United Nations

The UK and UN Peacekeeping: Back in Blue?


For those of us who are getting slightly older than we care to admit, it does not seem so long ago that the UK was championing new UN peacekeeping for a new era and pledging its full support to UN efforts to halt the slide of failing states into collapse. For the briefest of moments in the early 1990s the UN was propelled to centre-stage and, for the first time since the early 1950s, there was genuine optimism that it could fulfil its central role. All seemed possible as increased international consensus paved the way for extremely ambitious new peacekeeping missions in some of the world’s most dangerous conflicts. Fast forward 5 years and optimism had been so severely dented by the tragedies in the Balkans, Somalia and Rwanda that, for many, the reputation of UN peacekeeping lay in tatters. The UK military, bruised by its own experience of wearing the blue beret in Bosnia, continued to support efforts to strengthen UN peacekeeping but stepped back from the actual operations. Since UNPROFOR, fewer and fewer British military personnel have actually served in a blue beret: currently the UK contributes 285 troops and 4 police to a total of 106,817 uniformed UN personnel deployed worldwide. Even this figure is deceptive as only 10 UK troops are currently serving in a blue beret anywhere outside of UNFICYP in Cyprus. However, with the Prime Minister pledging UK troops to support two of the most problematic UN missions, in Somalia and South Sudan, last year and promising to contribute to the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Egypt just last week, this short blog explores the UK’s peacekeeping heritage and asks whether it is time that the UK military once again dons the blue beret.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are good reasons why the international community may actually be wary of British involvement in PSO. The UK brings military credibility and tremendous planning expertise but has far less actual peacekeeping experience than is often assumed. It is twenty years since the UK’s last serious military commitment to a UN peacekeeping operation and the belief that there was a long-standing UK peacekeeping tradition that preceded these 1990s deployments is largely a myth. There are numerous states much more closely associated with the evolution of UN peacekeeping than the UK. UN peacekeeping evolved over nearly fifty years with negligible British military involvement. With the exception of UNFICYP into Cyprus in 1964, the British military mainly remained in khaki rather than UN blue throughout the entire Cold War. The UK simply assumed that training for high intensity warfare coupled with its long history of colonial policing and involvement in ‘low-intensity operations’ would, by definition, make it good at peacekeeping but it was not until Bosnia that the UK really engaged with the concept in any meaningful way. To the UK military’s surprise, it was not well prepared for what it faced.

Of course, misplaced self-confidence was not the primary cause of the UK’s woes in the Balkans during the mid-1990s. UNPROFOR was simply ill-suited to the challenges that it faced in intervening in an on-going civil war in a failing state. Further, the very definition of success in peacekeeping was changing so that it became associated with the rapid establishment of a sustainable (usually democratic) state in environments where the problems encountered were no less intractable than in the past. Expertise in such complex peacebuilding was limited but ambitions were not. From Bosnia to Rwanda and Somalia in the early 90s to Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the late 90s, the narrative of UN peacekeeping during this period is one of failure. In reality, this is a harsh and partial analysis of UN operations throughout their most challenging decade. To its credit, the UN learnt quickly and undertook a series of important reforms, making it a still imperfect but much improved actor today and it is in this context of reform that the UK played one of its most important supporting roles.

The UK remained committed to international peace support efforts throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s though both its contribution to KFOR in Kosovo and its unilateral intervention in Sierra Leone in 1999 (Op PALLISER), which helped shore up the failing UN mission (UNAMSIL) at a critical moment, illustrated an increasingly commonplace reluctance to place national forces directly under UN control. The UK also remained (and remains) one of the highest financial contributors to UN peacekeeping which is itself by far the most expensive UN activity. However, perhaps even more important than its physical and financial contributions, the UK assumed an increasingly prominent role in revitalising thinking about peacekeeping and revising it for the new challenges. JWP 3-50, The Military Contribution to Peace Support Operations (1998 and 2004) remains widely acknowledged as one of the most important conceptual contributions to the practice of twenty-first century peacekeeping while Op PALLISER together with the near-simultaneous Australian-led UN-sanctioned intervention in East Timor (INTERFET) were practical manifestations of a new approach to modern peace support that Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary-General, cited as evidence of the requirement for the UN to adopt what he and others termed ‘robust peacekeeping’. Britain’s historical contribution to UN peacekeeping may be overstated but its influence at a critical time was substantial.

However, before we Brits pat ourselves too heartily on the back for these influential interventions, let us ask the question “what have we done since?” 10 UN peacekeepers outside of Cyprus? Cherry-picking the best staff jobs in missions without any British contingents? Criticising the efforts, motives and capabilities of those states that do put large numbers of troops forward for what remain extremely challenging and dangerous missions? The tragic loss of 456 UK service personnel in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2016 has quite rightly dominated the media in the UK but how many of us are aware that 1,733 UN peacekeepers have also died in the line of duty during the same period? UN peacekeeping may rarely attract the headlines that it did in the 1990s but it is every bit as difficult and necessary in the DRC, Somalia or Sudan today as it was in Cambodia, Haiti or Ethiopia then. On the one hand there is wariness about the political baggage and potential risks that the British bring with them from their high-profile roles in current conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, but on the other, British forces are needed every bit as much today as they were twenty years ago.

To date, the mid-1990s has been the high-water mark of British involvement in UN PSO. No surprise, of course, because of the way in which first Iraq and then Afghanistan dominated the UK defence and security agenda but it is remarkable how quickly PSO, which the UK saw as core business during the 1990s, dropped off the to-do list. Successive governments and defence reviews paid lip-service to UN commitments but counter-insurgency and stability operations dominated. Further, there was an almost audible sigh of relief from some quarters as the more familiar spectre of Russian aggression in continental Europe hove back into view. Difficult as such threats are, they are also much more closely aligned to traditional perceptions of the role of the military. However, the drawing down of operations in Afghanistan and the advent of the Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) in 2011 together with the various MoD vision statements of the future conflict environment and the changing role of the military all highlight the importance of defence engagement, stabilisation, peace support and international good citizenship. British forces back in UN Blue? This question still often meets with a snort of derision but the strategic imperative to reduce international instability, preferably in less controversial and risky ways, coupled with a strong desire to restore some damaged international friendships and clear UK interests in regions high on the UN priority list means that the prospect of the UK donning UN blue is once again very, very real.

Image: US Army Colonel Richard Dillon, Head of USA Mortuary Affairs, and US Air Force Colonel Dennis Ployer, Commander, 447th Air Expeditionary Group (AEG), secure a UN Flag over the transfer casket of UN Chief Ambassador to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, prior to a memorial service at the Baghdad International Airport. Sergio Vieira de Mello was a victim of a suicide truck bombing at the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Coordinator in Baghdad, Iraq. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


This post is based on a paper presented at an event organised by the Defence Culture and Languages Centre (DCLC) and King’s College London’s Regional Security Research Centre (RSRC), titled ‘Regional Study Day: North Africa’, which took place on 21 October 2015.


After four years since Libya first experienced its own version of the so-called Arab Spring, the United Nations (UN) tabled a peace plan for the country. This was the sixth attempt by the UN to foster a dialogue between the competing actors in the North African state, which had been involved in varying forms of conflict since the ouster of the former leader, Muammar al-Qadhafi. Indeed, in October 2015 the head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Bernardino León, who is charged with bringing an end to the violent conflict in the country, put forward a proposed peace plan in an attempt to ameliorate differences between the sparring sides. The issue here, which has not been unique to this particular peace plan but various other attempts also, is that an external actor is attempting to bring about a ‘solution’ to the current Libyan quagmire. Indeed, by casting an eye back to the formation of the state of Libya as we know it today, it is possible to provide some context behind this issue, in an attempt to understand why it continues to baffle the UNSMIL’s proposals.

In 1951, Libya established its independence, having been under the control of Italy, with parts its territory coming under British, French and Ottoman control in the five decades or so running up to this point. In December of that year, the last monarch to rule the North African state, King Idris al-Senussi became the de facto leader of the country. A point worth noting here is that Senussi came from a tribe in the eastern part of Libya (Cyrenaica), and had spent much of his life vying for Cyrenican independence from the other two regions which make up the rest of Libyan territory as it is depicted today (Tripolitania in the north west and Fezzan in the south west). Nevertheless, the former colonial powers in Libya saw Senussi as the most qualified candidate to ‘unite’ the three regions in the North African state. However, it became increasingly evident under Senussi’s rule that he favoured his tribal and to a certain extent his regional (Cyrenaican) allies over the broader Libyan construct. This was ultimately one of the drivers behind the 1969 revolution which led to the Qadhafi rule, who also ended up fostering an equal if not increased level of disparity between his tribal, strategic and regionally based allies and the rest of the country. The point worth noting here, is that the tribal, regional and strategic allegiances within the borders of the country were stronger than that of a broader Libyan state.

This notion of failing to capture the impact that an external actor can have on the country (in an attempt to unite the tribal, regional and strategic actors) was reverberated in October 2015, when the UN noted that the body in charge of levying sanctions on the North African state, the “Libya Sanctions Committee, is prepared to designate those who threaten Libya’s peace, stability and security or who undermine the successful completion of its political transition. The members of the Security Council reaffirmed their strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Libya.” This ‘preparation to designate’ the perceived actors who threaten peace and stability in Libya will likely cause increase polarisation within the country. Indeed, this would not only prompt a negative sentiment between the targeted actors and the UN, but also between the different actors in Libya who may find themselves in a more/less privileged position as a result. Additionally, this would also contribute to the unequal distribution of political power (in terms of curbing the potential for the targeted individuals to come forward and engage with a dialogue aimed at finding a resolution to the on-going conflict) and economic wealth (which would also more than likely be channelled towards the individuals who were not on the sanctions ‘hit list’). The subsequent environment and conditions, which would come about as a result may well not be too dissimilar to the Libya which was epitomised as having high levels of political and economic inequality under Qadhafi and even Senussi.

I also noted in the recent talk on Libya at the DCLC, that it wasn’t just this resistive sentiment which has made the current proposed peace agreement unpalatable as it stands and indeed the current status quo, but the combination of this element alongside the importance of tribal loyalties, regional dispositions, the location, control and distribution of wealth accrued from hydrocarbons, Qadhafi’s rule and the vacuum resulting from the subsequent North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) action to help remove the former leader, the actions and support received from the various external regional and strategic actors, as well as the historical context upon which each of these factors have played out. It is therefore clear how a resolution to the current conflict must incorporate each of these elements if it is to stand a chance of being successful.

Image: Modified pick-up truck extensively used by various Libyan rebels and government forces during the conflict, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Concert of Europe: The Rise and Fall of the First United Nations


Two hundred years ago, diplomats from the Great Powers of Europe were redrawing the map of Europe. In April, Napoleon Bonaparte had abdicated, the French Empire defeated. Now it remained for Great Britain, Royalist France, Austria, Prussia and Russia to determine the fate of Europe. Napoleon’s escape from his exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, and the commencement of the Hundred Days Campaign ended the negotiations, as hostilities were renewed, and the old alliance that had defeated Napoleon in 1813-14 was reborn.

This new war culminated in Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, and new negotiations commenced in Paris. For the British, the balance of power in Europe was paramount. The British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, and the Commander-in-Chief of British forces, the Duke of Wellington, worked hard to ensure that the Great Powers of Europe were evenly matched so as to prevent a new war breaking out on the continent.

Altruistic as this agenda might seem, Britain required a balance of power in Europe, so that she could turn her attention to imperial expansion. Every time war broke out in Europe, Britain was inevitably drawn into the conflict, and precious resources and energy was expended fighting, or more likely paying others to fight, to restore the precarious balance.

In 1815, Castlereagh proposed a new and ambitious project, which would see the Great Powers come together to discuss issues that might otherwise spark a regional and eventually a European-wide war. ‘Let the Allies then take this further chance of securing that repose which all the Powers of Europe so much require,’ he wrote in a memorandum at the end of August, by ‘renewing their meetings at fixed periods … for the purpose of consulting upon their common interests, and for the consideration of the measures … considered the most salutary for the repose and prosperity of nations and for the maintenance of the peace of Europe’.

This became known as the Concert of Europe, and I discuss its foundation, effectiveness and decline in an essay entitled ‘The Legacy of Waterloo: War and Politics in Europe in the Nineteenth Century’, published this week. Castlereagh envisaged regular meetings of Europe’s leaders, to forestall looming crises and prevent future wars. All of this was guaranteed by a perpetual alliance of the Four Powers. Although the formal congress system broke down in 1822, the Great Powers continued to reconvene on an ad-hoc basis when new crises emerged.

In total, 26 meetings occurred between the first Congress at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818 and the final meeting in London in 1913. In that period, the Ottoman Empire was admitted in 1856, newly united Italy joined in 1867, and the German Reich replaced Prussia in 1871. The United States and Japan also began to participate towards the end of the century.

To suggest that the Concert of Europe was an unmitigated success would, of course, be misleading. No continent-wide conflict engulfed Europe between 1815 and 1914, but numerous wars between European states occurred, not least of which were the Italian Risorgimento (three wars of independence between 1849 and 1866), the Crimean War (1854-56), the Austro-Prussian War (1866), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). The Concert framed these wars, and fed the development of European political ideas during the nineteenth century.

The system worked on moral rather than legal grounds, and any such system needed to demonstrate flexibility. The Concert proved inadequate at dealing with crises within (as opposed to between) Great Powers’ sphere of interests. Thus, Great Britain acted with impunity in South Asia; Russia did so in Central Asia and the Far East; and latterly France and Britain did so in Africa. But in Europe, crises that in the eighteenth century might have produced regional conflicts that spiralled into general European war, were resolved within the framework of the Concert.

Thus, the Greek Revolution between 1821 and 1832; the Belgian Revolution that began in 1830; and the Italian Revolution of 1848, were all settled without Great Power conflicts. This is not to say that blood was not shed, or that violence was ended as a result of Great Power intervention. The Great Powers acted so as to contain the violence and prevent the eruption of a general conflict. This was a step-change in European affairs, which, in the eighteenth century had seen conflicts breakout over similar regional challenges to prevailing authority.

Nevertheless, in 1854, a war between the Great Powers threatened the stability of Europe. Although the Crimean War did not erupt into a general conflict, it served critically to undermine the Concert of Europe. Why, then, in circumstances where the Great Powers had sought to avoid conflict at all costs, did the Crimean War break out? The answer is quite simple: the extra-European spheres of interest of two of the Great Powers began to collide, and no diplomatic mechanism within the Concert offered a solution to a problem born entirely outside the boundaries of Europe.

Ostensibly, the Crimean War erupted between Russia on one hand, and Austria, France, the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain, on the other, because of Russian aggression against the slowly declining Ottoman Empire. The prospect of Russian control of Constantinople was too great a strategic threat to Austria, France and Great Britain. Yet, if this was the sole cause, a diplomatic solution would have been found through the mechanism of the Concert. The problem was that Russian encroachment into the Caucasus and Central Asia began directly to threaten British extra-European interests, namely those in South Asia.

A diplomatic solution proved impossible in 1853-4, because Britain did not want a diplomatic solution: Britain wanted to threaten, undermine and humiliate Russia. By the early 1850s, Russia had emerged as a new France, a power that sought hegemonic power. The key difference was that Russia did not seek (at least for the time being) hegemonic power in Europe, but in Asia, and this directly threatened Britain’s own imperial ambitions. Britain had already fought a costly war in Afghanistan between 1839 and 1842 over the perceived threat of Russian expansionism in Central Asia. Although an operational disaster, the war had nevertheless achieved its strategic objectives: a buffer zone to the north-west of British India that would, for the time being at least, prevent any Russian encroachment into Britain’s sphere of interest.

In the Crimea, however, Britain perceived a different but related threat from Russia. The growth of Russian naval power in the Black Sea represented a clear threat to British grand strategy. The prospect that Russia might gain control of Constantinople, and therefore the eastern Mediterranean, and be within striking distance of Egypt, the Red Sea, and therefore India by a different route, was too much for Britain to stomach.

True, Russian naval power was nowhere near so strong as to pose such a threat, but it would be easier to squash Russian naval plans when they were still embryonic. Britain did not want a diplomatic solution to the crisis in 1853-4, because a diplomatic solution would not see the neutralisation of Russian sea power. The war in the Crimea was designed to destroy Russian sea power.

At that point, the Concert of Europe ceased to perform its central function, although it continued to exist until the outbreak of the First World War. Arguably, the transformation of European politics commenced in the 1840s, and culminating in the unification of Germany in the 1870s, had already undermined the Concert. Critically, though, and one potential lesson, is that the Concert ceased to be effective when two of the Great Powers believed that they could no longer utilise its mechanisms to resolve their differences. So long as the present incarnation of the Concert of Europe, the United Nations, can offer the nations of the world the opportunity to resolve their differences, then it is at least achieving part of what Castlereagh set out to create.

Image: Congress of Vienna CC BY-SA 3.0