Back to the Future? UN peacebuilding in a Multipolar World Order

In the current international environment characterized by multipolarity and rising geopolitical competition, what role the United Nations (UN) can play in peacebuilding? In a new article, Fanny Badache, Sara Hellmüller and Bilal Salaymeh try to provide some answers and uncover the role of the UN in a multipolar world order.

Peacebuilding is the flagship activity of the United Nations (UN). It was defined by Boutros Boutros-Ghali – former Secretary-General – in his ‘Agenda for Peace’ as the “action to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace”. As of October 2022, the UN deploys 12 peacekeeping operations led by the Department of Peace Operations and 24 field missions led by the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (special envoys and special political missions).

The mandate that member states confer to the UN determines its peacebuilding approach. In our article, we examine what major powers see as the role of the UN in peacebuilding. We analyze peace-related speeches at the UN Security Council from 1991 to 2020 by three types of actors: France, UK, and US as western permanent members; China and Russia as non-western permanent members; and Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey as non-western non-permanent members.

To examine the role conferred to the UN, we distinguish between conflict management and conflict resolution. We then analyze both the types of tasks the UN is legitimized to carry out as well as the approach through which it should carry out these tasks. In conflict management, the main tasks of the UN are to help the parties find a settlement and to monitor that settlement once it is reached in view of stabilizing the situation. The main approach to peacebuilding is state-centric in that it should strictly uphold the sovereignty and consent of the host state. On the other hand, in conflict resolution, the main tasks of the UN are to support wide-ranging peacebuilding programs addressing the root causes of conflict in view of building a long-term positive peace. The main approach to peacebuilding takes a societal rather than a state focus. While the idea is still to work with the respective governments, it also foresees an important role for other actors, such as civil society.

What tasks for the UN in peacebuilding?

We found that UN member states differ in terms of their conceptions of the peacebuilding tasks the UN should engage in. France, the UK, and the US see the UN’s role in conflict resolution tasks that overlap with a liberal peacebuilding approach, such as democratization, good governance, and human rights promotion. China and Russia mostly stress conflict management tasks, such as finding a political settlement, demilitarization and demining. While they sometimes mention conflict resolution tasks, they underline more “value-neutral” areas, such as economic reconstruction, security sector reform, and rule of law. Among the rising powers, South Africa is the only one who refers more often to conflict resolution tasks (in particular rule of law and reconciliation). Brazil and Turkey mostly refer to conflict management tasks, in particular the provision of good offices to stabilize the security situation.

Despite these differences in countries’ conceptions of the UN’s role, we can see that some peacebuilding tasks such as mediation, security sector reform, and fostering the rule of law are underscored by both traditional and rising powers. These tasks could thus constitute the common denominator for future UN peacebuilding efforts.

What approach of the UN in peacebuilding?

The main fault line among the member states studied rests in their conception of the UN’s approach to peacebuilding. France, the UK, and the US underscore a conflict resolution approach which consists of working with governments, but also societal groups. To the contrary, China and Russia constantly underline that peacebuilding activities (whatever they are) should be done in cooperation with national authorities only and in full respect of state sovereignty and the principle of non-interference. As regards to rising powers, their discourse on the approach is more nuanced. Like Western powers, they advocate for the UN to work with local communities and civil society actors beyond governmental actors. Yet, at the same time, similar to China and Russia, they insist on the need to foster national ownership in the peacebuilding process by building national capacities. Their narrative is particularly centered on the need to avoid dependency (and conditionality) upon international aid and to adopt context-specific approaches.

Conclusion

So, what kind of UN peacebuilding are we likely to see in a multipolar world order? Our research shows that states see a role for the UN in terms of tasks beyond mere conflict management as long as it is conducted with the respect of national sovereignty and in cooperation with state authorities. We can thus expect that future debates in the UN Security Council will be more about the extent to which peace interventions are intrusive in states’ internal affairs and prescriptive in terms of values and norms they promote. We thus concur with other scholars that it is likely that the UN will engage less in multidimensional peacebuilding endeavors and concentrate its efforts on managing conflicts through more focused missions. In a sense, it is possible that “the future of peacebuilding is its past”.

Fanny Badache, Sara Hellmüller and Bilal Salaymeh work at the Geneva Graduate Institute in Switzerland. They are the authors of “Conflict management or conflict resolution: how do major powers conceive the role of the United Nations in peacebuilding?”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

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