When war breaks out, you would think the easy answer would be to send in a United Nations peacekeeping mission, right? In fact, it is fairly rare and extraordinarily challenging to pull such a mission together. Even then, the mission can end up a flop, making little or no difference as the years crawl by.
But trying to stop war is a moral imperative, even if the path to peace is unclear and the prospects appear grim, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the UN peacekeeping chief from 2000 to 2008, writes in his sobering new book, “The Fog of Peace.”
Guéhenno has played a central role in efforts to end conflict in a dazzling array of trouble spots, ranging from Iraq and Darfur to Afghanistan, Kosovo, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After all those years in the hot seat, he writes that he decided on a memoir rather than on a how-to-book because the choices he faced in his work were in just about every case unique.
While he would have loved “a reliable compass to navigate through the fog of peace,” it was not only hard to find lessons from the past but he also became haunted by “all the uncertainties, the flaws, the false hopes, the wrong assumptions, the unnecessary fears, the fog of real action.”
So, he decided, intent was perhaps even more important than tactics. “I found that peacekeeping, far from being a cynical enterprise aimed at preserving peace at any price, can be successful only if it is understood as a highly moral enterprise,” he writes. “And I found that an enterprise becomes moral not because it is a fight against evil, but because it has to consider conflicting goods, and lesser evils, and make choices.”
After leaving the top UN peacekeeping job in 2008, Guéhenno worked at the Brookings Institution as a senior fellow and then directed the Columbia University Center for International Conflict Resolution. In 2012, he signed on as a deputy to former Secretary-General Kofi Annan during his unsuccessful effort to halt the Syrian civil war, an initiative begun jointly by the UN and the Arab League. Since August 2014, Guéhenno has served as the president and chief executive officer of the International Crisis Group, the Brussels-based nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing and resolving deadly conflicts.
Because he wanted to “avoid the misleading clarity of hindsight,” Guéhenno relied on personal notebooks he meticulously compiled along the way rather than on reconstructed memories. So the book gives readers a seat at the table, complete with overwhelming detail, at least some of it juicy, as world leaders scrambled to devise an international response to the many crises that fell into his lap at the UN.
Guéhenno’s perspective is enhanced by his unusual career path. Before becoming an international civil servant, he was not a UN lifer but a sitting judge on the Cour des Comptes, the highest financial court in his native France. Before that, he served in several senior posts with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
I reported on Guéhenno during his UN years as a correspondent for the Reuters news agency and found him soft-spoken and reserved but always engaged and thoughtful. It turns out that I had little sense of the extreme complexity of his job and the number of crises he was juggling at any given moment. Nor did I fully appreciate the supersize cast of prickly personalities populating his world, including the delusional heads of state, the self-righteous warring parties, the dedicated but unrealistic do-gooders, the numerous peripheral parties hoping to gain something from the suffering of others and the major Security Council powers passionately setting ambitious goals but not doing much to achieve them.
To most of the UN’s 193 countries, peacekeeping is a bargain, as most of the tab is picked up by the wealthiest nations. For every UN member, peacekeeping dues are far cheaper than unilateral initiatives, no matter how modest. While the United States pays the most dues of any country, a whopping 28.38 percent of the total peacekeeping budget, which is about $8.5 billion this year, that is small in comparison to the more than $600 billion in annual US defense spending.
UN peacekeeping is also a good deal for those who contribute soldiers and police officers, who gain valuable experience while being paid and equipped by the UN. By making peacekeeping a collective duty, individual countries also get the moral responsibility off their own backs.
The biggest beneficiaries are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US. With their veto power, they can shield their own close allies and pet conflicts from UN interference while playing an outsize role in choosing who gets UN help and how. They typically do all of this while placing nary a boot on the ground, although they often contribute aircraft, heavy weapons and lots of humanitarian aid, albeit disproportionately among them.
So as a civil war flared in Darfur in Western Sudan in 2004, Guéhenno writes, the US publicly accused the Sudanese government of genocide but showed far less interest in doing much about it, even as an African Union peacekeeping mission proved unable to end the fighting. Misinterpreting strong words as a sign that Washington wanted badly to send in a huge UN force while actually wanting no part of it, Sudan’s government stalled international intervention for years.
Guéhenno by then would have been pleased with a modest UN role in Darfur. But the Security Council asked the International Criminal Court to look for Sudanese war crimes, stiffening Khartoum’s resistance. When the court indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Khartoum put up more barriers to the outsiders.
Ironically, even as Bashir was busy blocking what he saw as Washington’s strong intent, President George W. Bush barely mentioned Sudan to Kofi Annan in a 2006 White House meeting, while John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, “seemed more interested in posturing than helping the people of Darfur,” Guéhenno notes. “I was sure that the inflated rhetoric of intervention was creating new obstacles to the more limited operation that was the only realistic court of action.”
At the same time, Darfur rebel leaders, even less plugged in to the behind-the-scenes machinations, believed the opposite — that a massive UN invasion to stop the conflict was imminent. “In the absence of a serious peace process, the displaced Darfurians saw us as an ally in their battle against Khartoum, and the government as an invasion force. But we were not going to go to war with the government of Sudan,” Guéhenno observed wryly.
Today, after more than a decade of international engagement, Darfur remains a mess and Bashir remains Sudan’s president. More than seven years have passed since the belated deployment of a hybrid African Union-UN mission in Darfur, which now numbers more than 20,000 troops, police, military observers and civilian personnel. The mission is one of 16 current peacekeeping operations, several of them dating back decades.
So while various commissions propose major reforms over the years, the overall peacekeeping function remains pretty much ad hoc, and Guéhenno tells us that this will not change in our ad hoc world.
“The word community is actually a misnomer when applied to that motley group formed by 193 very diverse nations,” he says. “When one looks at some of the biggest investments of the international community in the last 10 years — Afghanistan and Congo, for example — one cannot but be distressed by its fickleness. Grand plans were elaborated and immense hopes were generated among the people we had suddenly decided to help. But hope was often dashed, and we then faced resentment if not outright hostility, while on the home front, ambition has been replaced by a pressing desire to pack up and leave.”
“International civil servants,” he concludes, “have to be aware of the fragile base on which their actions are based.”
“The Fog of Peace: A Memoir of International Peacekeeping in the 21st Century,” by Jean-Marie Guéhenno; 978-0-8157-2630-2
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.