Dreaming of a United Nations Army
The idea has been floating around the halls of international academia for decades, and occasionally heads of state will try to reinvigorate the as-yet unachievable concept, usually after genocide or ethnic cleansing has been committed in some corner of the world. It has been given many names, but in essence, what these people are talking about is a United Nations army.
Says the author of A United Nations Emergency Peace Service: To Prevent Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, which was released on Friday: "A U.N. [army] would for the first time in history offer a rapid, comprehensive, internationally legitimate response to crisis, enabling it to save hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars through early and often preventive action."
In itself, the idea is a sound and desirable one. Far too often in recent memory, wars that in principle could have been avoided by a quick multinational intervention—Somalia, Rwanda and Sudan readily come as examples, but there are, sadly, many more—were allowed to rage on, due in part to institutional slowness, political procrastination, and lack of resources for stopgap regional force deployments. A U.N. army would, in theory, be deployable to any region within 48 hours, quickly enough to hold the dam before the furious waters crash through everything in their path.
Desirability aside, the concept of a multinational army raises some questions, to which responses will be required before any such force can become reality. For starters, who would be providing the soldiers? Would that army comprise mostly individuals from Third-World countries that, as they have in the past, hope to profit from their contribution? Or would rich countries like Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Japan and France make their own human investment—and if so, would this be at the detriment of current standing forces, which, in the case of Canada, for example, could create a force deficit back in the contributing countries? Far likelier, the rich countries would limit their contributions to dollars and materiel and keep their armies intact for the wars that, in the often ugly lens of geopolitics, "really matter."
Let us assume, so that I can make my second point, that the above hurdles have been successfully dealt with and that a U.N. army has been established. The next question is, which masters will it be serving, and who would be responsible for running it (remember, the U.N. is the sum of its part and not a unitary entity)? Many states fear that no matter whose soldiers make up the multinational body, the decision-makers will remain the wealthy powers in the West. If it is perceived that a U.N. army will be a tool of the West, countries in the rest of the world will unlikely decide to contribute their troops.
Thirdly, when the time comes for the U.N. army to be deployed to a war zone, what would the decision-making architecture look like? As, by design, every nation-state has its own interests, many of which are out of sync with that of others, how would a decision (whether to use force, for example) be made? Unless the chain of command is entirely independent from that of the constituent states (a highly unlikely scenario, as states will never willingly abandon their prerogative on the use of force), states will continue to put their interests before those of the multinational body, and reaching a decision will inevitably engender the debating, infighting, and bickering that are inherent to decision-making by committee. In the end, the very thing that a U.N. army is supposed to solve is defeated by its own makeup. Such is the nature of decision-making when the body itself is made of contending powers. One need only read about what went on inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis to realize how difficult it is to take individual and institutional views into consideration, and to use those to make a decision. And remember: this was within one state alone, the U.S.!
A theoretical scenario should suffice to demonstrate the complexity of the matter. For this purpose, let's imagine that war breaks out in Korea. The key decision-making members of the U.N. army would feasibly be the regional powers: China, Japan, the United States, and maybe India, Germany, and Great Britain. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where the regional powers would choose not to participate. After all, the conflict is in their backyard and probably threatens their interests. (The soldiers themselves, however, would conceivably include troops from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, along with contributions from certain African states, such as South Africa, and perhaps a few Scandinavians and East Europeans.) In light of the disparate constituent members of the decision-making body, it is highly unlikely that decisions would ever be reached seamlessly; instead, as a result of the members' own agendas, the situation room would be chaotic, with China on one side and Japan and the U.S. on the other. Moreover, even if all the logistical challenges of a force deployment were addressed (and this has historically rarely been the case), I strongly doubt that the actual deployment of the U.N. army would take place within 48 hours, for that very deployment would also send a political signal. The likelier scenario is one of a stalled deployment, with war in Korea allowed to continue without intervention by the U.N. force. To varying degrees, conflicts everywhere, whether they be on the African continent, in South East Asia or in South America, would give rise to the same problem of diverging interests.
Finally, once the soldiers are deployed, how will the difficulties arising from the fact that they all speak different languages and come from idiosyncratic cultural and military traditions be solved? This may seem innocuous enough a problem, but once the bullets start flying, efficient communication between units becomes a crucial tactical component.
Admittedly, I haven't read the book, and I don't know if the answers to the above questions are provided. I, for one, believe that a standing U.N. army has the potential to provide the international community with a much-needed tool to deal with the atrocity of armed conflict. But the task of making the leap from theory to practice is unquestionably a very daunting one. Beyond the assumed 2 billion dollars that would be required to set up a U.N. army and the tremendous task of finding enough soldiers and equipment to give it shape, the more substantive question—and the one that so far hasn't received much attention—is how we could make this new instrument work towards the achievement of peace.