Social Education 58(7), 1994, pp. 410-411
National Council for the Social Studies

Keeping the Peace: The Argument for aUnited Nations Volunteer Military Force

Brian Urquhart
The recent vast expansion of the United Nations' peacekeeping commitments has sorely tested the UN's ability to intervene in violent local conflicts before they get out of hand, as well as its willingness to place soldiers at risk when they do. Although UN forces have achieved major successes in such places as Namibia, El Salvador, and the Golan Heights, they have faced increasing difficulty elsewhere. Thus, in Bosnia, Somalia, and other places as well, UN forces have arrived on the scene after the situation has already disintegrated and have found it difficult, if not impossible, to reestablish peace and order.
The first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 was also the first major test of the UN's ability to make its decisions stick. In a speech at Harvard during that tumultuous summer, the first Secretary-General of the UN, Trygve Lie, proposed the establishment of a "comparatively small UN guard force... recruited by the Secretary-General and placed at the disposal of the Security Council." Lie argued that "even a small United Nations force would command respect, for it would have all the authority of the United Nations behind it."1 The kind of task he had in mind for such a force was to put an end to factional fighting in Jerusalem and to shore up the truce decreed by the Security Council. Lie's proposal attracted considerable public attention, but no governmental support at all.

Forty-five years later it would be wise to consider again the usefulness of some kind of UN legion. The Security Council is today able to reach unanimous decisions on most of the important questions that come before it. The Council's problem now is how to make these decisions stick. The technique of peacekeeping without using force has often proved effective in conflicts between states, whether in the Middle East, Cyprus, or Africa. Predictably enough, in chaotic and violent situations within states or former states, peacekeeping forces have often been unable to impose the Security Council's decisions on partisan militias and other non-governmental groups. Thus, the Security Council is often reduced to delivering admonitions or demands that have little or no impact on the actual situation. Like the legendary King Canute, it orders the waves to go back with small hope of practical results.

It is essential to give the necessary authority and strength to the Security Council to deal with such situations more effectively in the future. The capacity to deploy credible and effective peace enforcement units, at short notice and at an early stage in a crisis, and with the strength and moral support of the world community behind them, would be a major step in this direction. Clearly, a timely intervention by a relatively small but highly trained force, willing and authorized to take combat risks and representing the will of the international community, could make a decisive difference in the early stages of a crisis.

The new unanimity of the Security Council on important problems, the confused intrastate conflicts now confronting the UN, and the natural reluctance of governments to involve their own forces in violent situations where their own national interest and security are not involved-all of these point strongly to the need for a highly trained international volunteer force, willing, if necessary, to break the cycle of violence at an early stage in low-level but dangerous conflicts, especially ones involving irregular militias and groups.

An international volunteer force would be under the exclusive authority of the Security Council and under the day-to-day direction of the Secretary-General. To function effectively, it would need the full support of members of the UN. Such support should include, if necessary, air, naval, and other kinds of military action, just as NATO air power now backs up the UN force in Bosnia. The volunteer force would be trained in the techniques of peacekeeping and negotiation as well as in the more bloody business of fighting.

A UN volunteer force would not, of course, take the place of preventive diplomacy, traditional peacekeeping forces, or of large-scale enforcement action under Chapter VII of the Charter, such as Desert Storm. It would not normally be employed against the military forces of states. It would be designed simply to fill a very important gap in the armory of the Security Council, giving it the ability to back up preventive diplomacy with a measure of immediate peace enforcement.

Any number of possible objections can be posed to the idea of a UN volunteer force. Until quite recently, I myself, after a long association with UN peacekeeping, would have argued against it. The idea will certainly raise, in some minds at least, the specter of supranationality that has always haunted the idea of a standing UN army. If, however, the force can be deployed only with the authority of the Security Council, the necessary degree of control by member governments is guaranteed. The main difference from peacekeeping will be the role, the volunteer nature, and the immediate availability of the force.

The question of expense inevitably arises. As a rough guide, it has been estimated elsewhere that a 5,000 strong light infantry force would cost about $380 million a year to maintain and equip, if surplus equipment could be obtained below cost from governments.2 The total cost of peacekeeping operations in 1993 was $3 billion, and it will possibly cost as much in 1994. The average ratio of expenditure between UN peacekeeping costs and national military outlays is of the order of $1 to $1,000.

There is one overwhelmingly good reason for creating a UN volunteer force: the conditions of the post-Cold War world and the new challenges faced by the UN urgently demand it. The UN was founded nearly fifty years ago primarily as a mechanism for dealing with disputes and conflicts between states. It is now increasingly perceived, and called upon, as an international policeman and world emergency service. The Security Council lacks the capacity for the kind of swift and effective action that could give it the initiative in the early stages of a low-level conflict. In 1948, Trygve Lie sadly concluded that a UN legion would have required a degree of attention and imagination on the part of men in charge of the foreign policies of the principal member nations that they seemed to be unable to give to projects for strengthening directly the authority and prestige of the United Nations as an institution.3

Forty-five years and millions of casualties later, the time has come to summon up that attention and imagination.

1 Trygve Lie, In the Cause of Peace (Macmillan, 1954), p. 98.

2 John M. Lee, Robert Von Pagenhardt, and Timothy W. Stanley, with a foreword by Robert S. MacNamara, To Unite Our Strength (Economic Studies Institute, 1992).

3 Lie, In the Cause of Peace, p. 99.

Sir Brian Urquhart is Scholar-in-Residence in the International Affairs Program of the Ford Foundation, New York. He was a member of the United Nations Secretariat, 1945-86, and Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs, 1974-86. His publications include Hammarskjold (New York, 1972); A Life in Peace and War (London, 1987); and Ralph Bunche: An American Life (New York, 1993).