To Keep Pace With Peacekeeping, US Must Show Leadership

General Martin Dempsey hit it on the head this summer when -- for the sake of global security -- he called for our allies to bolster United Nations peacekeeping. "The complex array of threats and, let's call it geopolitical jockeying, requires all of us to contend with an unpredictable landscape, and our support to peacekeeping operations must keep pace with that unpredictability," the Joint Chiefs chairman said.

But with growing strains on our allies' resources, such as the refugee crisis that has recently deluged borders, how can the U.S. ensure such a call will not fall on deaf -- or at least distracted -- ears, no matter how urgent?

When President Barack Obama convenes nations and chairs a U.N. peacekeeping summit next week, other U.N. member states will be asked to enhance, or in some cases commence, support for the growing number of missions the world has asked the U.N. to deploy. These 16 operations are acting manifestly in U.S. interests and bringing needed stability to hot spots in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. If we expect allied nations to make and fulfill meaningful commitments on all our behalves, the U.S. should show significant leadership as well.

Certainly it is a fair, if not complicated, request. Over the past 20 years, many Western nations have retreated from providing troops for U.N. combat operations. Currently, EU governments, for example, provide some 6,000 troops to peacekeeping missions -- less than 7 percent of the more than 110,000 troops total -- compared to 25,000 troops, or 40 percent, two decades ago. The United States provides 28 troops and 78 total personnel, its contributions measuring more visibly in other ways, especially monetarily and through its diplomatic muscle. Meanwhile, developing nations have markedly increased their troop contributions.

This dynamic of developed nations providing the bulk of financing and developing nations the bulk of forces has allowed the greatest growth of operations in the institution's 70-year history. However, with that growth, today's "complex array of threats" has exposed some shortfalls of the current system, namely the lack of specialized training for troops and critical enabling assets and capabilities.

To deepen and diversify the pool of countries deploying troops, police and military, the U.S. will have to set the pace. As it stands, the U.S. is the world's largest financial contributor to peacekeeping -- because of bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and leadership from the executive branch -- and full payment of our dues is absolutely critical to the enterprise. However, by expanding our contributions in other ways -- such as through training and expertise -- we would make it more difficult for other countries to stand on the sidelines and thus ensure operations are more effective and safer for civilians. All of this can be done without putting U.S. troops directly on the line.

For one, the U.S. can assist the U.N. in enhancing specialized training standards for today's peacekeepers, for whom peacekeeping operations no longer mean simply observing a cease-fire between two consenting nations. In South Sudan, for example, the mission is sheltering over 200,000 civilians within its camps -- an unprecedented task. Elsewhere, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, peacekeepers are countering violent armed militias; in Mali they are confronting the proliferation of improvised explosive devices.

Given these unique challenges and the longstanding role the U.S. has played in training through two State Department programs (Global Peace Operations Initiative and Africa Contingency Operations Training & Assistance), the United States should fine-tune its training standards to be more mission-specific and insist U.N. member states enhance their own standards before deploying troops. In fact, with respect to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, the U.S. Army's Asymmetric Warfare Group recently found that tailored, pre-deployment training for peacekeepers headed to Mali is the most important and the largest gap for the mission. It's quite likely this holds true for the other U.N. operations as well.

Two, the U.S. can show leadership to other nations by deploying U.S. specialist military contingents to U.N. peacekeeping operations in combat service and support roles. This does not mean providing our troops to fight, but instead issuing limited medical, engineering, logistics or aviation units. To illustrate the need, a lack of air assets and specialized training is preventing some missions from carrying out casualty and medical evacuation. It would be inconceivable for U.S. troops to conduct patrols without medical or causality evacuation capability. The inability to ensure that wounded personnel would be quickly evacuated is quite understandably leading some peacekeepers to be risk-averse in their projection of force, inhibiting longer-range patrols and undermining the mission's ability to protect civilians.

As global conflicts indeed become increasingly complex and unpredictable, "keeping pace" -- as Dempsey noted -- will mean additional and varied investments. We cannot cut corners on peacekeeping or go it alone when it comes to tempering extremists in places like Mali, DR Congo or South Sudan. We also cannot expect our allies to solely shoulder additional burdens. A robust showing of U.S. leadership at the president's upcoming summit will go a long way toward achieving a sustainable and more effective partnership on peacekeeping.