Alan Doss on Diplomacy and Politics in United Nations Peacekeeping

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“Diplomacy is about the alignment of interests, and politics is the pursuit of interests, often in contradiction to other parties’ interests,” said Alan Doss, the veteran leader of multiple United Nations peacekeeping missions. “I found that missions were taking the diplomacy route, but those in power were on political pursuits.”

Mr. Doss, now the President of the Kofi Annan Foundation, was speaking at a February 10th Speaker Series discussion of his new book A Peacekeeper in Africa: Learning from UN Interventions in Other People’s Wars. The book is a project of IPI published by Lynne Rienner Press.

Mr. Doss’s narrative focuses on the four African countries where he was in the leadership of UN peacekeeping operations—Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It provides a firsthand account of those missions and how they illustrated both the frustrating limitations of peacekeeping operations but also their important contributions to supplanting conflict with peace.

Mr. Doss said he was impelled to write the book by four considerations. The first was his desire to share his experience in UN peacekeeping to show “how these things happen, how we bring together people from all over the world who have no direct interest in the country, not even necessarily neighbors, but they intervene in other people’s wars.”

Secondly, he said, he wanted to “humanize peacekeeping. We tend to forget what peacekeepers face every day in the field, and much of the commentary is very negative because of the failures of peacekeeping. Every day, I saw people going out and doing a decent good job often at great risk to themselves and often in terrible conditions to try and make a difference.”

The third was to correct misperceptions of the continent where he worked for decades. “Much of what is written about Africa is wrong, ahistorical, and does not contextualize conflicts in centuries of history and cultural circumstances.” The fourth was the deteriorating world situation and the danger it posed to peacekeeping. “The international environment has not improved, in fact, it is becoming more difficult, and these unique instruments of intervention that the UN has developed, not only in recent years, but over decades, are becoming marginalized. We should be very careful not to allow peace operations, including peacekeeping, to fall into disrepair.”

Mr. Doss’s comment on balancing diplomacy and politics came in answer to a question from Jake Sherman, head of IPI’s Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations. Mr. Sherman asked Mr. Doss how he managed to work with people he himself called “violent psychopaths” and governments he identified as “abusive, repressive, and unresponsive.” Mr. Doss responded, “You do have to deal with people who are not exactly examples of human compassion, but they’re there, and you have to deal with them. But I found that those people are often great communicators. They have mastered the simple message.”

He said there is an inevitable tension between host governments and the UN, and the clashing perspectives get exacerbated with time, often to the UN’s detriment. “Governments that allow peacekeeping missions into their countries don’t exactly expect them to come in and criticize their violations of human rights. It’s one thing to criticize a militia, but another to challenge the national government.” As a result, he said, “over time missions lose influence. Sovereignty reasserts itself as governments become more confident, they exercise more control, and they are less likely to cooperate.”

Reflecting on recurrent institutional problems he had experienced over his four decades of working for the UN, Mr. Doss observed, “Peace agreements do not create peace. It’s what comes after.” At that point, he said, there becomes an accretion of overlapping mandates that can end up nullifying the original purpose. “If you get missions where one task after another is tacked on, it can undermine the effectiveness of the delivery of mandates. We keep adding things and adding things, without necessarily considering what the capabilities are on the ground.”  He recommended that “every now and then, it’s important to take a look at mandates and ask what aspects of it are realistic.”

He confessed to having become “overwhelmed” by creating and reworking strategies over the years. “We became a strategy factory,” he said. “We should move away from strategy and instead look at the key elements of a mandate and say, ‘What can we do?’ and I think we will often find contradictions between what we are asked to do and what we can do. We were strategizing; we were not actually doing.”

Asked his views about how the UN had handled reports of sexual exploitation, he said, “Quite frankly, we’ve had a mixed record, and sadly that tends to outweigh anything else we do, often in the headlines. But it’s a sad fact, and we have to be responsible, and I really do believe that the number one job of the SRSGs (Special Representatives of the Secretary-General) is to deal with that because otherwise you’re crippled in all kinds of ways.” He added that the UN can discipline its civilians more effectively than its uniformed staff because the Secretary-General has direct authority over them. “I’m afraid that troop-contributing countries have not always helped us on this issue.” Zero tolerance was the only remedy, he said, because “if you don’t try for zero tolerance, you’ll get much worse. We have to keep after it because if we don’t, inexorably we will slide back.”

In closing remarks, Dee-Maxwell Saah Kemayeh, Sr., the Permanent Representative of Liberia to the UN, cited the success of the UN in his country where the UNMIL peacekeeping mission left in 2018 after 15 years of helping restore peace to a country that had been racked by two devastating civil wars between 1989 and 2003. “Liberia is a country where the UN had a very successful stint,” he said. “Nonetheless, we must not stagnate in the way we keep the peace.”

The discussion was moderated by Mr. Sherman.