By Heather Peterson | Contributor
March 29, 2017, at 6:00 a.m.
In theory, this sounds like a good idea: Why should the U.S. spend taxpayer dollars on foreign peacekeepers when it could be using the money to increase the capabilities of its own military?
The answer is that U.N. peacekeeping operations are generally successful and much more cost effective than using U.S. forces. Research by RAND found that UN peacekeeping operations have a pretty good track record and can be “an effective means of terminating conflicts, insuring against their reoccurrence, and promoting democracy.” This conclusion is supported by research by Nicholas Sambanis who found U.N. peacekeeping operations have a “robust positive effect on peacebuilding outcomes … (which is) stronger when peacekeepers remain.” In other words, U.N. peacekeepers are good at their jobs, especially if they stick around.
But, what about the cost to the U.S.? It turns out that U.N. peacekeepers are an incredibly good deal when compared to U.S. forces. Let’s take a historical example. In 2004, a coup in Haiti created a potential refugee crisis as Haitians attempted to flee the violence in boats bound for U.S. shores. The George W. Bush administration decided to deploy U.S. military forces to Haiti to stop the violence and prevent a potential influx of refugees. After the initial intervention, Haiti was far from stable. In order to maintain stability, a long-term military presence was needed. The U.S. didn’t want to keep forces in Haiti and was able to convince the other members of the U.N. Security Council to authorize a peacekeeping mission.
The Government Accountability Office put together a report comparing the actual costs of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti to a hypothetical U.S. force (over a 14 month time period). The GAO determined that if U.S. forces stayed in Haiti, it would have cost the U.S. $876 million. The cost to the U.S. of the actual U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti was $116 million.
In other words, the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces saved the U.S. approximately $760 million in just over a year.
This is not unusual. U.N. peacekeeping missions cost substantially less than deploying U.S. forces. The U.S. pays roughly 28 percent of the total costs of U.N. peacekeeping missions. Some say that the U.S. is paying more than its fair share, but peacekeeping costs are divided according to a formula based on wealth and the ability to veto. So the U.S. is paying roughly the same percentage as other countries; it’s just a lot richer. When you look at U.N. peacekeeping contributions as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, the U.S. actually pays a slightly lower percentage than fellow Security Council members the United Kingdom, France and Russia.
It’s possible that there are U.N. missions that simply aren’t in U.S. national security interests. In these instances, it wouldn’t matter whether U.N. or U.S. forces were more cost effective. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley is currently conducting an assessment of peacekeeping missions. This is a wise step for any new administration, but the goal should be to provide the most security for Americans at the lowest cost, not just to save money.
The U.N. has over 90,000 uniformed personnel deployed to 16 operations around the world. That is more than any other country or international organization. The U.S. could have prevented or ended any one of these missions by using its veto, but it didn’t. In fact, the George W. Bush administration voted for more new U.N. peacekeeping missions than the Obama administration. Moreover, it was the Defense Department, not the State Department, which pushed for new funding for U.N. peacekeeping training under the George W. Bush administration.
The Trump administration may or may not agree with how previous Republican and Democratic administrations interpreted U.S. national security interests. Three U.N. missions are expected to close down this year, which will lead to cost savings, but other ongoing U.N. missions appear to remain as necessary as ever. For example, the Trump administration has emphasized the threat of terrorism. The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali is on the front lines in the fight against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other militant groups. Over a hundred U.N. peacekeepers have died since the mission was established in 2013. It’s worth careful consideration as to whether or not major funding cuts might now be in order.