Calling All Regio-Cops

Michael Hirsh. Foreign Affairs. Volume 79, Issue 6. November/December 2000.

On September 6, an angry crowd stormed a U.N. relief office in West Timor. The mob sacked the building and, in a sickening echo of Mogadishu in 1993, burned the bodies of three U.N. workers in the streets. The U.N. quickly evacuated its remaining personnel from the Indonesian province, casting a pall on its unsteady mission across the border in the newly independent East Timor.

The disaster underscored an independent report that the U.N. had released just a few weeks before. Published at a time when, in Sierra Leone, hundreds of peacekeepers were taking turns being held hostage-the most recent victims being British troops who went in to rescue their blue-helmeted predecessors-the paper was a call to arms that harshly criticized the U.N.’s peacekeeping efforts and laid out a prescription for more robust forces, command, and control.

These events and the U.N. report reinvigorated a debate that has become all too familiar. The debate revolves around several key questions: Can U.N. peacekeeping be made to work at long last, or are such efforts doomed to failure? Are international norms effective, or is raw military might the only thing that can stop the villainous Foday Sankohs of the world? Is humanitarian intervention impractical, or is there some way of balancing both sovereign rights and global values? Such questions have absorbed academics and the international punditocracy for much of the last decade, ever since the tidy Cold War world of interstate conflicts—in which the U.N. played a simple, uncontroversial role as a buffer along cease-fire lines and borders (as in Cyprus and the Middle East)-descended into today’s maelstrom of ethnic, tribal, and religious bloodshed.

This debate over humanitarian intervention is an important and well-intentioned one. It is also, for the most part, a phony debate. The discussion, at least as it has been framed in recent years, offers up false choices. For most of the post-Cold War period, arguments about a new world order have centered on whether either the United States or the United Nations, acting separately or in concert, could become some form of globo-cop. But ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union, it is high time for the world to recognize that neither option will come to pass. Washington does not have the will for it, and the U.N. (thanks largely to American stinginess) does not have the way.

Out of the vacuum, however, a new system is emerging on the ground, crisis by crisis. Call it the rule of the regio-cops. It is a hybrid system, dependent on both U.N. legitimation and local muscle. To work, the new system needs regional powers and organizations to do the dirty work of peacekeeping and peacemaking. But such regional forces are increasingly being trained and pressures to act in accordance with U.N. norms, and typically go in under the auspices of Security Council resolutions.

This was the model followed for East Timor in September 1999, when President Bill Clinton happily accepted Australia’s offer to send in combat troops to stop Indonesia’s murderous militias-even as the U.S. president took the lead in organizing a multinational response and orchestrating a U.N. resolution. It was the approach in Kosovo, too. The United States insisted on using NATO to drive out Slobodan Milosevic-mindful of how U.N. troops had abjectly failed to stop earlier atrocities in Bosnia-but ultimately acted under the U.N. flag.

Now the pattern is spreading, gingerly, to western Africa. This past summer, when Clinton announced he was sending U.S. military trainers to Nigeria, it was an implicit recognition not just of the democratic government’s newfound legitimacy, but of the fact that, as the region’s major power, Nigeria must play the key role in stopping the atrocities in Sierra Leoneno matter how brutally Nigeria’s troops may have acted there before.

On The Cheap

Will this pattern spread further? Should it? To answer this, some hard facts must be faced. The current dispute over peacemaking usually centers on whether U.N. resources should be beefed up to deal with certain situations-typically civil conflicts that hover precariously between peace and outright war-into which U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has boldly pushed the world body. The report of last summer’s U.N. peacekeeping commission, chaired by Lakhdar Brahimi, sharply analyzes the current system’s flaws and lays out a corrective plan. At the U.N. Millennium Assembly in New York in September, leader after leader took the rostrum to give explicit or implicit support to the Brahimi prescriptions. Among those leaders was President Clinton, who called for a greater U.N. role in humanitarian interventions.

But to think that the Brahimi panel’s advice will be carried out, now or ever, is to strain common sense to the breaking point. Demands for a more robust U.N. force, including combat-ready “standby” units, long predate the fall of communism-and there is little reason to think they will succeed now where they have failed in the past. While the new peacekeeping recommendations (which would cost an estimated $200 million a year to implement) were being touted in New York, a skinflint U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C., was trying to cut even more from the U.N.’s present peacekeeping budget. At one point, members of Congress actually tried to entirely eliminate African peacekeeping in order to meet budget caps-this despite the efforts of Richard Holbrooke, Washington’s U.N. ambassador, to give Africa a higher profile in U.S. national security considerations than ever before.

Hence the absurdity of Clinton’s exhorting the U.N. to prepare for more intervention when he has failed to deliver on his four-year-old promise to pay most of Washington’s back dues. According to U.N. budget chief Joseph Connor, the United States is responsible for more than half of the world’s $3.24 billion total in U.N. arrears. “The United States said, `Show reform and we will pay,”‘ Connor complained during the Millennium Assembly “We showed reform. [The money’s] not there.” With the United States still refusing to pay, other nations, including long-compliant members such as Japan, are increasingly reluctant to pick up the tab.

And hence one should be realistic about the prospects for U.N. peacekeeping. The United States, as the world’s sole superpower, has a greater stake in a peaceful global system than any other country. If Washington is not going to do more for the U.N. now-at a time of unprecedented U.S. prosperity and a record budget surplus, and at a moment when not a single American soldier risks wearing a U.N. blue helmet anywhere in the world-it is unlikely to any time soon. Nor is it likely that Washington will prove any more willing to take on a regular role as the U.N.’s “subcontractor”-as it has only twice before, in Korea and Kuwait, when it mustered multinational forces under the U.N. banner. This is especially true after Kosovo, which set a zero-casualty threshold for U.S.-led humanitarian intervention.

Rudderless

Yet this does not mean that the impulse for humanitarian intervention is going to wither away along with the U.N. budget. Whether Washington likes it or not, interventions are here to stay. They will go on in their haphazard way, with the biggest headlines and the most horrific TV footage typically drawing the biggest efforts, even as academics and experts parse various “rules” for when America and other major powers should jump in-as if such fastidious guidelines carried any weight against the “CNN effect.”

Old-fashioned proponents of realpolitik who reject the quixotism of humanitarian intervention-or who, like the writer Edward Luttwak, simply advise us to await the peace that comes once combatants have exhausted their bloodlust-only betray their remoteness from and ignorance of the pressures put on elected officials in the era of “superempowered” democracy (which usually means a superempowered media). It may well be, as Luttwak argues, that humanitarian interventions “artificially freeze conflict.” But in a globalized world dominated by Western mores, people do not really care about that. They simply do not want to see slaughter on their TV screens. Egged on by the ever-multiplying hordes of pundits, they will usually demand that their governments do something about it-usually something fast and easy. We live in a world defined by Wilsonian idealism, as even Henry Kissinger has grudgingly admitted. The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, writing during the Kosovo war, solemnly summed up the popular sentiment: any “place in which innocent men, women, and children are being expelled and exterminated is an important place. It is a place that asks about the philosophy by which we claim to live.”

So intervention will continue. But if we stick to the present system, this intervention is doomed to remain amateurish, late, and woefully under-resourced, as the experiences in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone have shown. A Wilsonian world this may be, but it is a miserly and self-absorbed Wilsonianism. Just as the death of the nation-state has been greatly exaggerated, so has the idea that the needs of the “international community” will ever trump national interests. Americans today may no longer have a clear idea of what their national interests are, but one interest of which they are quite sure is that their sons and daughters never again die in battle.

If the United States will not lead the charge for the U.N., no one else is likely to fill the vacuum. Indeed, despite the aggressively pro-U.N. rhetoric of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other Western leaders, U.N. peacekeeping today has been largely sloughed onto the developing world. As the Brahimi report notes,

In contrast to the long tradition of developed countries providing the bulk of the troops for U.N. peacekeeping operations during the Organization’s first 50 years, in the last few years 77 percent of the troops in formed military units .., were contributed by developing countries.

Out of the Box

The report paints a bleak picture. But there may yet be a way out of this box-if the terms of the debate are drastically altered to account for regional devolution. The emergence of U.N.-sanctioned regio-cops changes many things. For one, it may allow us to finally leave behind the interminable debate between proponents of international norms and institutions (like the U.N.) and those who push might-makes -right realism. Under the new system, without the imprimatur of a U.N. Security Council resolution, intervention by regional powers will become a mere invasion-however honorably motivated-and carry with it the threat of regional hegemony. It will be unwelcome to the locals and lay the seeds for future conflict.

On the other hand, without a force or coalition of forces representing regional military muscle, a perpetually cash-strapped U.N. is certain to continue to lose credibility, as it did in Bosnia, East Timor, and Sierra Leone before regional powers stepped in. Current events have forced realpoliticians and liberal internationalists, so long at odds, into bed together. One mindset has, in many situations, become impossible without the other.

This suggests what the most important future role for the U.N. might become– a legitimizer for local forces. To many nations, today’s Security Council may seem more like a domineering Star Chamber than a fount of international jurisprudence. The council’s image would certainly benefit if other major powers such as Germany and Japan were made permanent members, thus ridding it of its World War II-ra mustiness, But flawed or not, the Security Council still has unique potential. It is the only effective tribunal and repository for international case law for dealing with ethnic cleansing and other humanitarian horrors. As such, it must continue to act as the arbiter of interventions.

The use of U.N.-approved regional peacekeepers will help solve another critical problem: how to keep humanitarian intervention aligned with national interest. Australia, watching the chaos in Timor just across the sea and perhaps fearing an onslaught of boat people, was only too eager to intervene for free. Others in similar situations may not behave as uprightly as did the Australians, but there are hopeful signs. Whereas in the past many regional players took advantage of a kind of geopolitical schadenfreude—exploiting the weakness of their neighbors at war-with their national economies becoming increasingly regionalized, few governments now want to risk the economic dislocation and refugee flows that are the major byproducts of nearby conflict. Hence the growing strength of regional organizations across the globe, from the Regional Forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the once-toothless Organization of American States (OAS). Many of these groups began as economic bodies but have since developed security arms.

And regionalism addresses still another problem that has long bedeviled U.N. peacekeeping: how to command and control polyglot troops who often, in Babel—type confusion, follow different military customs and work at cross-purposes. Finally, U.S. presidents and other major– power leaders who now have trouble prying U.N. funds from their legislatures could, in the future, disguise money for regionalism as bilateral aid.

Now the Bad News

Of course, there are plenty of places where U.N.-approved regional solutions would prove impossible, or problematic at best. The Security Council’s permanent five members, with their sacrosanct vetoes, are obviously immune. Nor do local solutions always make things easier. For what regional power could intervene between India and Pakistan? China? Afghanistan? There is no one nation trusted enough to play the part. Meanwhile, the newly cooperative Nigeria, freed from its rogue past, could conceivably become the U.N. legitimized regio-cop of western Africa. But no one in the east of the continent wants the recalcitrant Ethiopians or the Kenyans, the dominant powers of that region, moving in to solve their problems any time soon. As for central Africa, the regional powers there are already doing battle in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And in South America, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil co-exist in simmering mistrust of each other’s militaries. All these situations show that the need remains for a strong peacekeeping capacity within the U.N. as well. And unlike U.N. troops, regional powers rarely stay committed to peacekeeping for long periods-the Australians, for instance, had to introduce a special tax to fund their East Timor adventure and left after just five months on the ground.

But there are regional paths out of many of these nettles-most of them depending on U.S. aid, support for regional organizations and, mainly, the kind of long-term assiduousness that has been lacking in the Clinton administration’s foreign policy. Washington has pushed Buenos Aires, for instance, to develop a peacekeeping role (and gave Argentina a small role in the Haiti intervention). But the Pentagon could make its extensive joint military exercises in Latin America far more contingent on regional cooperation under the auspices of the still-teething OAS-which ably preempted a war between Ecuador and Peru in the mid-1990s and recently took Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori to task for election fraud. In Southeast Asia, it is conceivable that the ASEAN Regional Forum could gain more bite with greater Chinese participation and, if Beijing behaves itself, eventually take up the U.N. flag in Cambodia.

Overall, then, there seem to be more cases where regionalism would work than where it would not. Last year, a National Intelligence Council study identified 23 countries with ongoing humanitarian emergencies and cited 9 others that were likely to develop crises. Of those 32 cases, the vast majority could benefit from regional peacekeeping or peace enforcement solutions-with some some key exceptions, such as India, Pakistan, Russia, and possibly Nigeria itself: Moreover, in some places, regionalism has already become a tradition. The United States has long acted as a regio-cop south of its border, most recently in Haiti. And Saudi Arabia played such a role in the Gulf War, making the U.S.-led intervention palatable among the Arab world (if not to Osama bin Laden).

Nowhere has the new regional approach to peacemaking and peacekeeping been better demonstrated than in Kosovo. After the failures of Bosnia, the United States went into the Kosovo crisis with a bone in its teeth, brazenly determined to run the campaign through NATO alone. The U.N.-at first was given no role at all. The Russians and their protests were barely tolerated and treated to dismissive hand-holding diplomacy. “We’re just trying to make them think they have a part,” said a U.S. official during the war.

All this had changed by the end of the 78-day NATO bombing campaign, however. Milosevic had stood firmer than anyone had expected, and Clinton, by early June, faced the politically nightmarish prospect of ordering a ground invasion. Washington needed Moscow’s help; to get Moscow on board, it needed the United Nations. Backed by a Security Council resolution and a U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping force, the Russians proved crucial to finally forcing Milosevic to cave in. NATO, the mightiest regio-cop in history, had to resort to U.N. legitimation to get what it wanted.

The Way of athe Gun

Ironically, much of this “new” vision of peacekeeping is provided for in the U.N. Charter (in the long-ignored Chapter 8). But few observers have connected the dots between that section and the more commonly used Chapter 7, which dictates responses to threats to the peace. And regionalism gets a mere paragraph in the 70-page Brahimi report. Even such astute observers as Stanley Hoffmann, who nimbly took a middle road between the excesses of both traditional realism and liberal internationalism in his important 1998 work World Disorders, have tended to overlook the potential of the hybrid approach. In the book, Hoffmann concedes that the Security Council is “the main source of authority” when it comes to global legitimacy. But he plays down the potential link between U.N. power and regionalism, dismissing regional organizations as “too often embroiled in or neutralized by disputes among or within states of the region, or else lacking in means of enforcement.”

That is still sometimes true. Improving matters further will depend on the initiative of the nation that will undoubtedly continue to dominate the twenty-first century: the United States. Indeed, Clinton administration officials insist that they have long seen regional peacekeeping as their paradigm, pointing to such small-bore efforts as the African Crisis Response Initiative.

But their scattershot approach has missed many opportunities. Had Clinton recognized the possibilities of regional action earlier, for instance, he might have exploited the offers of Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, and others to send peacekeepers to Rwanda in the early stages of the 1994 genocide. In the end-as James Miskel of the U.S. Naval War College and others have noted-those troops stayed home because they lacked transport and other equipment. And today the U.S. president considers his failure to act in Rwanda one of his deepest regrets.

Given the alternatives, why has the regional option been so marginalized? One answer is that moving to regionalism is, structurally, a steep uphill climb. The entire U.S. government is still built around bilateral relations. U.S. ambassadors to nations are far more powerful than their counterparts to regional organizations; within the State Department, weak desk officers run most regional policy. And decision-making tends to follow the organizational structure. Another reason is that few in Washington care to face up to the possibility that they may have to act less unilaterally and become more indulgent of others’ agendas. As for the U.N., it is loath to sideline its own forces.

And regionalism will not look as pretty as U.N. initiatives. Any order the Nigerians now bring to Sierra Leone, for example, is bound to be more rough-edged than that promised (though never delivered) by the U.N.-sponsored Lome Accord. The last time the Nigerians intervened in that conflict, they occupied Freetown with 10,000 troops while ceding the rebels free run of the countryside-and the diamond trade. But whatever their methods, Nigerians did manage to stop the killing and the limb-hacking. As one Pentagon planner put it tersely, “To pursue regionalism, the United States really has to have a tolerance of regional objectives” and, he could have added, of regional methods. Still, the United States and the United Nations could make their support conditional on regional actors’ observing international norms of behavior.

A system of U.N.-sponsored regio-cops, then, will be far from ideal. It is a messy, often inconsistent muddle-through solution with many risks. But in an environment of astringent alternatives-a determinedly minimal U. S. role and a grossly underfunded and undersupported U.N.-there may be no other practicable way for the international community to stop the atrocities it no longer seems able to stomach.