Soldiers of Diplomacy:
The United Nations, Peacekeeping, & the New World Order

272 pages,
ISBN: 0802008992

Post Your Opinion
Warrior-Princes and the politics of peacekeeping
by Sandra Whitworth

Soldiers of Diplomacy is an excellent example of what the mainstream has to offer in studies of peacekeeping and, likewise, suffers from many of its limitations. As peace operations have moved centre stage within the United Nations' repertoire of diplomatic and military tools, studies tackling the question of the changing nature of peacekeeping and the manner in which missions might be made more efficient have proliferated. There are good reasons to focus on such issues: with the increasing number of missions and the criticisms of them which have emerged, addressing operational concerns is obviously very important. Coulon's account is one of the best available: it is wide-ranging, well-researched, and extremely readable (translators Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott certainly deserve much of the credit in ensuring that the English version is as accessible as the French).

Coulon regularly reminds the reader of how important peacekeeping is to Canada: from its early, successful beginnings with Lester Pearson who helped to establish the first mission in the Suez; through the involvement of soldiers on the ground, such as Major-General Lewis Mackenzie's efforts to keep the airport open in Sarajevo; to Canadian General Maurice Baril's tenure as military advisor to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The book benefits from the extensive first-hand interviews conducted by Coulon, who not only visited UN staff and former peacekeeping personnel, but also toured missions in Cambodia, Lebanon, the Western Sahara, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia to give a sense of the nature of these new, complex deployments.

Coulon makes two main points. The first is that the UN will only be as effective as its member states allow it to be: member states must be committed to multilateral missions, neutrality, and providing necessary resources. His second point is that the UN must consider narrowing its focus and returning to the type of missions for which peacekeeping was originally intended-namely, the "first generation" peacekeeping mission where soldiers serve as an interposition force between belligerent groups which have consented to its establishment. Coulon's sympathies clearly lie with the military personnel who have suffered from inefficient UN operations saddled with increasingly unwieldy mandates; however, he is also careful to acknowledge the political terrain that must be negotiated by UN bureaucrats and policymakers, and the extent to which the UN has managed to pull off several very successful missions even in light of constraints.

As informative as this book often is, its weaknesses derive from the author's faith in peacekeeping and his resistance to widening the lens to larger social issues. Part of the failure of the mainstream has been to focus almost exclusively on the providers of those missions rather than on the recipients. Thus Coulon offers extensive accounts of the struggles of UN policymakers and bureaucrats, and describes well both the triumphs and the frustrations of soldiers on the ground charged with the delivery of mandates which tend to be confused, under-funded, and inadequately staffed. But there is little sense of the people at whom these missions are aimed. The imperative to address the demands of societies in conflict lead to questions being fashioned in strictly instrumental and problem-solving terms, leaving larger questions of people's substantive sense of their own security off the agenda.

Take, for example, Coulon's account of the UN mission in Cambodia, or UNTAC. In an otherwise thorough review, Coulon fails to explore the dramatic social dislocation which resulted from the deployment of 23,000 foreign personnel-some 18,000 of whom were soldiers-into a relatively fragile, conflict-weary society. That dislocation included skyrocketing inflation: the price of basic foods such as rice quadrupled as did the cost of housing; the value of the local currency, the riel, was devalued by seventy percent.

That social dislocation included an eruption in prostitution to service UNTAC personnel. The Cambodian Women's Development Association estimated that the number of prostitutes grew from about 6,000 in 1992 to more than 25,000 at the height of the mission. With the exponential increase in prostitution came the exponential increase in HIV and AIDS. While HIV/AIDS likely did not originate with the UN (though this is a view held by many in Cambodia), the dramatic increase in the use of prostitutes certainly contributed to its spread. UNTAC's chief medical officer predicted at the time that as many as six times more UN personnel would eventually die of AIDS contracted in Cambodia than had died as a result of hostile action.

The phenomenon of "fake marriages" materialized where UNTAC personnel pretended to marry local women, only to abandon them when the mission ended. Cambodian citizens also reported an increase in drunkenness and in physical and sexual assaults against women and children. Drunk driving on the part of UN personnel too often resulted in injuries or fatalities to Cambodian citizens. Far from being "well-received", as Coulon notes, in fact an open letter signed by 165 Cambodian and expatriate women and men was delivered to the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative in Cambodia, Mr. Yasushi Akashi, complaining precisely of such behaviour by UNTAC personnel. Mr. Akashi responded by saying that it was natural for hot-blooded young soldiers who had endured the rigours of the field to want to have a few beers and to chase "young beautiful beings of the opposite sex". The UN also issued memos requesting that UNTAC personnel not park their distinctively white UN vehicles outside of brothels and that they not frequent brothels in uniform.

Hearing the fuller picture of peacekeeping missions does not, by itself, negate the more positive picture Coulon tries to paint; however, it does give us a better sense of their social complexities, and insists upon a more critical interrogation of missions like UNTAC. Too often, in both UN accounts and the mainstream analyses, such information appears either not at all or in a footnote. Until it becomes as important as the military aspects of peacekeeping missions, we are unlikely to learn whether the "peace" has been made, kept or broken.

Just as this book does not begin to explore the impact of peacekeeping missions on local citizens, so too does it tend to emphasize the contributions of soldiers over civilian staff, and of Western countries over the "Third World". The bias here is alarming. We are told repeatedly that Third World countries (treated largely as an undifferentiated and homogenous group) cannot be counted on to supply properly trained personnel-whether at UN headquarters itself, as soldiers or as civilian personnel. While, he notes for example, the civilian police in Cambodia "were too lazy or too scared to do the work", the police in Cyprus, by contrast, drawn from countries like Australia, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and New Zealand, successfully carried out their mission for some twenty-five years.

Likewise, according to Coulon, the most effective soldiers in peacekeeping missions are those from "western countries". While those from some Third World countries "bring a human touch" to the mission, he writes, "there is an atmosphere of calm in missions made up completely of soldiers from rich countries". That calm derives from the deterrent effect of well-trained and well-armed soldiers, soldiers like the French legionnaires in Cambodia who were ordered "not to wait until they were directly attacked before responding" and in this way established their authority over areas under their jurisdiction. Soldiers from Fiji also earn this distinction in Coulon's view. "Oddly enough," he writes, "Fiji has a long military tradition, which distinguishes it" from most of its neighbours. And with approval, he notes that "the Fijians have earned themselves a reputation as very aggressive soldiers who do not hesitate to bend UN rules" in southern Lebanon.

By stressing the impact of aggressive soldiering in conducting peacekeeping operations, Coulon overlooks the soldiers' other contributions. In my own interviews in Phnom Pehn, for example, I was told regularly that Canadian soldiers had been exceptional-exceptional because they had helped to clear and construct a park for children. And it was not too long ago, during the Somalia inquiry hearings, that supporters of the Canadian Airborne regiment reminded us that the Airborne had done much good in Belet Uen, and were well-remembered by local citizens. The contributions cited most often were their efforts in re-opening both the local school and the local hospital, neither of which requires the "warrior" qualities so celebrated by Coulon, but which enhance the security of local peoples instead.

Soldiers of Diplomacy is a readable, informative, but limited account of peace operations in the 1990s. While we learn a lot about the complexities of the missions themselves and of the obstacles faced both within the UN and on the ground-and to this extent it is an important and useful contribution-Coulon's focus on the military aspects of peace operations fails to raise the debate to the next level. As complicated as peacekeeping has become in the post-Cold War period, our thinking about what "keeping the peace" ought to mean must become even more complex. 

Sandra Whitworth is Associate Professor of Political Science at York University. She is the author of Feminism and International Relations (Macmillan, 1994) and is working on a book for Lynne Rienner Publishers on gender, race, and the politics of peacekeeping.


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