It Might Take a General to Convince Trump to Support the United Nations
The international body is flawed, frustrating and very necessary
by KEVIN KNODELL
The United Nations was born out of the ashes of World War II. Throughout the Cold War, the world body proved a valuable venue for mediation and helped prevent several conflicts before they started.
But America’s president-elect Donald Trump isn’t impressed. The U.N. is “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time,” he tweeted. “So sad!”
Trump — who has run an empire of clubs for people to get together and have a good time, but has no experience in government, diplomacy or war — may be forgiven for not understanding how the world body is more than a place for people to hang out.
The U.N., while indeed deeply flawed and strained by conflicts worldwide, has long been regarded by foreign policy veterans as an indispensable institution. But it might take a general rather than a diplomat to get that point across to Trump.
Trump’s social media comments came in response to a U.N. vote to condemn Israel’s controversial policy of building Jewish settlements in Palestinian communities. Not long after, former Arkansas governor and Republican pundit Mike Huckabee — who has denied reports he was in line to become ambassador to Israel — suggested that the United States should “defund” the U.N. and spend the money on American veterans instead.
As of 2017, the U.S. government contributed roughly $3 billion to toward all U.N. operations. For a point of comparison, Washington is expected to spend more than $1 trillion on the F-35 — which is just one weapons program.
But when it comes to international organizations, the incoming president might do well to seek the council of his pick for secretary of defense James Mattis. The retired U.S. Marine Corps general made his stance clear in testimony he gave to Congress in 2015 regarding the state of U.S. foreign policy.
“The international order, so painstakingly put together by the greatest generation coming home from mankind’s bloodiest conflict, is under increasing stress,” Mattis told lawmakers. “It was created with elements we take for granted — the United Nations, NATO, the Marshall Plan, Bretton Woods and more.”
“The constructed order reflected the wisdom of those who recognized no nation lived as an island and we needed new ways to deal with challenges that for better or worse impacted all nations,” Mattis added. “Like it or not, today we are part of this larger world and must carry out our part … we must remain strongly engaged in this complex world.”
Mattis is right.
The international body has at times given its mandate to robust military action. Most notably, the U.N. Security Council authorized the deployment of troops to South Korea to repel the invasion by the communist north, and during the Gulf War approved the campaign to expel Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait.
During the Cold War, the world body was principally concerned with trying to prevent or resolve conflicts. From the Suez Crisis in Egypt to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.N. played a key role in mediation and keeping small conflicts from exploding into big ones.
As the Cold War came to an end, the U.N. struggled to meet the demands of the new political environment. With some exceptions, U.N. peacekeepers had historically been deployed to maintain peace between states and to monitor national borders instead of intervening in civil wars.
But conflict in this new era became largely defined by bloody internal conflicts and failing states. As the U.N. grappled with this shift, it suffered a series of high profile failures. In the 1990s, mass killings of civilians devastated Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Hamstrung by a lack of resources and tight rules of engagement, “Blue Helmets” — a common nickname for troops serving on U.N.-backed missions — watched helplessly.
The deaths of several peacekeepers in Somalia still stand out as one of the greatest fiascos in U.N. peacekeeping history. While historians and academics have endlessly analyzed these catastrophes ever since, there were successes.
For instance, in 1989 the United Nations Transition Assistance Group deployed to Namibia to facilitate the peace process after the country’s war of independence. Namibia had been occupied by South Africa since 1915 and occupation forces battled an insurgency from 1966 until a U.N. brokered ceasefire finally took hold in 1988.
Under the U.N. banner, troops, police and civilian observers oversaw the departure of South African troops and the country’s first free election. It wasn’t a simple mission. The ceasefire broke down on the first official day of U.N. operations.
Through shrewd diplomacy, the parties reestablished a halt to the fighting.
And peacekeeping is often dangerous. In just one year, 19 members of the U.N. mission died in Namibia. However, when the peacekeepers left in 1990, Namibia was a functioning democracy. It continues to be one nearly three decades later.
In the new millennium, the U.N. was as busy as ever. In the early 2000s, as Liberian dictator Charles Taylor’s gun running and diamond smuggling operations brought war to neighboring West African nations, the U.N. took action.
Occasionally backed by British troops, U.N. peacekeepers played a central role in quelling violence in Sierra Leone. The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone was noted for its robust mandate and relatively permissive rules of engagement allowing troops to use lethal force to protect civilians.
Peacekeepers oversaw the disarmament of paramilitary groups and trained new, professional soldiers and police. After completing the mission, they left in 2006.
When Taylor’s murderous rule came to an end in Liberia — in turn stopping a progression of conflicts that rank among history’s most bizarre civil wars — U.N. troops took over from U.S. Marines and West African troops who intervened in 2003. In the country’s first democratic election in generations, Liberians elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — Africa’s first female head of state.
When the Ebola epidemic hit, many feared the fragile gains would be reversed and that the country would fall back into chaos and bloodletting. But ultimately, both institutions and peace held. By 2017, fewer than 1,000 peacekeepers remain in the country with operations expected to cease in 2018.
There have of course been setbacks and scandals. The deaths of western peacekeepers in Somalia and Rwanda during the 1990s caused several European countries to withhold troops from potentially dangerous missions.
In recent years, peacekeepers have increasingly hailed from developing countries in Africa and Asia. While U.N. officials regard many of them — notably Ghanaian and Senegalese troops — as highly professional and effective, others come from militaries and police forces with sketchy human rights records. This has implicated U.N. peacekeepers in graft and sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, under-supported missions in Darfur and South Sudan have exposed major weaknesses in existing peacekeeping frameworks as member states fail to send promised equipment. A Danish-funded study in 2015 authored by peacekeeping veterans outlined ways to better equip and mobilize peacekeeping forces in the 21st century.
Addressing the recommendations would doubtless require significant funding and engagement from key member states. However, peacekeeping still works more often than it doesn’t. Numerous studies show that the deployment of peacekeepers significantly increases the chance that a country emerging from a conflict stays, well, peaceful.
“Rarely is it considered that in the war-torn places peacekeepers deploy, things would likely be much, much worse without peacekeepers present,” researcher Page Fortna wrote. “There is nothing wrong with noting the need for reform.”
“But by focusing almost exclusively on the eye-catching failures — while ignoring the larger story of the remarkable effectiveness of peacekeeping — such stories are likely to discourage the support the U.N. needs to improve peacekeeping’s efficacy and impact.”
Usually diplomats take the lead, and sometimes peacekeepers don’t even have to deploy. But some conflicts are much easier to solve than others.
The persistent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been a particularly vexing problem for the U.N. and confounds diplomats from all across the globe. Both sides regularly accuse the world body of bias and have allegedly attacked U.N. personnel and lied to investigators.
The search for peace in the region has been a problem for nearly every American administration since the end of World War II. Trump’s initially asserted during his campaign that he wanted to be “very neutral” toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president elect has since aligned closely with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his transition team has floated moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
Mattis, who spent time in charge of U.S. Central Command, had a strong relationship with his counterparts in the Israeli Defense Forces and helped maintain strong ties with Tel Aviv, may again provide a more measured opinion. Nevertheless, he’s been critical of Israel’s attitude toward Palestinians, particularly in regards to settlements.
“If I’m in Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here to the east and there’s 10,000 Arab settlers in here, if we draw the border to include them, either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote — apartheid,” Mattis said at the 2013 Aspen Conference. “That didn’t work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country.”
Outside of diplomacy and peacekeeping deployments, the U.N. tackles a wide variety of missions. Civilian personnel across the globe work tirelessly on education and economic initiatives. They work on protecting historic and cultural sites through UNESCO.
Specialists with the United Nations Mine Action service works to clear landmines that continue to kill civilians long after wars are over. Workers with the World Food Program conduct often dangerous missions delivering essentials to hungry people in some of the world’s most deadly, remote and austere places.
And the United Nations High Commission on Refugees is the lead agency in tackling the worst global refugee crisis since World War II — possibly ever. U.N. personnel work to care for and resettle those displaced by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq — and elsewhere — and try to keep them from getting sucked into new fighting.
The enormity of the challenge means that resources are often stretched incredibly thin and personnel are overworked. The work would only become harder if the United States slashes funding for the organization’s many programs.
And stationed around the globe, often with few comforts, most U.N. personnel certainly don’t feel like they’re part of a hip social club — no matter what Trump says.