Global Policy Forum

The U.N. Should Be Capable of a Rapid Military Response


By Jeffrey Laurenti

Washington Times
May 6, 1998

(Letter published in the Washington Times, May 6, 1998)

You recently reported that some congressional conservatives are irate about a $200,000 U.S. contribution to establish rapid-deployment capability at the United Nations ("White House backs standby U.N. army," April 23). We are supposed to shudder at the notion that nations should have military forces trained and ready for joint operations to deal with threats to peace.

 Yet for decades we have invested hugely in standby readiness for rapid multilateral deployment in just one region of the world. And in approving NATO expansion last week the Senate has assented to spending considerably more. For the complaining conservatives, having standby forces ready for rapid deployment evidently is not the problem. Their deep phobia toward the United Nations is.

 It seems that the Congress's strict constructionists lose their compass when navigating the constitutions of international agencies. You quote Sen. Rod Grams, Minnesota Republican, for instance, as asserting that the U.N. is "not a peacemaking operation. They're not a NATO. If we're going to give them that kind of an authority, this is a foot in the door."

 Yet we have long since "give(n) them that kind of an authority," and in a solemn constitutional document. The U.N. Charter--overwhelmingly ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1945--details a full-service, comprehensive peace and security system, with missions ranging from dispute resolution to sanctions to deployment of armies. (By contrast, NATO's constitution specifically authorizes it only to repel an armed attack against its members' territories--and says nothing about peacemaking.)

 The United Nations has had this authority for 53 years. Indeed, the Security Council's five permanent members even came within a hair's breadth of agreement on providing it with a large standing force in 1947. When the United Nations' Senate opponents include a ban on U.N. military forces among their myriad conditions on payment of some long-overdue contributions to the United Nations, it is just another attempt at back-door repeal of the Charter. It should be stopped.

 "Bill R" (Comment dated May 6, 1998)

 I don't think Mr. Laurenti has properly represented this situation, and the question of what means the UN intends to apply to achieve a "rapid response" capability is certainly a topic worthy of the most detailed and direct consideration. I never understood the proposed UN capability as anything more than a hip-pocket deployable infrastructure, able to provide for its own security in a potentially hostile environment and to control the movement of national contingents into an area. But even that could be a significant step that profoundly affects the UN's role and autonomy. As it stands, the Washington Times article made two specific allegations which are either true or not true:

 1. That the UN would begin the direct recruitment of military personnel.

 2. That the rapid response capability would consist of a central headquarters, a deployable field staff, and communications/logistics support. (I'm inferring these components, since they are logical capabilities flowing from the mission described in the newspaper article.)

 The implications of 1. are profound. If the UN actually recruits its own force, no matter how benign, there are enormous legal questions involved. What internal regulations must be established to maintain the good order and discipline of such a force ? Will there be legal conflicts between serving in a UN force and retaining national citizenship ? (For example, US law prohibits US citizens from becoming mercenaries, although it does permit aliens to serve in the US military.) Any legal loopholes really do need to be closed before proceeding with such a scheme. Finally, in any situation where UN military personnel maintain a presence, there must needs be some kind of mandate or status of forces agreement. There is a lot of work here.

 As far as 2. is concerned, it is somewhat simpler. Even a robust UN "general staff" will have enormous challenges when it comes to contingency planning, collective training and systems development. Sounds like fun work, but I cannot help think that, given the serious financial constraints facing the UN, it will be necessary for the UN "command" to rely on external support. Preparation for rapid response worldwide deployment is an enormous operational problem - we know this in the US because "that's what we do". Just acquiring sufficient cartographic information, to say nothing of detailed and dynamically changing demographic data, is a tremendous challenge. And then you have to establish a communications network, and get people and material from Point A to Point B.

 Now, it has been my impression that the UN provides some of these services now using civilian personnel. Years ago, I read about the UN Field Services, and my instinct is to ask what is different about the long standing mission of that organization, in relation to a proposed standing "military" command. If this is just a tempest in a tea pot, somebody should get up and say so, rather than heat the climate even more.

 Bill R.

 Another Comment from Sean Kevin Lawrence (Also dated May 6, 1998)

 Most of the proposals that have floated around up here (and early in this Canadian administration Lester Pearson II was heavily involved in a project to promote a UN army) involved having troops on committed loan from member-states. Direct recruitment was a distant idea, barely even on the horizon. The first step would be to commit sufficient resources on stand-by arrangements to allow for rapid deployment without the SC having to call for troops every time a situation arose. The mandate of such a force would also, it was imagined, be limited, so that they'd have to be replaced by a regular peacekeeping force on the ground within (say) six months, and so that they wouldn't just get bogged down in Cyprus for the next twenty years.

 It would, however, necessitate an upgrading of the UN command system in New York. Before the Sarajevo airlift, they weren't even open 24 hours, to the chagrin of General Lewis Mackenzie.

 Canada's contribution was the airborne regiment; it was, however, disbanded following its disgrace in Somalia. Which brings up another difficulty: peacekeeping involves gendarmerie roles, minimal force, that sort of thing, whereas rapid deployment usually implies special forces. And special forces are sometimes disastrous at gendarmie-style peacekeeping. I think this problem could be overcome, but it would tend to militate against just ear-marking existing military units for UN service.


 Jeffrey Laurenti comments on questions by another: (May 7, 1998)

 [Would the UN begin the direct recruitment of military personnel, as the WT article seems to imply?]

 No, I didn't see this allegation in the WT article. This is clearly the bugaboo to the right, but it is, as Sean Lawrence noted, totally off the radar screen of the Secretariat and Security Council member states. What was striking about the WT report was the U.N. opponents' lumping together of the two very different notions of "standing" and "standby" forces--and then the elision of a ready deployment headquarters capacity with both of these concepts. "Bill R" is correct in noting then...

 [Would the rapid response capability of the UN consist of a central headquarters, a deployable field staff, and communications/logistics support, as the WT seemed to imply from the mission described in its article?]

 The notion of a U.N.-recruited force has, of course, been touted by Brian Urquhart and other visionaries . . .

 I'm no champion of the Urquhart idea, and think it politically comatose for the foreseeable future. Compared to the political hurdles involved, the issues "Bill R" alludes to are quite manageable--no less so than have been involved with stationing one country's armed forces in bases on the territory of dozens of its sovereign "equals." Article 43 of the Charter anticipated many of these issues. (Others, like risks to citizenship or classification of those in putative U.N. service as "mercenaries," fall outside the purview of Article 43--and, to my impoverished thinking, seem like Red herrings.)

 The bottom line: Rapid deployment planning for the Security Council is not an insidious expansion of U.N. authority, but a very modest implementation of a wee bit of the U.N.'s mandate, written into the Charter a half century ago.


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