Peacekeeping, Australia's soft power blind spot

Image Credit: United Nations Photo (Flickr: Creative Commons)

In September of 2016 the United Nations held a crisis summit in London to discuss a growing list of issues surrounding UN led peacekeeping operations throughout the world. The defence ministers from more than seventy nations attended the summit, including the former US secretary of defence Ash Carter as well as the Australian defence minister Marise Payne. Topics discussed during the summit included the rapidly increasing demand for UN peacekeepers globally, particularly in the Middle East and the African continent, human rights violations by UN peacekeepers, and the need to modernise peacekeeping operations to better adapt to the challenges faced by UN personnel in contemporary conflict and disaster zones.

One of the major developments we can take away from the summit was a desire from the United Nations to establish a rapid reaction and deployment force, drawn from the member nations present, that is able to deploy within 30, 60, or 90 days. The establishment of such a force would be a significant step for the UN, traditionally it could take up to a year for the deployment of a peacekeeping force of meaningful size.

This desire for a rapid reaction force opens the door for Australia to take up a larger role within the peace and security sector of operations at the United Nations, especially in the wake of our successful stint on the UN security council in 2014. Among the contributing nations towards peacekeeping operations, very few have the resources to establish or even contribute to the desired rapid deployment force. In fact, one would need to scroll down to position 25 before finding a developed power in terms of military peacekeeper personnel contributions, with Italy occupying that spot, Australia itself currently only contributes 39 personnel. In perspective, the top contributing nations to peacekeeping personnel are Ethiopia with over 8,000, India with 7,700 and Pakistan with just over 7,000. The United Kingdom is ranked 52nd with 336 and the United States is 74th, contributing just 68 personnel. It has been the trend for developed nations to move towards funding peacekeeping operations rather than staff them.

Australia’s current lack of engagement in UN peacekeeping is a blind spot considering the success of Australian led peacekeeping operations in the past. The recently completed RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands) mission can be seen as the poster child for successful peacekeeping missions. Formed in 2003, led by Australia and consisting of personnel, both military and civilian, from across the pacific island nations, the RAMSI intervention force prevented the complete collapse of the Solomon Islands into ethnic violence and conflict. In 2013, RAMSI made the transition into a purely policing mission, assisting with the reformation of the Solomon Islands police force. RAMSI officially withdrew at the end of June this year, having successfully completed its mandate and for the most part avoiding the dreaded mission creep often faced by intervention forces.

The current modernisation and restructuring of the Australian Defence Force also places us in the position to fulfil the rapid deployment model that the United Nations is seeking. Plan Beersheba has restructured the Australian Army into three self-contained combat brigades, each supplemented by elements from reservist units. Each of these three brigades is deliberately staggered so that at any one time, one is ready to deploy, one is undergoing training in preparation to deploy, and one is standing down from deployment status. This enables the ADF to maintain a full combat brigade available for deployment without over-stretching available resources. The recent integration of two of the largest vessels ever operated by the Australian Navy into the ADF’s force structure, the HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Canberra, allows for the large-scale deployment of personnel, equipment and disaster relief to a crisis zone without the need for large scale existing facilities in the deployment zone

Australia has also seen a decrease in its foreign aid budget in recent years, falling well below the UN foreign aid target in its Millennium Goals of just 0.7% of GDP. In contrast, the Australian defence budget is expected to reach 2% of GDP over the coming years, a number mandated only by the NATO alliance, of which we are not a member nation. Increasing our contributions to peacekeeping efforts would assist in offsetting Australian soft power lost due to falling foreign aid contributions, as well as the obvious humanitarian benefits.

Australia’s time on the United Nations Security Council demonstrated to the world that as a middle power we can punch well above our weight in the diplomatic and security sphere, however we cannot simply rest on our laurels. The capability gaps in UN peacekeeping operations left by a lack of commitment from developed nations is a chance for Australia to capitalise on an opportunity successive governments have overlooked, whilst increasing our diplomatic pull within the UN, as well as serving the basis for a future position on the Security Council. Australia does not need to assume the mantel of responsibility for every current and future peace keeping operation, far from it, Australia might only need to focus its efforts in the greater Asia Pacific region to most effectively capitalise on its capabilities and contribute to its humanitarian obligations, whilst simultaneously cementing its influence and soft power projection.

Ruairidh Boyd is an International Studies student at the University of Adelaide, with an interest in global security, conflict and counter-terrorism.