Book Review: UN-Tied Nations: The United Nations, Peacekeeping & Global Governance


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Nov. 18, 2014 – Kate Seaman’s UN-Tied Nations: The United Nations, Peacekeeping and Global Governance examines the role of peacekeeping in the development of global security governance. It is a timely book in light of Ban Ki-moon’s recent announcement of a high-level panel to review UN peacekeeping operations.

Seaman begins with a discussion of the various theories and definitions of what constitutes global governance. “The reality is that global governance is not a form of world government… [it] is a highly contested and politicized concept. It does not view the international system as a state centric one, instead it tries to incorporate the many new and varied actors that now have a role to play in global governance.” These include non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups and regional organizations.

At the center of all this is the United Nations which plays a “coordinating” role in the global governance agenda, promoting “key norms such as human rights, democratization and good governance.” The hope after the end of the Cold War was that a reinvigorated UN would live up to its charter ideals of promoting peace and human rights, even though United Nations membership is – or at least according to the UN Charter – open only to “peace-loving states.”

There was a burst of Security Council activity in the early to mid-1990s with a record number of decisions, but the organization soon became “overwhelmed” and failed to respond in Rwanda and Somalia. It became readily apparent that “traditional peacekeeping” was inadequate to cope with new challenges and “coupled with ‘the desire by UN officials and member states to pick winners and avoid failures meant that the UN was as interested in its own security as it was in human security’.”

Moreover, ambitious Security Council mandates tasked peacekeepers with a range of duties such as from early economic recovery to election monitoring, but the mandates were not matched with the resources to fulfill them and there was a disconnect between the demands placed on peacekeepers and their ability to perform these tasks.

The past decade has seen a resurgence in UN peacekeeping operations but the same problems and challenges remain: legitimacy and resources, coupled with new challenges in tackling the changing nature of conflicts with non-state actors increasingly involved.

The book examines a number of case studies and thoroughly reviews the existing literature on global governance and peacekeeping. There are useful insights from the author’s interviews with UN officials and diplomats – their anonymity allows more candidness than one is used to from diplomats and secretariat officials in their public remarks.

Perennial problems such as reform of the Council is also discussed with observations ranging from an expanded Council would only lead to an even more crippling decision making process to ensuring major troop contributing countries have a say in decisions. There’s something of a consensus, however, on that improving the Council’s working methods should be as much, if not more, of a priority than reforming the Council’s existing structure.

In concluding, Seaman writes that, “The UN has simply become another political tool of governments, used to validate their actions and policies… if the UN is ever to achieve the ideals on which it was established, member states will have to be much more willing to provide resources and to politically support the organization and the Secretariat in what they are trying to achieve.”

Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz