United Nations peacekeeping has come a long way since its establishment 75 years ago. But while research demonstrates the value of peacekeeping, the institution of peacekeeping is under threat. Those who carry out its mandates face increased violence, reduced resources, and the rise of disinformation that endangers their work. This confluence of factors is making operations deadlier than ever and is diminishing the desire for countries to participate in life-saving missions.
As the largest financial contributor – and debtor – to the U.N. peacekeeping budget, the United States is uniquely positioned to reverse the trend.
The Rise and Risk of Disinformation
The spread of disinformation – false information deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization, or country – has become a global menace over the past decade. Disinformation campaigns often include blatantly false or misleading allegations that peacekeepers are engaging in arms deals, exploiting natural resources, supporting terrorists, or involved in sexual abuse. Some of these allegations have indeed been validated in the past. Most claims, however, extract a piece of a story to sow confusion and fear to amplify an unfounded threat.
In one prominent 2020 case in the Central African Republic, an online disinformation campaign falsely accused U.N. mission staff of trafficking weapons, referring to them as “genocidal mercenaries” and calling for violence against the mission. More recently, in July 2022, violent anti-mission protests erupted in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after a specious social media post went viral, resulting in 15 deaths, including three peacekeepers.
The timing of this flood of falsehoods should come as no surprise to political observers, as it tracks closely with the arrival on the continent of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary army led by an oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who a Stanford University study identified as “central” to the expansion of disinformation in Africa.
For their part, the U.N. has recognized disinformation as a challenge for peacekeeping operations, but only recently elevated it as a priority. In 2021, the Department of Peace Operations published a Strategy for the Digital Transformation of Peacekeeping, with the goal of enabling peacekeeping to adapt more quickly to today’s evolving technological and digital environments. Yet, as noted by the International Peace Institute, “the scale of the problem far exceeds the UN’s ability to respond.”
Barriers to Countering Disinformation
The U.N.’s ability to counter the growing disinformation threat is compromised by several longstanding challenges to operations.
One, peacekeeping operations are more hazardous. Last year alone, nearly three dozen peacekeepers were killed by malicious attacks – a 30 percent increase from 2021. In fact, concerns about safety and security in the U.N. mission in Mali prompted the Egyptian government to suspend its contingent’s activities in July 2022, following the death of seven peacekeepers that year.
Two, the war in Ukraine has reduced an already scarce and precious peacekeeping asset – aircraft. Not only do planes and helicopters reduce the risks of encountering an ambush or explosive device, they also bolster mobility, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. Even so, U.N. peacekeeping missions are facing a critical shortage due to Russia’s full-scale 2022 invasion of Ukraine, since the two largest contributors of aircraft are embroiled in the war. Specifically, Ukraine has withdrawn all its troops and military aircraft – which comprise almost 20 percent of the U.N. fleet. The Russian fleet has mostly been grounded.
Three, even as U.N. peacekeeping ramps up its efforts related to disinformation, almost no funding has been allocated to any major mission for this issue. In fact, despite adding counter-disinformation activities to mandates, three peacekeeping missions in Mali, the DRC, and the Central African Republic all suffered budget cuts in the past year. In addition, officers within missions often have no specific training, no proper equipment for monitoring, and not even basic Internet access in more remote locations. At U.N. headquarters, the Strategic Communications Section that oversees disinformation largely relies on interns or temporary staff, as there are no dedicated or sustained personnel, financial resources, or integrated mission-coordination capacities. Each mission is basically operating independently, with few resources and personnel.
Given the scale and severity of the threat, as well as the sophistication of entities like the Wagner Group, predictable and reliable funding – matched with knowledgeable personnel and improved equipment – is essential. On all these fronts, the United States can play a key role.
How the U.S. Can Help
Historically, the United States has been the largest financial contributor to U.N. peacekeeping. This is due to the size of its economy, the fact that no mission can happen without the U.S. vote in the Security Council, and because the U.S. government generally views the institution – in the words of the former highest-ranking U.S. military officer – “very much in our national interest.” An extensive body of research has also made clear that peacekeeping saves lives, shortens conflicts, and is far more cost-effective than U.S. boots on the ground.
Unfortunately, despite that support, the United States also is by far the largest debtor to peacekeeping operations. As of 2023, it owes more than $1.1 billion to U.N. peacekeeping missions. These arrears have grown over time, because the U.S. Congress has arbitrarily capped American contributions at less than the amount assessed under formulas that all U.N. members have agreed to use. This is problematic in two ways. First, outstanding debts diminish the ability for the U.N. and its missions to effectively budget for emergent needs that span traditional to digital frontlines. Second, significant shortfalls mean missions don’t receive full allocations in a timely manner. As such, Troop and Police Contributing Countries (T/PCCs) – generally lower-income nations – suffer unconscionable delays in reimbursement for their contributions of personnel and equipment.
These delays make it harder for countries to step into the breach, and they disincentivize the contribution of personnel and invaluable equipment and other assets, since countries are uncertain when or if they will be compensated. Moreover, the United States itself provides almost no troops or equipment; the majority comes from T/PCCs in the Global South. These are the very locations where trust of the United States is sometimes tepid. By delaying payments and having few personnel in harm’s way, the United States only fuels a perception of exploitation that feeds the very narratives that disinformation trolls perpetuate.
If the United States did pay its dues in full, it could ensure T/PCCs are fully reimbursed. This, in turn, would make it easier to recruit countries to provide specialized personnel to detect threats in the field and online, and would help peacekeeping missions replenish much-needed equipment.
And the American public agrees. A recent poll finds that 71 percent of adults believe the United States should help the U.N. fight back against false information campaigns (including 69 percent of Republicans), 59 percent say the United States should help the U.N. replace the assets withdrawn from Ukraine, and four of five U.S. voters support paying unpaid dues.
A Path Forward
There are three key actions the Biden administration and Congress can take right now to make U.N. peacekeeping safer and better prepared for emergent threats.
First, Congress can pass the U.S. Commitment to Peacekeeping Act. The legislation – first introduced in 2021 by Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-CA) and which passed the House but not the Senate – will be reintroduced this week. The bill, which will face stiffer opposition in the House this year, would lift the arbitrary 25 percent cap on peacekeeping dues to align U.S. payments with its assessed obligations (26.94 percent). As such, it would ensure on-time and in-full payments to troop-contributing countries for missions the United States already has supported in the Security Council.
Second, in the spirit of using U.S. influence to positively shape the future of U.N. peacekeeping, the Biden administration can press the U.N. to establish a team with the express mandate to counter disinformation activities.
Lastly, the United States can increase its contributions of personnel within missions. Currently, there are only a few dozen U.S. personnel in the field worldwide. By comparison, China provides more than 2,200. While the United States will not provide troops to missions anytime soon, it can provide expertise and equipment. For example, the U.N. Department of Peace Operations team is currently considering development of a tool for missions to monitor disinformation, but they need the funding to create it. Through payment of dues and provision of skilled staff for implementation, the United States could help launch that mechanism.
For 75 years, peacekeeping has proven its worth. Through full funding and engagement, the United States can ensure peacekeeping operations are equipped to handle the pressing threats of today and tomorrow.