to be proactive,” Guéhenno said. “One of the traditional principals of peacekeeping is that you only use force in self-defense and, frankly, there are situations where it doesn’t make sense.
“It doesn’t make sense [to allow] some criminal militia to go and kill villages before you use force,” he continued. “If you want to protect civilians, then you need sometimes to use force before you are attacked, and you need to be very mobile because the ration of force to the area you have to cover will always be inadequate. You need both a good political acumen and intelligence to know where trouble can develop and then the capacity to move forces quickly.”
In that vein, the new commitments of equipment by U.N. members of attack helicopters are a positive development, Guéhenno noted.
“Having those transport and attack helicopters quickly apply force in a place that is in trouble is very important,” he said. “The U.N. has had a hard time finding those assets. At the same time, for me it’s quite clear that the U.N. is not configured to wage war. It will never have the level of military integration that is needed. Every U.N. force is a sort of ad hoc assembly of different military forces. It is not configured to really wage war. What the U.N. peacekeepers can do better is deter and crush marginal spoilers. That’s what they can and should do, but beyond that it is setting itself up for failure.”
Guéhenno’s book argues that peacekeeping is only effective when it is backed by a concerted diplomatic campaign. He welcomed the recent commitments to provide more peacekeepers, even if the logistical impact isn’t clear yet, but he cautioned that numbers alone won’t guarantee success in the absence of political will.
“The one caveat is that it is a mistake to think that the success or failure or peacekeeping hinges only on troops. If you don’t have the right political strategy, you can have as many troops as you want and it won’t work. Peacekeeping is an essentially political activity and that’s something I talk a lot about in my book. One of the things often missing in trying to prevent conflict is a smart political strategy. If you don’t have that you are going to fail.”
A coherent political strategy is also necessary to protect civilians from the growing number of terrorist groups and regimes around the world.
“I’m not sure we always have a political strategy to deal with terrorism,” Guéhenno said. “Counterterrorism isn’t enough. You have to look at the political conditions that lead to terrorism. In Iraq, the specter of Shia militias attacking Sunnis has been a factor in the development of the Islamic State.
“In Syria, the barrel bombing by [President Bashar al-] Assad and the lack of international reaction has been a factor in the development of the Islamic State,” he added.
Guéhenno rejects the notion that world powers should not engage terrorist groups in dialogue.
“Terrorism is a label that covers a broad range of groups,” he said. “There are groups who commit terrorist acts that should be politically engaged, and I think the policy of not talking to a growing number of organizations is mistaken. I don’t think talking is legitimizing.
“It’s important to talk to anybody to see whether there is any political avenue possible and then you can peel a number of people out from the terrorist strategies.”
But the former U.N. official was quick to note that such discussions should have limits.
“Of course, there are groups we cannot and should not even try to make an agreement with,” he said. “Obviously, the Islamic State is one of them because of the atrocities it commits and the ideology it promotes.”
As for the operational challenges, Guéhenno said the U.N.’s experience in Mali, where both al-Qaeda-affiliated militants and local insurgents operate, speaks to the need for experienced, well-trained soldiers.
“That kind of asymmetric warfare is very difficult for troops unless they are very well trained and very well equipped,” he said. “It also makes it difficult for the troops to be engaged with the population. A lot of peacekeeping strategy is for the troops to be close to the population. When you are being attacked by suicide bombers, you tend to hunker down in camps with armor and all of that creates distance. It’s a real challenge to traditional peacekeeping, and it’s another reason why it’s important to have highly trained troops taking part in peacekeeping.”
A lack of training is not the only factor that could endanger vulnerable populations — sometimes it’s the peacekeepers themselves who pose a threat.
We asked Guéhenno about the disturbing pattern of sexual abuse allegations against U.N. peacekeepers in regions where they are purportedly safeguarding civilians. In September, Amnesty International found credible evidence that a U.N. peacekeeper sexually assaulted an adolescent girl during a search of her family’s home in the Central African Republic. Other allegations have also revealed evidence of sexual abuse in the Central African Republic by French peacekeepers, who are accused of luring young boys into oral sex in return for food and money. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has fired the head of the peacekeeping mission in that country and launched two investigations into the scandal.
“It is a disgrace and it is a real problem — and it is now a problem that the U.N. has been trying to tackle for more than 10 years now,” Guéhenno pointed out, noting that a report commissioned by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recommended “a number of very practical things, including the possibility of adding court martials in the areas of operation where soldiers are suspected of having committed sexual abuse.”
“This report really was a milestone but the sad story is that many of its recommendations are not yet implemented,” Guéhenno added, ruefully. “It’s really shocking that the recommendations are still not implemented.”
But Guéhenno said he’s learned that reform has to come from within participating armies. It can’t be forced from U.N. Headquarters in New York City.
“You are not going to make progress against sexual abuse unless the troops are fully committed to it, and that is not always the case,” Guéhenno said. “The cultural change that needs to happen is in many armies — and they are armies from the developed, as well as developing, world.
“Is it a priority to fight sexual abuse in all armies? To be honest, no,” he lamented. “The strength of an army is in its discipline and that is the responsibility of each army. The U.N. has been trying. It has strengthened its investigative capabilities, but unless the command chain of the troops is fully engaged in fighting sexual abuse, it’s very hard to make progress and it becomes a losing battle.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman (@michaelcoleman) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat