Peacekeeping Missions

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PEACEKEEPING MISSIONS. Traditionally handled by the United Nations, peacekeeping missions are instances of intervention in civil or international disputes for the purpose of upholding the peace or of encouraging peaceful settlement of existing conflicts. The United States has, on several occasions, pursued peacekeeping operations independent of the UN.

The first United Nations peacekeeping mission was deployed to the Middle East in 1948 in an attempt to bring an end to the war between Arab nations and the new state of Israel; a second was dispatched in the following year to Kashmir, which was the object of war between India and Pakistan. In both of these early interventions, the forces sent by the UN were very small and unarmed.

The peacekeeping role of the United Nations changed dramatically in the 1950s with the establishment of an armed force—the so-called "Blue Helmets"—to keep belligerents separated and promote peaceful resolution of disputes. The Blue Helmets were first dispatched to the Middle East in response to the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Before the 1990s, the Blue Helmets were used relatively infrequently because of the decision-making structure of the United Nations during the Cold War. Any decision to send a peacekeeping mission required the unanimous approval of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, thus any proposed intervention was likely to run into opposition from either the United States or the Soviet Union. Therefore, even as late as 1991 the UN had deployed only eleven peacekeeping missions, involving approximately 11,000 Blue Helmets.

The end of the Cold War changed deployment of peacekeeping missions dramatically. The great powers now were able to reach consensus much more easily. The number and scope of peacekeeping missions jumped almost immediately, so that by 1994 76,600 Blue Helmets were involved in seventeen interventions around the world. Indeed, between 1990 and 2000 the Security Council authorized no fewer than thirty-six missions—twice as many as it had in the previous forty years.

The involvement of the United States in UN peace-keeping missions was extremely limited during the Cold War. In fact, troops from any of the great powers were intentionally excluded from such missions for fear that they would be incapable of impartiality. However, the United States frequently played a supporting role by setting up supply and communications systems and providing military hardware to the Blue Helmets.

When the United States did involve itself directly in peacekeeping efforts, it did so independently of the UN. For example, in the early 1980s a Multinational Force (MNF) made up of French, Italian, and American troops was deployed to Lebanon to serve as a buffer between the Israelis and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Ordinarily this would have been a matter for UN concern, but Israel was unwilling to involve that organization, which had a few years earlier passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism. The MNF did little to bring about an end to Middle East tensions, and public support in the

United States for its mission plummeted after 1983, when 241 American marines were killed in a terrorist attack. The mission was terminated soon afterward.

The end of the Cold War also brought with it greater opportunity for the United States to participate in UN peacekeeping missions. In December 1992 President George H. W. Bush sent 28,000 American soldiers to Somalia, and Bush's successor, Bill Clinton, placed several thousand of these under UN command. However, it was in Somalia that the Blue Helmets for the first time abandoned their traditional role as impartial peacekeepers and became actively involved in military action against local warlords. The results proved costly to UN forces in general, but in particular to the Americans, when two Black Hawk helicopters and eighteen U.S. soldiers were lost in a firefight in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in October 1993.

After the debacle at Mogadishu, American interest in participating in UN peacekeeping missions dropped sharply. The Republican Party called for legislation making it illegal for American troops to be placed under UN command, and the Clinton administration bowed to the pressure. In May 1994 the president issued a directive instructing that in the future U.S. soldiers could only submit to UN command if some tangible national interest were at stake. As a result, in the summer of 2001 only 677 Americans were serving in UN peacekeeping operations (2.1 percent of the over thirty-two thousand peacekeepers worldwide), and these were in advisory and observatory roles.

However, the United States did not withdraw altogether from peacekeeping efforts. In 1993 the U.S. Army established an agency called the Peacekeeping Institute, dedicated to preparing the American military for participation in such missions. In the 1990s, American forces were deployed to a number of locations for peacekeeping purposes, among them Bosnia, Haiti, and Kosovo. While these missions sometimes operated in conjunction with UN forces, they remained independent of that body and were commanded by American officers.


Coulon, Jocelyn. Soldiers of Diplomacy: The United Nations, Peace-keeping, and the New World Order. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Diehl, Paul F. International Peacekeeping. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

John E.Moser