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Debate: Should the US permit its soldiers to serve as UN troops?

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Should the United States participate in UN peacekeeping operations and, if so, should the United States permit its troops to serve as UN troops (rather than as US troops under an independent command)?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Dr. Kevin J. Minch. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

The United Nations has engaged in peacekeeping operations for several decades, most heavily in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The number of those operations dropped when US support became constrained by Presidential Decision Directive 25 that established specific and more restrictive criteria for US involvement. The UN Security Council later adopted similar criteria. The type of operations conducted by the UN has evolved from truce and cease-fire monitoring to more aggressive actions, such as disarmament of combatants, and more managerial operations, such as election monitoring. The Bush administration has sought to scale down US commitments to peacekeeping, reducing the number of troops in Bosnia and Kosovo and refusing to supply troops for the peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan (separate from those troops hunting Al Qaeda). While there have been occasional small-scale exceptions, most notably in the UN’s Macedonia operation (under Clinton) and its operation in Georgia (under Bush), the US government has not been in the practice of allowing its soldiers to operate under UN command. This has even extended to the practice of not wearing Blue Helmets or UN insignia. While this attitude has some basis in actual public policy arguments, it is in part an acknowledgement of an attitude among many isolationists (and others) in the USA that the UN is a dangerous institution bent on the spread of world government at the expense of national sovereignty. These critics see the UN as a failed institution, full of corruption that US soldiers should not concede their identity to. This topic addresses the related questions of (1) should the United States participate in UN peacekeeping operations and (2) should the United States permit its troops to serve as UN troops (rather than as US troops under an independent command)? Regardless of how the proposition is worded (e.g. whether your debate specifically focuses on the wearing of “Blue Helmets”) the two questions are closely related, as nearly every US discussion of peacekeeping involvement addresses the initial fundamental issue of whether it is appropriate for US soldiers to engage in nation-building or peacekeeping exercises.

Argument #1


Peacekeeping operations by single nations or regional blocks (NATO, African Union, etc.) are historically unsuccessful. Interventions in places like Bosnia and Kosovo, while arguably fruitful, proved very messy and open-ended. The African Union’s intervention in Sudan has largely failed due to lack of resources. The long-term placement of troops from major world powers in regions such as Africa, Asia and Latin America risks reviving resentments from the long period of European colonization in these countries. While the US has less of a colonial history, its presence can sometimes be viewed as “imperial” nonetheless. Placing all such interventions under the United Nations authority gives them legitimacy and authority by drawing together a range of nations and allowing appropriate resources to be focused upon a troubled area.


UN peacekeeping efforts are, generally speaking, not successful in the long-term. While there has been some success in keeping warring parties apart from one another, many of the commitments have continued for decades, making the presence of these forces almost perpetual (e.g. Cyprus, the Sinai, Golan Heights, Lebanon). In other instances the UN has functioned as a token observer, not making long-term change possible (Haiti, the India/Pakistan border, Liberia). In other places, particularly in Africa (Rwanda, Somalia, Burundi, Sierra Leone), UN operations can be described as wholesale disasters.

Argument #2


The presence of multiple independent commands in a peacekeeping scenario is problematic. During the Kosovo intervention there were incidents in which NATO and Russian troops worked at cross-purposes and almost came into conflict. Even when different interests are not a factor, the presence of separate commands increases complexity and confusion and risks conflict and error. A single unified command under UN control can reduce the potential for these problems. It also has benefits for US troops as if they are under UN command (and therefore wearing blue helmets and UN badges), they are likely to present a less obvious target for insurgents and to be seen as more impartial.


The USA should not risk putting its troops under foreign command. Officers from other countries may be less careful of American soldiers' lives. They are also likely to be less competent in making effective use of the high-tech equipment and highly-trained forces at the disposal of the US military. If US troops must be committed to peacekeeping, it should always be under a separate command. UN Peacekeeping operations have also been involved in scandal, and the United States shouldn’t be associated with it. UN forces operating in one of its largest missions, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have been accused of a range of abuses, including rape and forced prostitution of refugees. The United States should avoid associating itself with these activities.

Argument #3


US soldiers are sufficiently protected from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. While many critics argue that involvement in peacekeeping might result in US soldiers being prosecuted as part of a political vendetta, the US already has bilateral treaties with some 80 countries preventing its soldiers being handed over to such a court. Moreover, the probability that a soldier would actually be transferred to The Hague is minimal because of ICC provisions that allow countries with developed legal systems to try alleged war criminals on their own soil. Fundamentally, the USA can do more to promote the cause of justice for war crimes and human rights violations by being involved in peacekeeping.


United States soldiers might face prosecution by the International Criminal Court for actions taken during peacekeeping operations. Theoretically, this could happen under any scenario where US peacekeepers are engaged, if the country where they were based has signed up to the ICC. The greatest danger could come if US soldiers were removed from their own accountable command-and-control systems, and put under the authority of some other force, with a different military culture and less concern for human rights.

Argument #4


Peacekeeping operations are a good investment in future security. Unstable nations are breeding grounds for terrorism and other forms of lawlessness. Even if the initial cost of stationing troops in a war zone is high, the potential long-term benefits might far outweigh the initial costs.


Peacekeeping is simply too expensive for the US. Critics argue that the US is already assessed too much for peacekeeping. Legislation prevents the USA from paying more than 25% of the peacekeeping budget, though it is currently assessed 31%.

Argument #5


Placing soldiers under UN command does not undermine national sovereignty. American soldiers have served under foreign command in the past, even as far back as the Revolutionary War when soldiers fought under French commanders in some battles. It has also done so recently under the UN missions in Macedonia and Georgia. So long as the USA retains the right to withdraw soldiers from the operation, foreign commanders are likely to take American political sensitivities into consideration. In many cases, it will be foreign troops who will serve under a US commander on UN operations. In other situations, US troops may benefit from exposure to a different military culture, e.g. the British expertise in peacekeeping operations.


Placing US soldiers under UN command is an unreasonable infringement on national sovereignty and prestige. While it is theoretically true that involvement in peacekeeping doesn’t necessarily infringe on America’s national sovereignty, it places soldiers in the awkward position of potentially ignoring one chain of command for another. It dilutes their loyalty to the US flag and their Commander-in-Chief with an unwelcome

Argument #6


Involvement in international peacekeeping efforts softens America’s image abroad. Sadly, America has developed an increasingly negative image abroad as a result of unilateral actions in Iraq and US-led NATO actions in the Balkans. In other contexts, America has developed a reputation for intervening only in situations where its immediate political or economic interests are threatened. A US commitment to an international peacekeeping regime, without demands for unilateral or dominant control, improves America’s image as a fair and cooperative player on the world stage.


US soldiers are not properly trained for peacekeeping. US soldiers are trained to win, and they are taught a doctrine that emphasizes the use of overwhelming force. This training is incompatible with the nature of peacekeeping. While the US military has done more to train peacekeepers in recent years, there is probably still insufficient preparation—particularly in the face of other ongoing US commitments—to operate effectively in a peacekeeping capacity.

Argument #7


US logistical support is vital to the success of UN peacekeeping operations. While most peacekeeping operations could do without US troops, US technology and logistical expertise is uniquely valuable to these operations. For example, without the mobility given by transport planes, helicopters, troop transporters, armoured vehicles, etc., the African Union force in Sudan has been unable to do an effective job.


Instead of demanding that the United States comes to bail them out of trouble, other countries should invest more in their own military capacity, especially in technology to improve mobility and command-and-control systems. This is especially true of other developed nations such as Canada and many European countries, which have become used to acting as



  • The US should send US soldiers to serve in UN peacekeeping missions
  • US soldiers on peacekeeping missions should serve under UN command
  • This House would wear blue helmets

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