NATO and the United Nations
Derek Boothby
United Nations Department of Political Affairs

A number of comments were made during the course of the NATO Workshop on the unsatisfactory nature of cooperation with the U.N. Frankly, I wonder if expectations regarding cooperation have been far too high. If one looks at the differences between NATO and the U.N. and at the attitudes towards each other that have been prevalent for the past 45 years or so, I think it can be argued that this first cooperative experience has been far better than anyone should have thought likely.


NATO and the U.N. are two organizations trying to work together despite the fact that they have very different philosophies: NATO is an organization designed to fight war, if necessary, in order to defend peace; whereas the U.N. is an organization designed to avoid war in order to maintain peace. In other words, the effectiveness of NATO is directly proportional to the amount of military force available for use; whereas the effectiveness of U.N. peacekeeping is inversely proportional to the amount of military force used.

This dichotomy has been abundantly evident in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is what has led some commentators to draw incorrect comparisons between the two organizations, either accusing the U.N. of being wimpish and limp-wristed or accusing NATO of being too ready to flex its muscles. The truth, it seems to me, is that both groups are keeping to their original purposes and should not be criticized for doing so.

U.N. troops, like NATO troops, do not belong to their organization: they are loaned by their respective governments. Some of them come from countries that have reputations for being militarily effective. U.N. troops, however, are neither armed nor deployed to fight a war. On the contrary, their principal weapon is their high-profile presence; traditionally their vehicles are painted white, they have no heavy weapons, they wear light-blue helmets, they operate under large blue flags, and they are often deployed in very exposed positions between forces that have fought, or even wish to continue fighting, a war. They must carry out their duties without taking sides. Their tasks, as Dag Hammarskjold once said, are not soldiers' tasks--but only soldiers can do them.

By trying to be impartial and not take sides in the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, U.N. troops over the past three years have been directly involved in assisting in the delivery of hundreds of thousands of tons of food and other aid. They have helped hundreds of thousands of people survive who might otherwise have died in that vicious civil war. Over 160 U.N. troops have died in the performance of their duties.

The predicament of the U.N. troops in that area has been that they were put into a situation in which peace was not present. Steadily that predicament worsened, with no political solution emerging. When military muscle became necessary to enforce the no-fly zone and to be available for other action, the U.N. turned to NATO.


To date, NATO-U.N. cooperation has produced some interesting lessons--and a few painful ones. And although there have certainly been some differences of opinion, in general the military cooperation has worked well. It is in the political arena that confusion has been concentrated, which has made political-military decision making very difficult. For example, the application of the "dual-key" principle for the authorization of air strikes has essentially been a control mechanism to the U.N., but to NATO it has been an undue and irritating constraint.

On broader political issues, political mandates have been painfully hammered out in the Security Council in New York. Compromise and concession have been necessary to obtain agreement among the 15 member-states. All too often, however, results have been riddled with ambiguities and phrases that mean different things to different governments. Then those mandates have been handed through the Secretary General of the United Nations to U.N. civilians and troops in the field for implementation. Troops need clarity of aim and purpose, but all too often they receive ambiguous and sometimes just plain unachievable mandates.

The membership of the Security Council is, of course, not the same as that of NATO, and this fact has been and will continue to be part of the problem of NATO-U.N. cooperation. Many of the major actors on the Security Council are also important members of NATO, but this has not necessarily made matters any easier; this is largely because those same governments have been unable to agree politically on a common policy pertaining to Bosnia. The credibility of both the U.N. and NATO is thus undermined.


I believe that difficulties between the two organizations could be ameliorated by closer political contacts. But here again historical differences must be recognized. For 45 years NATO and the Warsaw Pact were two military alliances confronting each other--and ignoring the U.N. In U.N. circles, where members were struggling to put a cap on arms expenditures and urging disarmament, the two military alliances were often seen as significant parts of the problem rather than contributors to the solution.

Now the world has changed and the U.N. and NATO, in their efforts to change and modernize, find themselves thrown together. But old habits and attitudes die hard. It is not easy, particularly for many of the non-European countries represented at the U.N., to set aside 45 years of distrust and suddenly regard NATO as a knight in shining armor dashing to save the U.N. maiden in distress.

Finally, there is the fact that peacekeeping and peace enforcement do not mix. Peacekeeping, as evolved by the U.N. over some 40 years of trial and error, requires impartiality and objectivity--no matter what the provocation. As soon as peacekeeping troops take sides, they are seen by one of the conflicting parties as part of the opposition. Even protective convoys escorting humanitarian aid to the besieged of one side may be perceived as biased if the denial of food is a war aim of the other side.

As far as the U.N. Charter is concerned, peacekeeping in its various forms comes under Chapter VI. Peace enforcement, however, comes under the more forceful measures of Chapter VII. The slippery slope between the two chapters is steep and dangerous; once a peacekeeping force has slipped down it there is no going back. A peacekeeping force cannot be impartial on Sunday, beat hell out of one conflicting party on Tuesday, and return to impartiality on Thursday as if nothing had happened.


Personally, I doubt very much that the U.N. should ever be in the business of military peace enforcement. That is a task that should be carried out by fully effective military organizations, such as NATO or groups of states willing to do and capable of doing the job. Such organizations should first be given political license from the U.N. Security Council under Chapter VII; the operations should be halted if that political license is subsequently withdrawn. But the U.N. itself has neither the military command systems nor the political cohesion to carry out military-enforcement tasks. Moreover, it is arguable that a U.N. that carried out military peace enforcement--except perhaps in the most unique circumstances--would find itself in much political trouble with its members. In my view, Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, as an authority for U.N. peace enforcement, was written for a different era and has little military application to today's world.

This argument raises a counter question: should NATO, as muscular as it is, engage as an institution in the much lighter-weight business of peacekeeping? The troops and skills of its members are needed, but whether NATO as an institution should perform peacekeeping is perhaps still open to question. In circumstances that occur in or close to a NATO area, will NATO be able to remain impartial and objective? Or is NATO going to hijack the peacekeeping concept and give it a different definition?


We should not lose sight of the fact that NATO and the U.N. are, in essence, two very different organizations. They have widely different approaches, even if their final goal--peace--is the same. Each has its role to play: sometimes those roles complement each other and can be played together on the world stage, but at other times one needs to step back and leave the stage to the other.

The new NATO and the new U.N. will doubtless continue to have occasions to work together in what might be called an institutional partnership for peace. I strongly suggest that the best way the two can cooperate is through improved communications and contacts, not only at military levels but at political levels as well.


In the light of developments since the date of the Dresden Workshop, I wish to add a postscript.

Much of what I have said above has been borne out by events. On 30 August NATO aircraft began bombing Bosnian Serb positions and the Rapid Reaction Force artillery was brought into action around Sarajevo. U.N. peacekeeping became peace enforcement, with NATO firmly in charge of the military assets necessary for enforcement and, to all intents and purposes, the related decision-making processes. As some would say, the "Mogadishu Line" was crossed for the second time in two years. The impartiality and objectivity normally associated with U.N. peacekeeping became a dead letter. I do not deny the concept that force is often a valuable tool of diplomacy; it is who should use that force and in whose name that is in question.

At the same time as force was being used, energetic U.S.-led peace efforts were being conducted that will hopefully result in a peace agreement--an outcome that all should welcome. To ensure that that agreement will stick and become an enduring settlement, the proposals at this time of writing are for a NATO-led peace implementation force, acting under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, to replace UNPROFOR. The concept of peace implementation, which implies a readiness to use military force in the event of breaches to the peace, is one--it seems to me-- that is more appropriate to NATO than traditional peacekeeping. Whether it works remains to be seen.

This Balkan war has produced many unintended consequences and paradoxes. One of them has been that a U.N. peacekeeping force, lightly armed and with a mandate to be impartial, has been required to operate in a war theatre and told to stay there until the conflict is over, then a NATO-led force with war-fighting capabilities will come in to replace it to police the peace. Surely it should have been the other way around--but then again, it is a strange world.

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