An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences

The case for a UN force

Carl Kaysen and George William Rathjens

Carl Kaysen is David W. Skinner Professor of Political Economy Emeritus in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. He was the deputy special assistant for national security affairs to President Kennedy and director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. A Fellow of the American Academy since 1954 and currently co-chair of the Academy’s Committee on International Security Studies, Kaysen has served as a consultant to RAND, the Defense Department, and the CIA.

George Rathjens, professor in the department of political science at MIT, has been a Fellow of the American Academy since 1970. He has served with the Institute for Defense Analyses, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense, the Office of the President’s Science Advisor, and the Weapons Evaluation Group of the Department of Defense. Past chairman of both the Council for a Livable World and the Federation of American Scientists, Rathjens has just finished a term as secretary-general of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

Since the end of the Cold War, the world has been awash in hot wars. Most have been waged within, rather than between, states.1 The Yearbook of the Swedish International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) annually tabulates what it terms “major armed conflicts” – those resulting in more than one thousand battle deaths per year. Over the eleven years from 1990 to 2000 there were fifty-six such conflicts; only three were interstate (Iraq-Kuwait, India-Pakistan, and Ethiopia-Eritrea). The average number of conflicts in any one year was about twenty-eight; the average conflict lasted two years.2

Typically, these civil wars have killed many more civilians than armed combatants; in addition, they have created even larger numbers of refugees. In an effort to extend humanitarian help, outsiders in recent years have attempted to intervene – in Yugoslavia, in Somalia, in Cambodia, and in Rwanda.

Unfortunately, the results have been mixed. In cases where no vital strategic interests are at stake, many nations, including the United States, have been slow to act and reluctant to expose their military personnel to the risk of casualties. Even when troops have been deployed, the duration of their deployment has often been limited by ‘exit strategies’ and a stipulation that they will remain under national control. In order to keep outside ground troops out of harm’s way, these outside forces are often, in effect, disarmed and ordered to use their weapons only in self-defense. The desire to avoid casualties in any case leads to a strong preference for employing air and naval power.

We believe that the most realistic, effective, and politically feasible alternative to this unsatisfactory state of affairs would be to create a modest standing UN military force. As we envision it, this force would be composed entirely of volunteers from member states – a sort of ‘UN Foreign Legion.’

Such a force, numbering roughly fifteen thousand and backed up by larger forces remaining under national control, would dramatically improve the world community’s rapid response capability when faced with humanitarian crises or civil unrest. Encouraging its creation would constitute an important expression of U.S. global leadership at a critical moment in the development of multilateral institutions.

A half century ago, the establishment of the United Nations raised hopes that it might constitute an effective instrument for meeting the kinds of challenges we have just described. A Military Staff Committee, with representatives from the five permanent members of the Security Council (P-5), was organized and charged with creating a plan for a UN military force that might “take such action by air, sea, or land . . . as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.”3 Planning began, but the committee was unable to agree on force levels or composition. As the Cold War developed, the UN effort was aborted. Since then, UN military efforts have been limited almost exclusively to peacekeeping – and then only when both the contesting parties and the P-5 members have been able to reach an agreement on UN intervention.

With the end of the Cold War, the likelihood of agreement among the P-5 has dramatically improved. Russia, for example, acquiesced in the U.S.-led Desert Storm effort against Iraq and, more recently, in the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. There has been a revival of interest in increasing the UN’s intervention capabilities, particularly in conflicts where enforcement may be an issue. Some proposals simply earmark selected national military units for UN service; others create a standing UN force, based either on the rotating commitment of national units to a UN command, or on individuals volunteering for service (as they do for the French Foreign Legion).

In our view, the last option – an all-volunteer foreign-legion type force under UN control – would likely offer the best hope for responding effectively to humanitarian crises. To test this hypothesis, we will consider whether the availability of such a force might have made significant differences in the nature and effectiveness of some past UN interventionary efforts, specifically in four cases of intrastate conflict–those in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Cambodia, and Rwanda.

Earlier discussions have generally focused on quick reaction capability as the principal rationale for the development and maintenance of an all-volunteer force under UN control. At present, however, months usually pass between the Security Council’s vote and the assembly and organization of the contingents for an appropriate force. This also means that Security Council members – especially the United States because of its special role in providing logistic capacity for long-range deployments – in effect vote twice: once in the formal resolution and then, in practice, in their willingness to contribute troops, matériel, civilian personnel, and financial support.

Certainly, the ready availability of armed forces – whether volunteers or troops provided by member states – is essential to the UN’s ability to act decisively. But equally vital is the ability of the UN to make a quick decision – and that, of course, is determined by the political calculations of the member nations, particularly the Security Council’s P-5 members.

This brings us to the single greatest comparative advantage that a volunteer force would have over reliance on national forces earmarked for UN service (or ‘seconded’ to it). The advantage lies in the fact that member nations would be more likely to deploy a volunteer force in actions involving a significant risk of casualties. When public sensitivity to casualties runs high – as it does in many modern democracies, including the United States – national leaders often feel compelled to follow public opinion. They then decide against intervention of any kind, or severely limit the scope of intervention, or authorize intervention only after a drawn-out debate whose duration is liable to cost lives in the affected region.

In at least two other important respects, an all-volunteer force would be preferable to relying on seconded national forces. First is the issue of command and control. When nations commit their forces to UN or other multinational operations, they insist – none more so than the United States – on retaining ultimate authority over those forces, including the right to withdraw them peremptorily, or to exercise a veto over particular operations if they judge troop employment unwise or inconsistent with national interests. This problem would not arise with a volunteer UN force, except to the extent that the physical deployment of the volunteer force might depend on national forces such as logistical and air support.

A second reason to prefer a volunteer UN force is the question of capability in terms of equipment and, especially, training. The ad hoc assembly of national units is a poor basis on which to build a capable military force. Developing nations, often eager to supply troops as a way of financing their own armies, present a particular problem in this respect. Yet the UN system often must use these troops, even if the more militarily competent nations were willing to offer all the forces needed – which they rarely are.

In many situations of intervention, a long-term presence of some force will be needed to help maintain peace during a process of social and political reconstruction. The scale of the proposed UN volunteer force discussed below, however, is far too small to allow it alone to provide long-term deployments. Thus the likely need for the long-term presence of peacekeeping forces would persist.

In what follows, we will briefly review the history of four UN peacekeeping operations – in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Cambodia, and Rwanda – and attempt in general terms to assess the differences that a standing UN force might have made on the outcomes.4

The conflict in Yugoslavia, and especially in Bosnia, is probably the richest mine we have for a counterfactual analysis of the utility – and limitations – of a standing UN volunteer force. From the beginning, serious problems hampered the efforts of the international community to mitigate conflict in Yugoslavia and prevent escalation.

Germany and Austria were particularly sympathetic to Croatian and Slovenian aspirations for early independence within the boundaries they had as republics in the Yugoslav federation. Most of the rest of the world community believed, in contrast, that the maintenance of some kind of Yugoslav federation, or at least confederation, offered the best hope for peace and stability in the region. Russia, not surprisingly, was much less critical of the Serbs than were the other major powers, and the United States was much more so.

Debates persisted about whether the lead agency for international intervention should be the United Nations, the European Community/Union (EC/EU), or NATO – or even, possibly, the Western European Union (WEU) or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). There were also differences about how to organize the international effort. Britain espoused a sharper demarcation than did the United States in force requirements and training for peacekeeping, on the one hand, and for peace enforcement on the other. Given these differences – and, in the later stages of the war, differences between the government of Serbia and the local Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, not to mention ever-increasing animosities whipped to a frenzy by the nationalist leaders of the contesting factions – cease-fire and mediation efforts by the intervening powers proved fitful at best.

With memories still fresh of the Vietnam War and World War II, when Yugoslav partisans tied down some twenty German and Allied divisions for many months, outside powers were not eager to risk significant casualties in an effort to try to enforce a solution to the conflict. Britain and France accordingly introduced peacekeeping forces only after the Serbs and Croats had agreed to a cease- fire, by which time most of the Krajina had fallen to the Serbs.

Much later, in 1999, the fighting moved on to the Albanian-majority province of Kosovo. Serbia resisted the efforts of the Kosovo liberation movement, one part of which sought the renewal of the autonomy the province had formerly enjoyed, another part of which wanted the Kosovo Liberation Army to lead an armed campaign for independence, or possibly to join Albania in creating a Greater Albania. After negotiations between Serbia and the ‘Contact Group’ – France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – failed, NATO, without UN authorization and against the objections of Russia, initiated a bombing campaign against a variety of economic and military targets in Serbia and against Serbian military forces in Kosovo.

Nearly three months later, partly because of the bombing, partly because Serbia lost Russia’s support, Serbia agreed to withdraw its large forces – about forty thousand military, paramilitary, and police – from Kosovo. The Security Council then authorized a NATO-led force of some fifty thousand. After the Serbs had withdrawn and the NATO force had started its deployment, the great majority of the eight hundred thousand refugees who had fled during the Serbian repression and the bombing returned.

Had a UN volunteer force been available early on, at the very beginning of the Serbian attacks on Croatia and Bosnia, there would likely have been less sensitivity about casualties. As a result, it might have been possible to introduce the force earlier with salutary effects, particularly if it had had a mandate to engage in some enforcement actions. Such a force would have strengthened the hands of Lord Carrington, acting for the EC/EU, and of Cyrus Vance, acting for the UN, and a peaceful resolution of the conflict might have resulted. Or, had the need arisen, the UN force might have taken effective enforcement actions against Serb forces in Croatia or later in Bosnia when all sides, but particularly the Bosnian Serbs, repeatedly flouted UN injunctions proscribing attacks against ‘safe areas’ and interference with the delivery of humanitarian relief.

The war in Somalia had its genesis in the chaotic struggle for power between clan leaders that erupted after the fall of the Siad Barre government in January of 1991. In response to looting by gangs and the prospect of famine unless order was restored, the UN became engaged early in 1992. In March of that year, it succeeded in brokering a cease-fire between the principal clan leaders in Mogadishu. It dispatched fifty unarmed peacekeepers to monitor compliance with the cease-fire and authorized the formation and deployment in April of a five-hundred-troop Pakistani battalion to protect the delivery of humanitarian relief supplies.

Unfortunately, key governments, notably the United States, showed a general lack of support for the operation. Logistical and financial problems, as well as negotiations toward an agreement with Somali clan leaders for the introduction of the force, also posed difficulties. By September of 1991, when the UN force was fully deployed, the situation in Mogadishu had so degenerated that UN troops could not safeguard the delivery of food and other relief supplies. With impunity, Somali clan leaders were able to frustrate the conciliation efforts of the UN secretary-general’s special representative in the field. In short, the first phase of operations in Somalia was a story of too little too late.

As the horrors of starvation and the breakdown of public order in Somalia became apparent on the nightly news, President George H. W. Bush, responding to public pressure, authorized the Marine Corps to lead a thirty-eight-thousand- troop intervention in December of 1992, with the limited objective of facilitating humanitarian relief efforts. As intended, this phase of operations lasted only a few months, but succeeded in saving many lives.

Although some U.S. forces remained in Somalia, the UN took over the major interventionary responsibility in May of 1993 with a weaker force charged with a broader ‘nation-building’ mandate. Unfortunately, the expanded mandate was clearly beyond UN capabilities. When eighteen Americans and a number of Pakistani troops were killed later in the year, U.S. public opinion turned strongly against continued involvement, and President Bill Clinton announced that U.S. forces would be withdrawn by the end of March of 1994. This third phase ended a year later, without accomplishing any of its objectives. There were further difficulties in Somalia with unity of command; national forces failed to respond to orders from field commanders because of conflicting instructions from their capitals. Such problems would not have arisen with an all-volunteer UN force.

Had a force of several thousand well-trained UN volunteers been available for deployment in early 1992, the humanitarian relief mission could quite plausibly have been accomplished in less than a year without the Marine Corps intervention. Achieving the expanded objectives that the UN favored but the United States resisted, however, would have required a much larger force for a much longer period of time – and substantial commitment by the world community for nonmilitary support, also for many years. As it is, Somalia remains a failed state – a case for UN trusteeship.

The UN intervention in Cambodia grew out of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, which was meant to end two decades of terrorism and civil war by producing a unified – and freely elected – Cambodian government. The Security Council has characterized the operation as “a major achievement of the United Nations.” UN troops repatriated three hundred sixty thousand refugees and displaced persons from Thai border regions. In addition, a technically free and fair election was held with an extraordinarily high level of participation.

But, in fact, the UN’s Cambodia mission must be judged a failure. Despite the high voter turnout, the UN was unable to protect opposition parties from a centrally directed government campaign of terror and intimidation. At best, 10 percent of the nation’s roughly three hundred fifty thousand armed combatants were demobilized. Most significantly, the Khmer Rouge was able to sabotage the goal of national unification: although it had been a party to the Paris Peace Agreement – and a major cause of the ruthlessness of the nation’s long civil war–it refused to participate in the election and to permit UN access to the parts of the country it controlled.

Might things have gone better if the UN had had an all-volunteer military force at its disposal instead of having to rely on seconded troops? Many of the sixteen thousand troops that were actually deployed were ill-equipped and ill-disciplined – problems that would not have plagued a well-trained volunteer force. Also, the force could probably have been deployed soon after the Paris accords – not eight months later, as was the case. Such earlier deployment would have made it possible to make considerably more progress in the disarmament mission. According to observers in the field, rapid deployment might also have helped to deter disorder.

Perhaps the most interesting question is whether, with a volunteer force, the un would have been able to compel the Khmer Rouge to comply with the Paris Peace Agreement. Perhaps doing so would have been unwise, given the Khmer Rouge’s military capabilities and ideological fanaticism, and given the possibility of negative reactions from China and other Southeast Asian states. Perhaps the Paris consensus might not have survived, and perhaps one or more outside parties would have resumed their support of the Khmer Rouge.

At least one moral of the story is clear: If the broader nation-building objectives of the UN intervention were to be realized – particularly in the absence of a resolution of the Khmer Rouge problem – the UN would doubtless have had to maintain a substantial military presence in Cambodia for a number of years, as well as provide resources for the civil components of the UN mission. The Cambodian mission, then, highlights the reasons why the international community must take seriously the need not only for an enhanced volunteer UN military force, but also for a well-qualified UN ‘peace corps’ able to help reconstruct war-ravaged societies.

From the perspective of the international community, which had recently been stung by the failure of humanitarian intervention in Somalia, the genocidal war between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda could not have come at a worse time or place: Africa, in April of 1994. At the time, a UN Assistance Mission (UNAMIR I) with a force of twenty-five hundred troops was already in Rwanda. Yet the immediate Security Council reaction was not to increase its strength, but to reduce it – to a mere three hundred troops. Moreover, the Security Council, ignoring the secretary-general’s call for strengthening the force and increasing active intervention, limited UNAMIT I’s mandate to brokering a cease-fire and assisting in relief efforts.

A month later, the UN belatedly authorized a fresh deployment of fifty-five hundred troops for UNAMIR II, again with a limited mandate. But as late as August, the UN force had not yet reached its authorized strength. After the fiasco in Somalia, there was little disposition in the world community to incur the costs of trying to stop the genocide. France was the exception; it deployed a force in Rwanda during the period of June 22 to August 22, which had some success in protecting the southwestern part of the country. (More than any other advanced industrial state, France has been willing to engage in peace enforcement operations. Relying largely on its Foreign Legion, French political leaders may not have been as sensitive as others to the risk of casualties.)

Of the cases we have considered, Rwanda provides the best example of the likely utility of a standing UN quick reaction force. Had such a force been available when the secretary-general proposed the strengthening of field capability in late April, the Security Council may well have authorized its deployment instead of voting to reduce the UNAMIR I force. Assuming U.S. logistic support – not an unreasonable assumption – the larger force could have been deployed in sufficient time to save hundreds of thousands of lives. And, considering the experience of the French, such a UN force would most likely have experienced few casualties. As it was, over a period of four and a half months, and out of a population of about eight million Rwandans, eight hundred thousand died, two million became refugees, and two million became internally displaced persons.

This review suggests that the world community could have, and in some instances likely would have, responded to each of these four crises with greater effectiveness had a well-trained and equipped all-volunteer UN force been available. Of course, the fact that interventionary forces were deployed in most of these cases for protracted periods of time – in Yugoslavia, the clock is still running – raises serious questions about the necessary size and mission of an effective UN military force.

Would a relatively small rapid deployment force be sufficient to realize UN objectives? Might a volunteer UN force be effectively supplemented by seconded national units, so that the UN force could be relieved soon enough to respond to other crises? We believe the answer to both questions is a qualified “yes.”

The situations we have examined fall somewhere on the force spectrum between ‘classic peacekeeping’ and enforcing the UN Charter’s Chapter VII prohibition of aggression. Monitoring a truce line in situations where conflict has ceased and the parties have agreed to accept the intervening force usually requires a thousand troops. But stopping aggression – as the UN tried to do in Korea and Iraq – is an altogether more daunting task, requiring several hundred thousand troops.

In the intermediate situations that we have been reviewing, an intervening force will typically have a shifting variety of tasks, including:

  • Preventive deployments to forestall violence between communities or states;
  • Monitoring or supervising a tense situation, stalemate, cease-fire, or settlement;
  • Establishing, monitoring, or supervising cantonment areas, demilitarized zones, and buffer zones between warring parties, which may involve interposition by the field force;
  • Support, supervision, and implementation of a process of disarming and demobilizing the warring factions;
  • Protection and support of humanitarian assistance efforts;
  • Noncombatant evacuation under threat;
  • Establishing protective zones;
  • Protection and support of national reconstruction and reconciliation efforts, including the conduct of elections;
  • Helping to restore and maintain general civil order; and
  • Enforcing sanctions.

All of these tasks would have to be performed in situations where the threat of armed resistance is real and present. If it is to help achieve a political resolution of the underlying conflict, a UN military force will need to be capable of fulfilling all three of the ultimate political functions of armed force – compulsion, deterrence, and reassurance. The force must be sufficient to compel each side to stop the violence, to deter those who might resort to violence, and to reassure the general public that it need neither fight nor flee.

The most detailed and persuasive analysis of what a UN rapid reaction force should be is that of Carl Conetta and Charles Knight.5 Examining the troop requests submitted by the commanders of the UN operations in Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Somalia, Mozambique, Haiti, and Rwanda between 1992 and 1994, Conetta and Knight concluded that meeting those requests would have required a force capable of continuous deployment of fifteen thousand troops in the field. This level of deployment would in turn have required a total force of 43,750 personnel, whose operating costs would have been about $3.5 billion per year.

We believe that the size and cost of such a force are much too large to propose to the international community. In our judgment, the size of the recommended force must fall somewhere between the smallest force that could reasonably perform the required tasks and the largest and most expensive force that member states, particularly the major powers, would allow the UN to command. We believe a force of fifteen thousand, of which eleven thousand would be deployable – half of that for long periods – meets these criteria. The organization and personnel of this force are shown in the two tables that follow.

Table 1
Tactical and Support Units for a Volunteer UN Military Force

2 brigade HQs
      (340 staff and support personnel each)
2 motorized infantry battalions
2 light mechanized infantry battalions
1 cavalry squadron
1 light armored cavalry squadron
       (37 light tanks)
2 armored scout helicopter companies
       (18 aircraft each)
4 field artillery batteries (8 guns each)
2 air defense companies
       (12 mounted air defense systems each)
2 combat engineer companies
2 signal companies
2 field intelligence companies
2 MP companies
2 civil affairs companies
2 field logistics bases

Source: Peace Operations by the United Nations: the Case for a Volunteer UN Military Force, a report of the Committee on International Security Studies of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Table 2
Personnel Required for a Volunteer UN Military Force

Field Units
    Unit-assigned command-and
       combat personnel
    Support personnel organic to
       tactical units
    Field logistics base
   Total deployable


Nondeployable Personnel
   Central staff
   Base support and central logistics 
   Total Nondeployable
Total 15,000

Source: Peace Operations by the United Nations.

A rough estimate of the annual cost of operating the force described is $1.25 billion to $1.5 billion per year. About 25 percent of this is the annual cost of equipment and facilities. These figures should be compared with UN peacekeeping expenditures of $2.5 billion in 2000. Much of the expenditure for a new voluntary force would be a substitute for, not a net addition to, current peacekeeping costs.

In addition to marshalling the force itself, the UN would need to maintain a substantial military base where the force would train and be stationed when not deployed. The base should be large enough to accommodate visits from detachments of national units from various countries for joint training with this UN force. Preparing and maintaining a base would add another substantial element of cost. But with the downsizing of military forces in many countries, facilities should be available, and at costs far lower than those of creating a new base.

Wherever the force were based, it would have to be moved to the site of its operation for any intervention. Providing it with an organic logistic capacity to make this possible would be prohibitively expensive; it would have to rely on national capabilities to provide logistic capacity. In effect, this means relying on the United States, which has provided most of the logistic support for the forces that have been seconded to the UN by member states.6

The number and scale of UN interventions in recent years makes plain that the standing force we envisage could not meet all UN objectives on its own. It would require backup forces of some kind. This UN standing force might be capable of two simultaneous missions, but no more, and its operational concept should require an assessment of the success of an operation after no more than six months from initial deployment. If the intervention succeeds in damping violence and moving the conflict to the political arena, then a smaller peacekeeping force drawn from member states could replace the standing force. If not, the Security Council would be faced with the decision to either replace the standing force units with larger and perhaps more heavily armed national units or withdraw from the conflict altogether. Our plan would thus be incomplete without a provision for backup forces, included in most proposals for a rapid reaction force. These consist of national units designated for UN service in both peacekeeping and combat modes, trained and exercised to a common standard and doctrine.

For both political and operational reasons, these backup forces should be organized and deployed regionally and should consist of units designated from the national forces of cooperative states in the region. These forces would train and exercise together on a regular basis, and the UN standing force HQ would play an advisory and standard-setting role in this training process. The contributing states would benefit from the upgrading of the capabilities of their armed forces. Meanwhile, they would have to be persuaded that doing so is politically worthwhile – that an investment in cooperative rather than competitive security is desirable.

But would the advantages of the regional forces’ proximity in terms of operational ease outweigh the potential disadvantage of their having a direct interest in the conflict and its outcome? This difficult question goes to the heart of how best to balance the cooperative and competitive paths to peace and security. How one answers this question will determine, in part, how one thinks about not only the creation of regional forces, but also the very idea of a UN military force.

Schematically, appropriate coverage and operational considerations would suggest the creation of at least six such regional forces: one each for Africa, Latin America (including the Caribbean), West Asia, South Asia, East Asia, and Europe. The scale of national forces varies widely in the different regions, both in relation to each other and to the proposed UN standing force, so that the appropriate size for a regional force would also vary. Neither the UN standing force nor the national regional forces could, or should, be used to engage the national armies of states with substantial military power. The political feasibility of establishing such a regional force also varies greatly among the different regions. In both West and South Asia, for instance, major countries are in a state of ongoing hostility that would make a regional force hard to create. Perhaps the region in which such a force is most needed and might do the most immediate good is Africa; yet the possibility of creating a competent force there in the near future is not bright.

If we think of a battalion with a strength of some seven hundred fifty or one thousand as the smallest combat unit that can be effectively deployed as a constituent of a larger multinational force, then an ideal regional force might have up to twenty-five combat battalions plus independent supporting units of transport, supply, engineering, military police, medical, and sanitation troops. These would form the pool from which a force could be drawn when needed.

Withdrawing the standing force and replacing it with elements drawn from the committed backup forces would make it possible for the former to continue to serve its deterrent function in other potential conflicts. In such a replacement, the HQ element of the standing force could remain for some time to act as the memory store for the incoming forces, ensuring continuity of action.

The creation of a UN standing force would require further upgrading of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). The capabilities and organization of the department have been substantially improved in the last several years, but much more needs to be done. Further changes should involve two levels of the UN: the Security Council and secretary-general, and the DPKO in relation to other parts of the organization. At the higher level, the Military Staff Committee or its functional equivalent must be reactivated, enlarged to include representatives from member states that are substantial contributors to ongoing field operations, and capable of functioning full-time whenever an operation is in progress. The DPKO in turn would need to add the administrative capacities required to maintain its military force, including recruitment, training, procurement, and logistics. The current UN system, whereby procurement depends on the approval of the undersecretary of the Department of Administration and Budget – an entirely separate UN department – is unworkable. The budget function must become an integral part of the DPKO’s operations.7

Creating the capabilities described above would in many instances make it possible for the international community to respond to crises and undertake peacemaking and enforcement operations more quickly. This could be expected to increase the likelihood of realizing several of the potential objectives of such interventions: saving lives and reducing human suffering, facilitating political settlements between contestants, and perhaps undertaking nation-building activities. It would also have a broader deterrent effect, which in some cases would make diplomatic intervention alone effective in preventing armed conflict. And it would provide a strength to Security Council resolutions that is now lacking.

The advantages of early deployment should not, however, be exaggerated. In few, if any, of the above instances would the existence of such a force on its own have made much of a difference. (Rwanda may be an exception.) Fully capitalizing on a UN standing force’s advantages will depend on various additional reforms the UN would have to undertake. Such reforms include improving staff work, quickening force deployment decision-making processes, more clearly defining mission mandates, and improving command-and-control procedures, including arrangements for civil-military coordination.

The UN cannot maintain a standing force on the basis of current financing arrangements, which are a mixture of voluntary contributions and special assessments for each operation. Instead, the support of both the standing force and traditional peacekeeping operations should be made part of the regular budget. Some larger operations – in particular, any relatively large-scale Chapter VII activities – might be best handled by special assessments. Together with the necessary strengthening of the DPKO, the creation of a standing force might result in an annual cost for peacekeeping operations (excluding large-scale Chapter VII activities) of $5–$6 billion, about twice their current level.

To put this number in some context, it is worth noting that world military expenditures in 2001 were about $835 billion. Of this, the U.S. share was about 39 percent. The other big spenders – thirteen countries with military budgets of $10–$60 plus billion – had a 41 percent share; the share of the other 157 countries amounted to only 20 percent.8

The creation of a volunteer UN force would require a mobilization of political will at a time when many members of the UN, including the Security Council P-5, view the organization with a mixture of skepticism and hostility. This attitude is strongest in the United States, but it is widely shared. After all, the majority of UN member states are developing countries that are among the more likely targets of outside intervention.

The most widespread objection to an all-volunteer UN force – aside from the economic costs – has been the lack of confidence in UN decision-making, and often a specific lack of confidence in UN secretaries-general. We see little basis for such concern. Developing and approving a mandate for UN operations will, for as far into the future as we can imagine, be a Security Council responsibility, with the P-5 members, at least, having veto power. Although secretaries-general will presumably have executive powers, we see no need for these powers to be greater – or otherwise different – than those needed for the management of UN operations under the present arrangement of relying on seconded forces.

In the present political mood of the United States the proposal outlined in the preceding pages may well appear to be sheer fantasy. But the underlying reality of violent intrastate conflict remains, and we cannot simply persist in looking the other way; the ‘CNN effect’ and the activities of a host of nongovernmental organizations prevent such an option.

The U.S. stakes in enhancing rather than undermining the capacities of the UN are of two kinds. The first is that the United States is the one power with global involvements; serious conflict anywhere is likely to involve the United States if it persists, and even more likely to involve the country if it spreads. Yet the United States has neither the capacity nor the mandate to act alone as a global policeman.

The second reason why the United States has a stake in strengthening the UN is its deep commitment to securing a liberal world order based on a global free market. The United States sees such an order as the key to achieving a minimum harmony of interests between rich and poor countries, slowly diminishing the gap between rich and poor nations through free trade and growing prosperity. Such an order cannot flourish in a world rent by widespread violent conflict.

If the United States cannot alone bear the burden of securing international order, then it must persuade others to help. The UN, backed by regional organizations – what might be called the formal international system – offers the best instrument for achieving this order, for only the formal international system has the political legitimacy to police the world.


1 This is a revised and condensed version of an earlier work by the authors entitled “Send in the Troops: A UN Foreign Legion,” Washington Quarterly 20 (1) (Winter 1997). That piece in turn was drawn from a longer study by the same authors entitled Peace Operations by the United Nations: The Case for a Volunteer Force, published by the Committee on International Security Studies of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

2 SIPRI Yearbook, 2001: Armaments, Disarmament, and International Security (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), Table 1a.1, p. 54; text, p. 52–55.

3 Charter of the United Nations (San Francisco: The United Nations, 26 June 1945), art. 42.

4 The descriptions that follow are drawn from a variety of sources: a) Susan Woodward offers a comprehensive review of the background of the conflict in Yugoslavia and operations through 1994 in Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1996). Other particularly useful background papers are John Zametica’s The Yugoslav Conflict, Adelphi Paper 270 (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1992), and James Steinberg’s “International Involvement in the Yugoslavia Conflict,” in Lori Fisler Damrosch, ed., Enforcing Restraint: Collective Intervention in Internal Conflicts (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1993). For recent events in Kosovo, see SIPRI Yearbook, 2000, 28–33; b) The background and story of the 1991–1994 intervention in Somalia can be found in Terrance Lyons and Ahmed I. Samatar, Somalia: State Collapse, Multilateral Intervention, and Strategies for Political Reconstruction (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1995); Jeffrey Clark, “Debacle in Somalia: Failure of the Collective Response,” in Damrosch, ed., Enforcing Restraint; Chester Crocker, “The Lessons of Somalia,” Foreign Affairs 74 (3) (May/June 1995); and John L. Hirsch and Robert B. Oakley, Somalia and Operation Restore Hope (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace, 1995); c) For reviews of the UN intervention in Cambodia see Trevor Findlay, Cambodia: The Legacy and Lessons of UNTAC (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); James A. Shear, “The Case of Cambodia,” in D. Daniel and B. Hayes, eds., Beyond Traditional Peacekeeping (London: Macmillan, 1995); Steven R. Ratner, “The United Nations in Cambodia: A Model for Resolution of Internal Conflicts?” in Damrosch, ed., Enforcing Restraint; William Shawcross, Cambodia’s New Deal (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1994); and Sheri Prasso, “Cambodia: A $3 Billion Boondoggle,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (March/ April 1995). See also UN Security Council Resolution 880, UN Document S/RES/ 880, 4 November 1993; d) The conflict in Rwanda is reviewed in Tayler B. Seybolt, “Whither Humanitarian Intervention? Indications from Rwanda,” Breakthroughs 5 (1) (Spring 1996). The best overall account of events and their antecedents can be found in Gerald Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); e) For the East Timor conflict, see SIPRI Yearbook, 2000, 26–28.

5 Carl Conetta and Charles Knight, Vital Force: A Proposal for the Overhaul of the UN Peace Operations System and for the Creation of a UN Legion (Cambridge, Mass.: Commonwealth Institute, October 1995). Other discussions of a un force include: a) Brian Urquhart, “For a UN Volunteer Force,” New York Review of Books 40 (11) (10 June 1993); b) Timothy Stanley, John M. Lee, and Robert von Pagenhardt, To Unite Our Strength: Enhancing the United Nations Peace and Security System (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1992), chap. 2; c) Partners for Peace: Strengthening Collective Security for the 21st Century (New York: United Nations Association of the United States, 1992), see especially chap. 3 and recommendations, p. 42; d) Capt. Edward J. Dennehy (USCG) et al., A Blue Helmet Combat Force, Policy Analysis Paper 93–101, National Security Program, John F. Kennedy School of Government (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1993); e) Lukas Haynes and Timothy W. Stanley, “To Create a United Nations Fire Brigade,” Comparative Strategy 14 (January–March 1995): 7–21; f) Towards a Rapid Reaction Capability for the United Nations (Ottawa: Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, September 1995).

6 This is an important constraint. Any air force supply operation involves the risk of accident. If the operation is over an area in which fighting is taking place, even further risks arise. Yet the United States has established a pattern of providing logistical support for un operations, and would likely do so in many instances if such logistical support constituted its only exposure to risk.

7 See Partners for Peace, published by the United Nations Association of the United States, for a fuller discussion.

8 International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2002–3, Table 26, p. 332 ff.