U.N. Peacekeeping as Public Diplomacy

U.N. Peacekeeping as Public Diplomacy by Matt Armstrong, 19 May 2010, in World Politics Review.

A subtle evolution of United Nations peacekeeping operations is underway. If the first of these missions kept an agreed-upon peace, and later missions sought to make peace, several countries now use these operations to advance their foreign and economic policy agendas, and raise their global profile. This shift, selective as it is to date, may potentially raise the standard of conduct in U.N. peacekeeping operations increasingly fraught with charges of criminal behavior, corruption, lack of accountability, and general ineffectiveness. However, there are significant downsides to this approach. …

These same conditions create opportunities to increase the reach and the potential impact of peacekeeping, even in areas where the communications infrastructure is underdeveloped. As the geographic reach of a peacekeeping mission extends further beyond its immediate area of operations, the effects of success, or failure, increasingly shape perceptions of the contributing nation and the mission.

This public diplomacy component of peacekeeping, which connects with the general public and leaders alike, is potentially transformative and empowering for a country’s agenda, as increased contact creates awareness of culture, language, and narratives. This facilitates greater understanding, as well as personal and institutional connections, potentially opening markets and access to resources through the development of formal or informal relationships.

A brief examination of today’s U.N. peacekeepers reveals that three countries are well-positioned to leverage this new facet of peacekeeping, although they are at various stages of this process. The first, China, is demonstrating the power of such an approach as it effectively couples peacekeeping with its national agenda. The second, Brazil, though lacking China’s horizontal and vertical integration of policy and action as well as Beijing’s global aspirations, is using peacekeeping operations as part of its efforts to gain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. The third, India, is just entering this path, and still struggles to come to grips with its potential leverage as a major contributor of peacekeeping troops, even as it tries to define its role in regional and global affairs. …

The dynamic nature of credibility makes it an important but volatile asset that organizations and institutions must manage with care. Over the past 60 years, the U.N.’s image, credibility, and ultimately its effectiveness have often been tied to its peacekeeping activities. While that image has been tarnished by peacekeeping scandals involving sex, drugs, and corruption, contributor nations have largely escaped public condemnation. However, as peacekeeping forces face increasing transparency and accountability as a result of the global environment’s expanding interconnectivity — including less-developed regions — the potential for peacekeeping to build up or tear down the “brand” of a country will increase dramatically.

This shift in the purpose of peacekeeping from a contributors perspective is positive, but not without potential pitfalls. While contributing nations can increase their global image, international prestige, and soft power through a smart application of traditional and public diplomacy, such concerns could lead to increased selectivity of missions based on potential payoffs to national interests, at the expense of the collective interest that peacekeeping operations are primarily meant to serve.