US pressure to remake United Nations peacekeeping as a fighting force is expected to pay off on Monday as dozens of countries line up to pledge troops, equipment and technology at a summit chaired by Barack Obama.
The meeting of about 50 countries at the UN in New York comes after months of lobbying by Washington for greater contributions from European nations in particular as it seeks to strengthen peacekeeping missions to take on a more aggressive role, particularly against the threat from Islamist groups in Africa.
But the US president faces strong opposition from some existing major contributors, such as India, which regard the changes as antithetical to the purpose and history of peacekeeping. Other governments, while publicly paying lip service to the president’s plan, are sceptical that it will amount to more than a legacy project or survive a change of administration in Washington.
The White House increasingly regards UN peacekeeping as a US national security issue, in large part because Islamist insurgencies from Mali to the Central African Republic, and entrenched conflicts in Nigeria and Somalia, threaten even wider instability.
Last year, the US launched an initiative to strengthen the militaries in six African countries and establish reaction forces to “rapidly deploy peacekeepers in response to emerging conflict”. Now Washington is looking to complement that with weaponry, equipment and forces from nations with the resources and recent combat experience, such as eastern European countries which fought in Afghanistan.
US officials say pledges at the summit are expected to “significantly exceed” expectations as countries step forward to offer everything from helicopters and engineering units to field hospitals and intelligence capabilities.
The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, visited Brussels in March to press European countries which have largely retreated from major involvement in peacekeeping operations after the searing experiences of Bosnia and Rwanda two decades ago.
In July, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, called for greater international commitment to “an increasingly capable and reliable UN peacekeeping mission”.
“It’s not enough just to talk about it; we actually have to deliver on the promise,” he said. “Improving global peacekeeping efforts will require active participation and solid commitments from member nations.”
The UK has said it will send forces to the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan but they are not expected to include frontline infantry troops. Britain has come under private criticism from UN officials because, despite its resource and experience of its military, it has fewer than 300 soldiers deployed on peacekeeping missions and most of those are in Cyprus.
General Sir David Richards, the former chief of Britain’s defence staff, has called for the UK to play a more significant role but told the Guardian there was opposition from the ministry of defence and senior army officers who “don’t really see the UN as proper soldiering”.
Italy offered to make a significant contribution but linked it to the launching of a UN peacekeeping operation in Libya to stem the flow of migrants, many of whom make their way to Italy. The permanent members of the security council have little appetite for intervention in Libya and it is not clear whether Rome will follow through on its offer.
Other offers will be treated with caution by the UN. Sri Lanka has said it will commit troops but officials are wary because of the Sri Lankan military’s war crimes during the conflict with the Tamil Tigers.
Some governments, most notably India, are openly hostile to the reforms. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is attending the summit as leader of the country which has sent more troops on peacekeeping missions than any other.
The Indian ambassador to the UN, Asoke Kumar Mukerji, told the Guardian this month that his government remains committed to peacekeeping “provided peacekeeping is what we know it to be”.
“The soldiers in the blue helmets, under the blue flag, are impartial. They are not supposed to be partisan. If somebody wants soldiers to go in and fight they should hire mercenaries not take UN soldiers,” he said. “If peacekeeping is to be seen as peace enforcement, then unfortunately we can’t see the UN charter allowing such a radical departure of the use of peacekeeping.”
Although it is pressuring others, the US will not commit more forces to frontline peacekeeping. It has just 28 soldiers in the field and 78 other personnel. Officials say frankly that the US Congress and much of the public would not stand for American forces being placed under foreign command. They also note that Washington picks up more than one-quarter of the nearly $9bn annual bill for peacekeeping and provides major logistical support such as airlifting troops.
Richard Gowan, until recently research director at the Centre on International Cooperation, a think-tank in New York that works closely with the UN on peacekeeping, said increased troop contributions mean the UN can also tackle issues which have badly damaged its credibility such as peacekeeping forces failing to combat rebels in Sierra Leone or the Democratic Republic of Congo while civilians were murdered.
“What the US hopes is that the more advanced militaries get involved in UN operations, their presence will make existing contributors raise their game. There’s a signal from this summit to some of the existing contributors whose soldiers are not willing to fight or go on patrol they shouldn’t just assume that the current peacekeeping system and very low expectations of peacekeepers will continue,” he said.
US officials also say that an increased pool of troops to draw peacekeeping missions from will help tackle the repeated accusations of rape and sexual abuse by UN troops which frequently go unpunished.
The US vice-president, Joe Biden, chaired a similar meeting at the UN last year but many of the pledges made then remain unfulfilled. Obama’s presence is seen by diplomats as aimed at winning more substantial commitments and holding governments to them.
“The concern is that it’s a bit of a one off,” said Gowan. “I have heard European officials who’ve come under quite a lot of pressure from the US to contribute say that they think it’s a nice initiative but they do wonder if this is going to be a lasting priority for the UN, especially after Obama leaves office.”