Local Peace, International Builders: How the UN Builds Peace from the Bottom Up
Communal disputes over local issues such as land use, cattle herding, and access to scarce resources are a leading cause of conflict around the world. Over the coming decades, climate change, forced migration, and violent extremism will exacerbate such disputes in places that are ill equipped to handle them. UN peacekeeping operations are the international community’s primary tool for managing conflict. Despite abundant evidence that peacekeepers limit large-scale fighting between armed groups, we know little about their ability to prevent more localized forms of violence. Local Peace, International Builders explains the conditions under which UN peacekeeping operations promote peaceful interactions between civilian communities in fragile settings. Its central theoretical insight is that civilian perceptions of peacekeepers’ impartiality shape their ability to manage local disputes. To support this claim, I collected georeferenced data on the deployment of more than 100,000 peacekeepers to localities across Africa from 1999–2019. I also gathered data from extensive field research in Mali, a West African country with widespread violence managed by peacekeepers: nearly 50interviews with local political, religious, and traditional leaders, behavioral games with more than 500 Malians from 14 ethnicities, and surveys of 1,400 civilians. The book highlights a critical pathway through which UN peacekeeping may successfully maintain order in the international system. The findings have clear implications for how we think about international interventions—and how they can be better designed in the future to prevent violence in conflict and post-conflict settings.
Disputes between civilian communities over land and property rights, interpersonal grievances, scarce resources, and other local-level issues are a leading cause of violence around the world. UN peacekeeping operations are the international community’s primary tool for managing intrastate conflicts. While prior research has documented the UN’s success in stopping fighting between rebel groups in major civil wars, we know little about whether peacekeepers can successfully prevent the outbreak of communal violence. Two recent examples are a case in point. In March 2016, a group of rice farmers in north-eastern Côte d’Ivoire accused cattle herders of grazing cows on their land, destroying their crops in the process. The dispute briefly threatened to unravel a hard-fought peace, but the swift deployment of UN peacekeepers defused tensions, kept the area stable, and facilitated a return to peace.
Yet not all interventions are so successful. In May 2020, a contingent of UN peacekeepers failed to stop clashes between cattle herders and farmers in a small community in the western part of South Sudan. The ensuing violence killed more than 300 people and displaced thousands in a matter of days. The conflict further ensured that the central government would not be able to extend the newly signed national peace agreement to a large part of South Sudan. What explains the local success of peacekeepers in cases like Côte d’Ivoire but not South Sudan? Given that climate change, forced migration, and violent extremism will exacerbate communal disputes in the coming years, it is vital to understand the factors that make peacekeepers more likely to prevent local conflicts from igniting widespread violence or derailing peace processes.
To do so, Local Peace, International Builders addresses two questions about intrastate conflict. First, under what conditions do communal disputes among civilians become violent? Disputes over issues such as land are a pervasive feature of life in many parts of the world. Yet only a fraction of these quarrels become violent. In an even smaller subset of conflicts, parties to a dispute call upon militias, armed organizations, or violent extremists to take their side. In such cases, communal disputes may claim the lives of thousands seemingly overnight.
The second question is how do some UN peacekeepers manage to successfully prevent the outbreak of communal violence? The UN has increasingly tasked 21st century peacekeeping operations with protecting civilians from communal violence. For example, the UN Security Council mandates that all ongoing multidimensional peacekeeping operations in sub-Saharan Africa explicitly include the objective to “reduce and prevent” communal conflicts. To support this objective, the UN has provided each of these operations with comparable funding (more than $1 billion annually) and troop allocations (more than 10,000 peacekeepers). So why does their effectiveness vary so widely?
The book develops a micro-level theory of intergroup conflict to explain how peacekeepers shape communal disputes in fragile settings. I draw on insights from political science and other social science disciplines such as psychology and behavioral economics to argue that peacekeepers can incentivize civilians to cooperate with one another to resolve disputes peacefully, but only if three conditions are met.
First, locally deployed UN peacekeepers can enforce peaceful interactions between residents of a community when they engage civilians on a consistent basis. Successful patrols monitor ongoing disputes, apprehend suspected perpetrators, and deter local militias, all of which make civilians more willing to work with each other to peacefully resolve disagreements. For example, the book discusses the efforts of Gladys Ngwepekeum Nkeh, a Cameroonian peacekeeper in the Central African Republic. During one of her daily patrols in a neighborhood of the capital, Bangui, Nkeh discovered that a resident of the neighborhood had raped a 13-year-old girl. Nkeh and her colleagues quickly apprehended the suspect, which discouraged the victim’s family from seeking violent retribution. Nkeh and her colleagues’ regular patrolling made the peaceful resolution of the matter possible while still ensuring justice for the victim.
Second, the success of local-level peacekeeping operations depends on how civilians perceive peacekeepers’ ties to domestic populations. For peacekeepers to reliably enforce the peaceful resolution of disputes, civilians must believe they will impartially punish violent actors. Local residents’ perceptions of international actors’ impartiality are shaped by beliefs and experiences that predate the contemporary conflict, especially those related to colonialism. The UN’s ability to draw upon 193 member states to assemble its peacekeeping missions sets its operations apart from those of other international organizations, countries, and regional alliances. As an example, the book documents the efforts of international interveners in Mali, a West African country with widespread violence managed by UN and French forces. UN peacekeepers in Mali have been much more successful at preventing communal violence than French troops deployed to the same areas. My research shows that this is because Malians perceive UN peacekeepers as more impartial than the troops of their former colonizer, France.
The third condition of success relates to the structure of ethnic power relations, forged under decades of colonial rule, which heavily influence local perceptions in most fragile settings. While local populations perceive UN peacekeepers as relatively impartial on balance, not all UN troop contingents are perceived in the same way. UN peacekeepers’ nationality strongly influences their ability to prevent the outbreak of communal violence. Sometimes the impacts of nationality on peacekeeping effectiveness are expected and fairly straightforward, as in the case of France and the UN in Mali. But in most cases, the effect is surprising yet substantial. For example, I compare the peacekeeping efforts in Mali by troops from Togo and Senegal, two former French colonies in West Africa. Whereas ethnic power structures in Senegal resemble those in Mali, ethnic relations in Togo are entirely unrelated. As a result, Togolese peacekeepers deployed to Mali have effectively managed local tensions because they have successfully positioned themselves as impartial outsiders. Their Senegalese counterparts, by contrast, have struggled to contain communal violence because Malians perceive them as biased in favor of domestic ethnic groups.
I reach these findings after conducting extensive field research in Mali, a critical case for investigating the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping operations. Communal violence frequently erupts in Mali over land disputes between cattle herders and farmers, as it does across sub-Saharan Africa, making it a realistic context for studying the dynamics of communal conflict. And since the UN presence in Mali is similar in size and has a comparable mandate to other recent operations with substantial communal violence, my findings there will be broadly generalizable. I fielded surveys with nearly 1,400 civilians in 20 localities around the country, embedding experimental components designed to precisely identify the effect of peacekeeping on attitudes toward ethnic and religious others living in the same community. I triangulated the survey data with behavioral games, interviews with local leaders, and georeferenced data on communal violence in Mali. I support this analysis with original, cross-national data on the deployment of more than 100,000 peacekeepers to localities across Africa from 1999–2019. Local Peace, International Builders evaluates this cross-national data to illuminate the broader effects of UN peacekeeping on the prospects of peace in conflict and post-conflict settings around the world.
These effects are vital. Communal disputes are a major source of instability, violence, and disorder in contemporary politics. According to estimates from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, communal violence has killed more than 350,000 people since 1999 alone. Such disputes also displace innocent civilians, spark new wars, and become recruiting grounds for violent extremist organizations. Rising temperatures due to climate change have made land and water even more scarce, triggering new disputes in countries ill equipped to manage them.
To the best of my knowledge, this book is the first to offer such an in-depth examination of how international actors keep the peace in fragile settings, which has critical implications for understanding peacekeeping, political violence, the politics of civil wars, and international security. Its analysis highlights a critical pathway via which UN peacekeepers maintain peace in the international system. Under pressure from violent insurgencies, weary domestic audiences, and disillusioned humanitarians, multilateral interventions face an existential crisis. My findings suggest that governments should continue to devote resources to UN peacekeeping because these investments generate substantial gains for world order.
Next book: Patrolling the Commons