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Four global transformations are changing UN peace operations

The global order is changing – how will that uncertainty impact UN peace operations?
Bildet viser en FN-soldat i Mali
Foto: UN Photo
Foto: UN Photo

The distribution of power and authority among the main political actors on the global stage is changing, and this transition will have profound implications for the world’s biggest international organization, the UN.

In a new book, Senior Research Fellows Cedric de Coning (NUPI) and Mateja Peter (NUPI and University of St. Andrews) identify four transformational trends that will have significant implications for UN peace operations:

  • Rebalancing the power-distribution between the North and South
  • The rise of regional organizations
  • Violent extremism and fundamentalism
  • Demands for greater emphasis on human security

The edited volume, titled UN Peace Operations in a Changing Global Order (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), is published open-access online. Read or download it for free here.

Global North vs South: A new balance

‘Only two decades ago countries of the global South were seen primarily as sources of instability and therefore recipients of peacekeeping missions or as providers of troops. Today many of these countries are demanding a bigger say in the decision-making in the UN Security Council, influencing also the design of UN peace operations,’ Peter explains.

Such diffusion of power brings more diverse positions to the table, making it more difficult for the UN to agree on mandates on how to handle conflicts.  This affects the nature of the peace operations themselves.

Regional organisations on the rise

As regional organisations are gaining in strength and influence, they are also exerting their influence on UN peacekeeping operations, and increasingly undertaking peace operations of their own.

‘The two most striking examples are the African Union and the European Union. Both have invested in strengthening their ability to deploy mediators and special envoys, and their ability to deploy peace support or crisis-management operations,’ says Cedric de Coning.

In the process both organizations have developed their own unique approaches to peace operations. This is contributing to an evolution of international peace and security.

‘The implication is that a new global peace and security architecture is emerging, where the UN, together with regional organizations, where they exist and are capable, are co-managing international peace and security,’ says de Coning.

Violent extremism and UN Peace operations

According to Peter, responses to contemporary conflicts are increasingly robust and regional organisations are better equipped than the UN to execute them. Some of this increasing robustness is rooted in the emergence of violent extremism and fundamentalism.

‘UN peace operations are increasingly deployed to areas populated by what are deemed as illegitimate non-state actors,’ says Peter.

Also read:

In his chapter, John Karlsrud argues that the UN is neither principally nor operationally set up to fight terrorist groups by force. A similar conclusion is reached by Kari Osland, who argues for a greater emphasis on trust-building in the local police.

Demand for human security

The fourth global transformation the authors have explored are how demands from non-state actors for greater emphasis on human security are impacting the UN’s credibility.

‘This question is in my mind the core dilemma that the United Nations will need to resolve if it wants to remain relevant for member states and at the same time legitimate in the eyes of the people, both in areas of intervention and beyond,’ Peter says.

She elaborates:

‘The fear – and not an unwarranted one – today is that UN peace operations are primarily deployed to contain conflicts to their regions of origin. Peacekeepers therefore become dependent on governments who don’t necessarily prioritise the wellbeing of their people, which in turn makes it more difficult for UN peacekeepers to prioritise people themselves.’

More pragmatic peace operations

The book discusses how a struggle between the promotion of liberal norms and realist security concerns is shaping UN peace operations today, stating that what we see now is a more pragmatic era of UN peace operations.

 ‘Operations are focused on basic security and protection of civilians, many are also supporting governments which would likely collapse without them. UN peacekeeping today is all about managing the conflict, not resolving it,’ says Peter.

She underlines that this is not to say that the international community and the UN are not involved in attempting to find political solutions for contemporary crises, although these often result in great disagreements.

‘But UN peacekeeping missions are moving away from their liberal peacebuilding model, which was premised on the idea that strengthening states and their institutions will lead to entrenchment of peace in the long run. One direct consequence of this shift is that exits for these missions will be more difficult.’

De Coning emphasizes that despite challenges and shortcomings, the UN are likely to remain crucial to international peace and security:

‘The changes we experience in the global order are likely to only increase the importance of the UN and of UN peacekeeping.‘ he sums up.

This article is based on a longer interview with editors de Coning and Peter. Want to know more about the findings presented in the book and their implications for the UN? Read the entire interview here.


  • Peace operations
  • Conflict
  • International organizations
  • United Nations