Book Review: Why Peacekeeping Fails


by Dennis C. Jett

New York: St. Martin’s, 1999. . . . ISBN:0312226985

A very perceptive analysis of the problems the affect peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations. Although the focus is on U.N. peacekeeping operations, most of what Jett says would seem to have broader application. This is not an optimistic work

Jett uses the full range of U.N. peacekeeping & humanitarian assistance operations since 1947 to examine the question of why some succeed and most seem to fail. He makes a number of important observations about the problems of peacekeeping. Quite early in his book Jett asks a very perceptive question, what constitutes success? Is it keeping the lid on, righting a wrong, making things better? It certainly seems so. Noting that peacekeeping has been most effective in interstate conflicts, he goes on to point out that there is no general agreement as to what constitute appropriate grounds for international intervention in the internal affairs of a state. In what circumstances is international intervention appropriate? Often it’s media focus – frequently exaggerated or biased – on a problem that prompts calls for intervention.

As a result, "the pressure to act, even when doing nothing would be the better course, will remain strong and will not always be resisted." Examples of this phenomenon at work abound: Somalia, Rwanda, Northern Iraq, and more. These undertakings often turn out badly, or become open-ended commitments. In many internal conflicts there can be no negotiated peace. At best it may be possible to cobble together a cease fire. But "Many parties in civil wars sign peace agreements for tactical reasons." The feuding factions may have reached a state of mutual exhaustion, and see the international peacekeeping effort as a way to gain some breathing space to regroup. Invariably, even when intervening with the general consent of the feuding parties, one will end up being perceived to be taking sides by one or more of them. Just providing humanitarian aid evenhandedly will inevitably be seen as a partisan act, since each faction will perceive that its opponent is being strengthened. Even when agreeing to elections, individual factions may be dissembling. In fact, intervention has actually exacerbated some internal wars, such as in Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda, and Angola.

Jett points out some inherent problems that plague the peacekeeping community, a network of U.N. officials, diplomats, NGOs, and others. One is that they seem not to appreciate that no two situations are the same. Also, there is a great reluctance to place blame, and a great desire to keep trying even when local factions are no longer willing to cooperate; “The U.N. is slow to acknowledge publicly that cooperation is being withheld, and reluctant to pull out when it is.” Peacekeeping forces usually operate under very restrictive rules of engagement, with limited political mandates, which can lead to situations such a Srebrenica, in which heavily armed peacekeepers were unable to rescue people being herded away for massacre because they themselves did not come under attack. NGOs often help worsen problems because their devotion to their autonomy "is one reason why international responses to emergencies have been so chaotic."

One very interesting observation that Jett makes is that in many situations there are “Enough resources for war, but not for peace.” These are the thorniest peacekeeping problems, such as Liberia and Angola, where warlords can grow wealthy even as the country as a whole sinks into increasingly greater desperation. In many situations, "Unless the U.N. is willing to use force, its effort will amount to nothing."

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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