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date: 26 March 2017

Research Findings on the Evolution of Peacekeeping

Summary and Keywords

Peacekeeping has evolved both in its focus and in setting increasingly ambitious goals. In effect, the referent object of peacekeeping—what and whose peace is to be kept—has changed. The peace that is to be kept has evolved from a negative conception of peace to encompassing an increasingly positive understanding of peace. Similarly, the object of the peace has shifted from the global to the national, and ultimately to the local. In effect, this has raised the bar for peacekeeping.

Peacekeeping research has mirrored these changes in the expectations and practice of peacekeeping, where the (in)effectiveness of peacekeeping has remained a constant concern. The evaluation has shifted from the authorization and organization of peacekeeping missions to the impact of peacekeepers in avoiding the recurrence of conflict, to ultimately the ability of peacekeepers to change the situation on the ground as well as the interaction between peacekeepers and the local population.

Research on peacekeeping has become increasingly methodologically sophisticated. Originally, qualitative case studies provided a largely critical evaluation of the effect of peacekeeping. Large-n quantitative studies have reassessed where peacekeepers are deployed and who provides peacekeepers. Controlling for selection bias and possible endogeneity, quantitative research finds that peacekeeping makes the recurrence of conflict less likely. Disaggregate data on peacekeeping confirm that peacekeeping contains local conflict and protects local civilian populations. At the same time, peacekeepers have had only limited success in positively affecting conflict societies by means of security sector reform and building state capacity. There is little evidence that peacekeeping is able to support democratization and economic development.

Keywords: peacekeeping, United Nations, civil wars, mandates, quantitative research, case studies, supply of peacekeepers, peacekept, positive peace, peacebuilding


Peacekeeping inevitably has to grapple with what and whose peace is to be kept. This would seem obvious for peacekeeping research as well, but since the 1950s scholars have been mainly concerned with whether peacekeeping ever works. For a long time, research produced a long list of prime suspects for the failures of peacekeeping: the politics behind the authorization of peacekeeping missions, limited or inappropriate mandates, insufficient resources (financially and in troop numbers), etc. There may even have been some “lessons learned”: since the end of the Cold War, the United Nations (UN) has authorized more missions deploying an unprecedented number of peacekeepers. So-called integrated (or complex) missions have been given broader mandates encompassing peacebuilding and even, if deemed necessary, robust peacemaking. An increasing number of countries now contribute peacekeepers via the UN as well as via regional security organizations, most prominently the African Union (AU), European Union (EU), and the Organization of American States (OAS). At the same time, controversies surrounding peacekeeping have hardly diminished, arguably because the ultimate objectives of peacekeeping remain elusive.

Peacekeeping has evolved both in its focus and in its increasingly ambitious goals. In effect, the referent object of peacekeeping—what and whose peace is to be kept—has changed. The peace that is to be kept has evolved from a negative conception of peace to encompassing an increasingly positive understanding of peace (Galtung, 1964). Similarly, the object of the peace has shifted from the global to the national, and ultimately to the local. Somewhat counterintuitively, this has made the population of the “peacekept” more inclusive. Whereas originally peacekeeping aimed to secure the objectives of the major powers—that is, the Permanent Five (P-5) of the UN Security Council—and national elites, its main focus now firmly includes civilians caught up in the fighting and suffering the consequences of poorly governed or failed states. In effect, this has raised the bar for peacekeeping. The expectations of peacekeepers have been heightened both in response to success—“if peacekeeping works in Namibia, it should also work in Cambodia”—as well as failure—“if peacekeeping failed in the Democratic Republic of Congo because of limited resources (restrictive mandate, etc.), it should succeed if the peacekeepers are given more resources (broader mandate, etc.).”

The agenda of peacekeeping research has to some extent followed these developments. The focus of the study of UN peacekeeping has shifted from the UN to peacekeeping. Originally, (comparative) case studies (Diehl, Reifschneider, & Hensel, 1996; Durch, Holt, Earle, & Shanahan, 2003; Paris, 1997, 2004) examined the legal framework of peacekeeping and the management of peacekeeping operations. The international (UN) level provided the core criteria for success: Were missions mandated and deployed in time? Was there sufficient financial and troop support? Initial systemic quantitative studies (Doyle & Sambanis, 2000, 2006; Fortna, 2003, 2004a, 2004b, 2008) compared peacekeeping missions to evaluate their relative success or failure, where success was defined at the theatre of operations: Did peacekeeping operations make it less likely that former combatants returned to fighting? They defined durable peace as the absence of armed conflict. In effect, peacekeeping “works” if it contributes to a negative peace, where peace does not have a specific content, but signifies a situation without battle-related deaths.

Recently, research on peacekeeping has definitely gone “micro.” The experiences of the local population and the (in)ability of peacekeepers to address their urgent concerns have become main topics for research. Accordingly, the core research question no longer focuses on the absence of conflict, but on the impact of peacekeeping on the content and quality of peace, the so-called positive peace. Hultman, Kathman, and Shannon (2013, 2014) showed that peacekeepers protect civilians against one-sided violence, highlighting the increasingly humanitarian role of peacekeepers. Increasing availability of data with detailed information on deployment and activities of peacekeepers has encouraged researchers to examine their impact subnationally. Ruggeri, Dorussen, and Gizelis (2016a, 2016b) show that robust peacekeeping limits the conflict episodes in specific localities, while Gleditsch and Beardsley (2015) demonstrated how peacekeeping prevents conflict from engulfing countries. Fieldwork and field experiments use increasingly sophisticated research designs to address concerns of peacekeeping and the “peacekept” directly (Fortna, 2008; Gilligan, Pasquale, & Samii, 2014; Gilligan et al., 2012; Mvukiyehe & Samii, 2012). Ethnographic research (Autesserre, 2010, 2014) details peacekeeping practices and their failure to secure peace from the bottom up. In this way, research not only has clearly expanded the population of “peacekept,” but also uses a positive peace—the improvement of human, political, and economic rights—as the yardstick for peacekeeping success.

The remainder of this article explores four main themes: First, we describe how the evolution of peacekeeping and increasing expectations for the UN to produce both negative and positive peace have shaped the research agenda. Next, the selection of peacekeeping missions and the supply of peacekeepers are reviewed, followed by the findings of quantitative comparative research on the effectiveness of peacekeeping (in other words, the quality of the peace that is kept). Finally, recent literature on the local experiences of the “peacekept” is reviewed. The conclusions revisit the main theme, namely that research on peacekeeping has steadily increased the standard and expectations for defining successful peacekeeping.

Evolution of Peacekeeping from Negative to Positive Peace

Originally, peacekeeping described observer missions mandated to maintain a truce or cease-fire agreement by keeping the belligerents (usually states) apart. UN peacekeeping built upon the experiences of the League of Nations. Reflecting the post-World War II world, UN peacekeeping was not intended as a substitute for sovereignty and was limited to addressing shared concerns of the main global powers; hence the P-5 had a decisive role in mandating peacekeeping missions (Barash & Webel, 2002, p. 351). During the Cold War, the UN deployed only a small number of peacekeeping missions, commonly described as “first generation” or “traditional” peacekeeping missions, with an emphasis on impartiality, light armament, and peacekeeping by consent (Goulding, 1993). The scope of the UN missions was narrow, with a focus on monitoring the terms of peace agreements between sovereign states (for example, Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, India and Pakistan in Kashmir). Yet several of these missions have proved to be remarkably long-lived; for example, the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) in Kashmir has been deployed since 1949. In 1960, the UN operation in Congo (ONUC) was the first UN attempt at peacekeeping in an intrastate conflict. It was generally considered a failure, which further restricted the willingness of the UN to engage in peacekeeping. For the next 30 years, the UN mandated only a few small missions for a short period, such as the Mission of the Representative of the Secretary-General in the Dominican Republic (DOMREP), and the longer but very small deployment to Cyprus (UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus—UNFICYP). Generally, a few small and neutral countries, such as Sweden and the Fiji Islands, provided the majority of peacekeepers.

The end of the Cold War not only changed the nature of international conflict and threats to international security, but also increased the space for cooperation among the permanent members of the Security Council (P-5). New security threats affected the nature of peacekeeping missions (Chesterman, 2005; Diehl & Balas, 2014; Doyle & Sambanis, 2006). In the 1990s, the erosion of state legitimacy emerged as a primary threat to state, regional, and even global security. In the aftermath of conflict, the absence of central and competent state authority not only undermines the prospects for peace, but also destabilizes the political situation in the region (Duffield, 2014; Migdal, 1988; Nixon, 2006; Rotberg, 2002). In response, UN missions slowly transformed in order to substitute for the lack of state capacity and to improve governance (Doyle & Sambanis, 2000). There was a dramatic surge in both the number of missions and the size of missions in terms of personnel. In a very short period from 1989 to 1994, the UN Security Council authorized 20 new missions, increasing the number of peacekeepers from 11,000 to 75,000. So-called second- and third-generation peacekeeping missions replaced the “traditional” model of peacekeeping (Goulding, 1993). Third-generation missions moved beyond observational tasks to complex “multidimensional and integrative missions,” with the more ambitious goals of promoting complex peace agreements and sustaining peace in the post-conflict period (Tiernay, 2015).

After the Brahimi’s report at the UN General Assembly Security Council (2000), peacebuilding became a primary focus of UN peacekeeping. The more comprehensive agenda of peacekeeping includes humanitarian assistance, disarmament and re-integration of combatants (DDR), security sector reform (SSR), promoting human rights and reestablishment of rule of law, organizing democratic elections, and supporting economic development and social justice (Boutros-Ghali, 1992; UN DPKO, 2006, 2008). Supporting the provision of humanitarian aid and the protection of civilians became further core aims of peacekeeping. Integrative or multidimensional UN peacekeeping operations have even begun to pay some attention to improved governance at the community level.

Researchers developed new typologies of UN missions to account for the variations in the scope and mandates of missions. For example, Ratner (1996) identified several criteria to distinguish “new” from “traditional” peacekeeping. Also, Diehl and Balas (2014) suggested classifying UN missions based on core tasks and practices in order to provide a relevant framework for evaluating their success. Scholars have also observed that missions tend to mutate and transform. Often in response to changing ground conditions, the UN regularly expands mission mandates, redefining their goals and modifying their tasks (Bellamy, Williams, & Griffin, 2010; Talentino, 2004). Howard (2008) concluded, however, that the ability of the UN to adapt to changing conditions on the ground and to learn from mistakes is largely limited within missions, while mistakes are repeated across missions. Interestingly, Howard’s (2008) study can be regarded as a transition period in research where the focus shifted away from internal UN politics to the experience of UN peacekeeping missions in the field.

Providing Peacekeepers

The expansion of peacekeeping in terms of breadth and scope has led to new research questions and debates on the nature and aims of such missions. In particular, quantitative comparative research has become increasingly important as a methodological approach, as well as in terms of theory development. It has been especially successful in challenging common perceptions about where peacekeepers are deployed and whose interests are served.

The common perception among the public, but also among policymakers, is that peacekeeping missions deploy in the so-called easy cases, while they avoid difficult, controversial conflicts. A similar criticism is that UN missions primarily reflect the national interests of the P-5. Both arguments reflect a rather pessimistic view of the role of the UN in managing global peace. Yet empirical research suggests that the UN peacekeeping missions neither focus on easy cases nor merely promote neoliberal interests. In effect, the concept of “whose peace is kept” has become increasingly complex.

Large-n quantitative research suggests that, if anything, UN missions intervene in so-called “hard” cases (Gilligan & Stedman, 2003; Fortna, 2004a, 2008; Hultman, 2010). Peacekeepers are predominantly deployed to countries with a lack of governance capacity, where the task of building a stable peace is rendered difficult because democracy and stable institutions are in short supply and the legacy of war includes a large number of civilian casualties (Ruggeri, Dorussen, & Gizelis, 2016a). Recent evaluations of the effectiveness of peacekeeping recognize that the bias towards “hard” cases makes it more challenging for the UN to generate successful outcomes (Beardsley & Schmidt, 2012; Gilligan & Sergenti, 2008; Hegre, Hultman, & Nygård, 2010; Ruggeri, Dorussen, & Gizelis, 2016b).

Regarding the specific mandates of missions, research suggests that humanitarian concerns and the severity of conflict often motivate decisions of the Security Council. In one of the first systematic studies of possible bias in UN peacekeeping, Gilligan and Stedman (2003, p. 38) reported conflict severity, measured in terms of casualties, as the key factor for intervention. Humanitarian and security concerns mainly motivate UN operations, but at least in the period directly following the end of the Cold War, there may have been a regional bias in favor of Europe and the western hemisphere. Fortna and de Jonge Oudraat similarly argued that the UN tends to intervene in more severe conflicts (Fortna, 2004a, 2004b, 2008; de Jonge Oudraat, 1996). Beardsley and Schmidt (2012) examined 210 international crises from 1945 to 2002 and found that although the overlap or conflict of national interests of the five permanent members of the Security Council indeed influences and constrains the ability of the UN to act in international crises, the severity of conflicts remains a more important predictor of UN intervention. Benson and Kathman (2014) offered a similarly nuanced explanation of when the UN deploys peacekeepers in a civil conflict. By examining the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions on African civil wars in the period 1990–2008, they found that the resolutions reflected a bias toward the war outcome; i.e., forces are more likely to be deployed when the side that the UNSC members favor is experiencing heavy losses. At the same time, while recognizing possible bias in where UN forces are deployed, they also note that the willingness to protect civilians and end hostilities is an important element in the decision to intervene. Allen and Yuen (2014) also linked the flexibility of the mandate and operational latitude of a mission to the interests of the P-5 members and their links with war-torn societies.

Of course, when the UN intervenes in violent or difficult conflicts, countries that contribute peacekeepers are still concerned about the welfare of their troops and could limit where and how they are deployed. Peacekeepers may end up in relatively safe areas, with reliable infrastructure, close to their headquarters and major urban areas (Autesserre, 2008, 2010). Using disaggregate data, recent research has looked at the factors behind UN deployment at the subnational level (Costalli, 2014; Diehl, 2014; Hultman, Kathman, & Shannon, 2016; Powers, Reeder, & Townsen, 2015; Ruggeri, Dorussen, & Gizelis, 2016a). Costalli (2014) studied subnational variation in the presence of UN peacekeepers in Bosnia and highlighted that the UN tends to be active where there is a high level of violence against civilians. Ruggeri, Dorussen, and Gizelis (2016a), also using data on conflict and peacekeeping deployment at the grid level, find that peacekeepers tend to be deployed in areas of conflict but with a significant lag of roughly two years. Moreover, for large countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), accessibility to urban areas influences the pattern of deployment in conflict regions.

Regardless, countries subject to peacekeeping missions overwhelmingly belong to the “global south,” as critical theorists rightly highlight and problematize (Wyeth, 2012). Critics of the liberal peace (e.g., Paris, 2002) argue that most international organizations internalize the political and economic values of the wealthy liberal democracies, while nearly all of the countries hosting peacebuilding missions are poor and politically weak. Peacebuilding becomes a project to bring war-shattered states into line with prevailing international standards that define how states should organize themselves (Chandler, 2004; Joshi, Lee, & MacGinty, 2014; Paris, 2002, p. 638).

Whereas the wealthy liberal democracies still carry the largest financial burden of peacekeeping (Khanna, Sandler, & Shimizu, 1999), they are no longer the main contributors of peacekeeping personnel. Historically, neutral countries like Sweden used to provide the bulk of troops to the small and neutral peacekeeping missions. A much larger group of countries has been needed to meet the growth in demand for peacekeepers since the 1990s, and increasingly countries that belong to the “global south” provide the bulk of peacekeeping personnel (Bove & Elia, 2011). As of April 2015, the UN missions include 107,565 uniformed personnel—troops, police forces, and military observers—from 121 countries. The top five contributors are Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Ethiopia, and Rwanda, while China is among the top ten contributors.

The composition of UN peacekeeping missions has raised questions about the effectiveness of missions (Bove & Ruggeri, 2016; Doyle & Sambanis, 2006; Hultman, Kathman, & Shannon, 2013), the pattern of deployment of UN forces (Fortna, 2004b, 2008), and the politics of burden sharing (Cunliffe, 2013; Gaibulloev, Sandler, & Shimizu, 2009; Gaibulloev et al., 2015; Shimizu & Sandler, 2002, 2010). Ward and Dorussen (2016) demonstrate that countries with similar policy preferences—as exemplified in their voting behavior in the UN General Assembly—are more likely to contribute troops to particular missions. The current model of peacekeepers’ provision has, however, led to debates on the sustainability of missions and on how to provide incentives to participating countries, given the demands for larger missions of more than 12,000 uniformed personnel (Bellamy & Williams, 2013; Coleman, 2014).

The differences between the countries that finance UN missions and the countries that consistently contribute troops have raised questions about the aims of peacekeeping missions. Cunliffe (2013) argued that, in its current form of financing, cosmopolitan UN peacekeeping represents liberal imperialism. He compared modern peacekeepers to the sepoy forces of the Indian army or the askari of the African colonial armies. The peacekeepers from the “global south” in effect secure and protect the interests of the powerful northern countries that dominate the UN Security Council. Whereas Gaibulloev et al. (2015) argued that the remuneration of peacekeeping forces leads to donor-specific benefits for contributing countries, and thus represents a redistribution of resources from developed to developing countries, Cunliffe warned that the specialization of southern governments in providing peacekeepers undermines their democratic institutions because the military’s elevation to such a prominent role threatens the democratic polity (Cunliffe, 2013, p. 212).

Victor’s (2010) study on African contributors of troops showed that, at least in the case of regional missions, poorer countries with lower state legitimacy tend to participate more often in regional peacekeeping. Regional peacekeeping, however, also poses an important challenge to critical studies, since in the cases of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the African Union (AU), peacekeeping is not a further example of northern “liberal imperialism.” The divergent approaches to peacekeeping between empirical research and critical theory are also pronounced with respect to the quality of the peace that peacekeeping missions provide.

The Effectiveness of Peacekeeping

A number of case studies (e.g., Clarke & Herbst, 1997; Durch, 1996; Durch, Holt, Earle, & Shanahan, 2003; Paris, 2004; Weiss, 1995) were published in the aftermath of two tragic incidents in the history of peacekeeping: the spectacular failure of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda to prevent or even to minimize the magnitude of the Rwanda genocide and the ineffective missions in Somalia (UNITAF and UNOSOM I and II). Understandably, these studies highlighted the failures of peacekeeping, emphasizing how shifting situations on the ground left UN peacekeepers with inappropriate mandates and insufficient capacity to intervene effectively. While emphasis was on the organizational capacity of peacekeeping, there was less understanding of the changing nature of global patterns of conflict and the challenges that the predominance of intrastate conflicts presented for UN peacekeeping and missions. The meaning of peace in the context of intrastate conflicts had fundamentally altered, and so did the expectations of what constitutes an effective peacekeeping mission.

In the early 21st century, there have been two major changes in the study of peacekeeping. The seminal Doyle and Sambanis study in 2000 introduced the use of quantitative methods in the analysis of peacekeeping. The use of quantitative methods mirrored methodological and epistemological changes in the study of conflict, especially civil and intrastate wars. The proliferation of new datasets, such as the Uppsala/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset (Gleditsch et al., 2002) and the most recent development of the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), among others, allowed researchers to develop more comprehensive theoretical and empirical models for assessing the performance of UN missions in containing or ending violent armed conflict. Simultaneously, the study by Doyle and Sambanis was indicative of a theoretical shift, where the interactions between the UN peacekeepers and the local actors (either the government or populations) were recognized as important in understanding the impact of UN missions on conflict management and resolution. Doyle and Sambanis developed a more comprehensive theoretical model of not just peacekeeping but also peacebuilding, where external actors supplement the local capacity, highlighting the role of “peacekept” in the process (Fortna, 2008; Dorussen, 2015).

The findings of initial systematic and quantitative comparative studies showed that UN peacekeeping can be an effective method of conflict management. Quantitative studies almost invariably find that peacekeeping reduces the likelihood of conflict recurrence (Doyle & Sambanis, 2000, 2006). Fortna (2003, 2004a, 2004b, 2008), Gilligan and Sergenti (2008), Hegre, Hultman, and Nygård (2011), and Sambanis and Doyle (2007) have shown that the impact of peacekeeping is not simply a matter of selection bias: if anything, the UN selects “hard” cases—civil conflicts with high casualty levels that have been ongoing and incompletely settled—making the record of peacekeeping even more remarkable. Most studies control for possible selection bias via matching methods; however, Ijaz (2014) proposed the supply of peacekeepers and Vivalt (2015) the rotation within the UN Security Council as instruments for the nonrandom assignment of peacekeeping.

The quantitative literature identifies several mechanisms through which peacekeeping missions influence the likelihood of peace in a post-conflict country. Doyle and Sambanis (2006) linked the impact of peacekeepers to the broader agenda of new peacekeeping. The comparative advantage of UN missions is not the use of force, but the ability to mediate and implement comprehensive peace agreements. Fortna (2008), building on the civil war literature that conceptualizes armed conflict as bargaining failure, argued that peacekeeping can increase the likelihood of peace by reducing uncertainty between the fighting parties. Peacekeeping facilitates the flow of information and increases the credibility of any commitments made by warring parties; for example, by means of dealing with potential spoilers. In one of the few studies that compare UN missions to regional non-UN peacekeeping, Heldt (2004) found only minor differences between the effectiveness of UN and non-UN peacekeeping. Yet, he pointed out that UN peacekeeping remains the most comprehensive instrument of the international community for peacebuilding. Recent research explores how, rather than competing with each other, the UN and regional organisations can pool their resources in support of complex missions (Brosig, 2014).

The findings of quantitative research sharply contrast with the conclusions reached by most qualitative case studies and ethnographic research. Radically different conceptualizations of peace and effectiveness can to some extent explain the opposing conclusions. Qualitative and ethnographic research offers a more pessimistic view on the effectiveness of peacekeeping missions to keep the peace, not only because it applies a more comprehensive and demanding definition of effectiveness but also because it considers experiences at the local and the micro level rather than at the level of the country or the mission. Peace becomes a multilevel concept separate from war, rather than the mere absence of armed conflict (Olsson, 2009; Olsson & Gizelis, 2014). The conceptualization of peace as “positive” raises the questions of who benefits from peace and what peace means for different groups within a country—in other words, peace for whom? In other cases, researchers conceptualize “peace” as a process leading to questions of who is providing “peace” (Barnett, Fang, & Zürcher, 2014; Paris & Sisk, 2009; Pouligny, 2006). Thus, the concept of peace is linked to the experiences and perceptions of the local populations or “peacekept” (see “What about the ‘Peacekept’?”).

The broader liberal governance agenda has also become an object of criticism. Critical studies theorize that peacekeeping is an instrument of the international community used to impose global (i.e., Western) values and norms on “weak” countries (Barnett, 1995; Gibbs, 1997; Jakobsen, 1996; Joshi, Lee, & MacGinty, 2014; Ignatieff, 2003; Richmond, 2014). Weinstein (2005) and Herbst (2003) have questioned whether external intervention can ever succeed at peace- and statebuilding, and instead argue for endogenously supported processes. Roland Paris (1997, 2004) discussed the limits of the liberal democratic peace for post-conflict countries with historically weak states. He argued that the true legacy of peacebuilding is often little more than giving quasi-authoritarian leaders an opportunity to hold on to power via quasi-democratic elections.

When the concept of peace is expanded to include multiple dimensions, then peacekeeping operations are often seen as dysfunctional and ineffective (Campbell, Chandler, & Sabratham, 2011). There are serious concerns about the quality of peacekeepers provided. The limited willingness of countries that have sent peacekeepers to accept casualties compounds the major powers’ lack of interest in sustaining peacekeeping missions. Interorganizational communication is slow and regularly fails to deliver the support needed on the ground. Autesserre’s (2010, 2014) narratives of the organizational biases within the United Nations Mission in Congo (MONUC) further illustrate the impact that dominant cultures within the organization have on the mission’s effectiveness in addressing local conflicts (also see Moore, 2013).

Recent methodological developments in the study of civil wars allow researchers to use data that vary across time and space at different levels of analysis. As a result, quantitative researchers have started exploring local variations in order to assess the capacity of peacekeeping missions to contain conflict and save lives. While the definition of “peace” remains minimalist, the high level of granularity of the data allows studies to answer basic questions on the effectiveness of peacekeeping. The current studies converge on the key findings that UN peacekeeping reduces the duration of conflict in a particular location, contains the space of armed conflict, and protects civilians (Beardsley, 2011; Gleditsch & Beardsley, 2015; Hultman, Kathman, & Shannon, 2013, 2014; Ruggeri, Dorussen, & Gizelis, 2016b). Regional (subnational) variations in local capacities can explain variation in outcomes in the performance of peacekeeping operations, and from within-country comparisons a nuanced picture emerges of how the local interacts with the global (Gizelis, 2011).

What about the “Peacekept”?

Whereas traditional peacekeeping represents a top-down approach clearly aimed at encouraging political leaders to honor the terms of peace agreements, comprehensive peacekeeping also encompasses bottom-up approaches and recognizes the valuable contributions to be made locally at the grassroots level. Peacekeepers often have a very limited understanding of local conditions and (unsurprisingly, given the need of a small number of peacekeepers to control a large area) limited presence on the ground (Ruggeri, Dorussen, & Gizelis, 2016a). An additional problem is the frequent rotation of peacekeepers (Autesserre, 2010). Pouligny (2006) highlighted the big difference between the official version of peacekeeping and local sentiments. Similarly, Dorussen (2015) found in Timor Leste that the official version of peacekeepers’ building the capacity of local policemen differed markedly from the local version, in which peacekeepers were good “taxi-drivers” with off-roaders that could take one anywhere and were good at fixing computers. Furthermore, critical international relations scholars observe that the more recent emphasis on regional peacekeeping runs the risk of a divergence between low (mainly African) and high (Western) quality of peacekeeping (Bellamy, Williams, & Griffin, 2010).

The literature on peacekeeping at the micro level has to deal with a number of challenges. First, who the key actors are in keeping peace needs to be established. Especially in a post-conflict environment, governments tend to be weak, with limited control over their population and territory. Rebel groups regularly participate in peace negotiations and sign peace agreements, but little is known about their organizational structures and their potential role in a post-conflict environment. Approaches that focus on the society level emphasize the role of local communities and civil society organizations in interacting with the central government or with external actors and international organizations (Dorussen & Gizelis, 2013; Gizelis, 2009, 2011; Ruggeri, Dorussen, & Gizelis, 2013). Expanding the set of relevant actors also broadens the definition of peace, since different actors will have different expectations about what peace is for them. Research on peacekeeping at the micro level has to consider what, if any, the implications are for how to conceptualize and measure peace. Importantly, different definitions of peace may imply different expectations for how local actors respond to peacekeeping missions (da Costa & Karlsrud, 2012).

The diverse conceptualization of peace is a key dividing line between empirical quantitative research and critical studies, as well as qualitative single cases. In quantitative research, “peace” does not have a specific content, but rather it signifies the absence of violent conflict. In this research tradition, the longevity of peace is of interest and is the key milestone in evaluating the performance and effectiveness of a mission (Olsson & Gizelis, 2014). The content or the quality of peace, however, brings forward questions about institutional formation, governance, and ultimately the nature of societies and states that emerge through interaction with external actors (Bieber, 2005; Barnett, Fang, & Zürcher, 2014). In a similar line of research, feminist theorists have highlighted the importance of the quality of peace for women in particular. Olsson (2009) outlined the different implications of peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction for the security and political participation of men and women. While feminist theorists have historically dominated research on gender and peacekeeping, more recent empirical research has attempted to further integrate gender into mainstream research on peacekeeping (Gizelis & Olsson, 2015; Olsson & Gizelis, 2014; Olsson & Tryggestad, 2001). Gendering peacekeeping becomes particularly salient for security sector reform and political participation, signifying new areas of theoretical development to improve our understanding of peacekeeping effectiveness (Gizelis & Olsson, 2015; Karim & Beardsley, 2013).

Bottom-up approaches emphasize not only the importance of local nongovernmental and grassroots organizations in reconstruction (Lederach, 2008), but also their role in sustaining (and undermining) peace processes. Peacebuilding policies emphasize the importance of local dialogue and capacity-building, and appeal to local actors; yet they do so through an international template that is overly technical, depoliticizing, and often exclusionary (Paris, 2002). Influential reports, such as Annan’s (2005) In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All, promote the idea that the UN system requires a new governance-based approach promoting partnerships and local ownership. This approach to peacebuilding seeks to strengthen individual, local, and national capacities, building institutions, instigating good governance, and enhancing economic opportunities. International organizations, governments, and INGOs have adopted a discourse of capacity-building that places more emphasis on local institutions and civil society. Significantly, this highlights the need for good governance to address failures in reconstruction and development caused by poor institutions and weak capacity. The governance dimension is essential to allowing people to use their power and resources to maximum effect.

In contrast, top-down peacebuilding approaches tend to focus on elites and establishing functioning institutions in a country after violent conflict (Donais, 2012; Paris, 1997). Local civil societies and grassroots organizations are generally seen as fragmented, weak, and lacking the capacity to fully participate in, and engage with, the peacekeeping and, ultimately, peacebuilding process (Lefranc, 2013; Pouligny, 2006). At the same time, the literature on peacebuilding commonly attributes failures in post-conflict reconstruction to the top-down imposition of policies and values on local populations (Autesserre, 2014; Paris & Sisk, 2009).

While initially only qualitative empirical researchers focused on grassroots organizations, increasingly quantitative studies move beyond the central government and the rebels as key actors and explore nonstate actors and their role in peacekeeping (Dorussen & Gizelis, 2013). The findings are often mixed. Autesserre (2008, 2010), Pouligny (2006), and others, such as Richmond (2014) and Basini (2013), are highly critical of the failures of peacekeeping missions to integrate local actors in the peacebuilding processes. Peacekeepers often have a very limited understanding of local conditions and often only a limited presence on the ground. This is attributed to the structures of the missions, the rotation of peacekeepers and organizational employees, organizational failures, and finally ideological perspectives that limit the understanding of local conditions (Autesserre, 2010; Diehl & Druckman, 2010). Limited experimental evidence and semi-structured interviews, however, offer an interesting nuance on how different populations among locals perceive the UN missions, suggesting that among local populations, women and vulnerable groups tend to be more positive toward UN peacekeeping missions than men or local elites are (Dorussen, 2015; Olsson & Gizelis, 2014).

Critical and qualitative researchers have argued that peacebuilding missions have led to the emergence of “hybrid peace governance” at the grassroot level (Belloni, 2012; Bjorkdahl & Hoglund, 2013; MacGinty, 2008, 2010; Millar, van der Lijn, & Verkoren, 2013; Richmond & Mitchell, 2011). Authors who write about “hybrid peace” are primarily concerned with the characteristics of the “peace” that emerges in the wake of peacekeeping operations.


UN peacekeeping missions have evolved from small post-World War II missions with barely 300 personnel to large, comprehensive missions with more than 15,000 military personnel and complex mandates. In practice, peacekeepers are now deployed into more challenging situations that involve complex, protracted conflicts. They are also given broader and more challenging mandates to complete a wide range of tasks involving local actors at both the elite and the grassroots level. Given the complexity of contemporary missions, we might have expected peacekeeping to fail more often, yet existing research suggests that, despite limitations and challenges, UN missions often are successful in saving lives.

Research has mirrored the transformation of the UN missions and established new and higher standards to measure the effectiveness and success of peacekeeping. Effective missions should provide not only negative peace, by stopping conflict and sustaining the post-agreement duration of peace, but also positive peace. The concept of positive peace expands to include the protection of civilians and vulnerable groups of people from residual violence, security sector reform, building state capacity, and even supporting democratization and economic development. Adding to the increasingly long list of expectations of building societies, UN missions are often expected to monitor borders, to improve stability in conflict “hot spots,” and to deter “spoilers” from challenging the national peace agreements.

In light of the increased expectations of what constitutes a successful UN peacekeeping mission, any positive findings from both quantitative and qualitative research are actually quite remarkable (Goldstein, 2011). The conventional wisdom is that UN peacekeeping is ineffective, yet the review of the existing literature suggests not only that we demand more and more from the blue helmets, but also that peacekeepers actually often deliver beyond expectations. Future research needs to highlight the baseline against which UN peacekeeping missions can be benchmarked for a more realistic perspective on peacekeeping to emerge among academics, policymakers, and public opinion.


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