UN peacekeeping: A key U.S. foreign policy tool

They say some things you must see to believe. As two members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a trip we recently took to Liberia—a coastal nation of 4 million—profoundly proved the adage to be true. What’s more, the experience showcased that the U.S. must remain committed to working with the United Nations to tackle international problems.

Years of brutal civil war literally leveled Liberia. The fighting killed over two hundred thousand, displaced countless more, and obliterated national institutions.  As then-Secretary of State Colin Powell noted in 2003, when making the case for American involvement in Liberian peacekeeping, "We do have a historic link to Liberia and we do have some obligation…not to look away when a problem like this comes to us. We looked away once in Rwanda, with tragic consequences.”

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When the conflict ended just a decade ago, Liberia was stripped of its assets, from the morale of its people to the most basic infrastructure that sustained them. We encountered towns that defined ruin, like the slum of West Point. This community of former child soldiers is marked by clusters of tin and brick hovels and the sharp smell of refuse and putrid water. We met twelve-year-old children, forced into prostitution, who in seeking haven in UNICEF programs were, for the first time, learning fundamental skills from reading and writing to brushing their teeth.

Without question, life in Liberia has been bleak. However, while building upon a foundation of rubble has taken time, progress is indeed being made. Since the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was first established ten years ago, the UN has conducted two free and fair elections and helped reform and restructure this nation’s fractured justice system. In the city of Tubmanberg, UN peacekeepers have trained a warden and built a courthouse where prosecutors and civil defenders carry out justice.

Further, democracy has paved the way for the presidency of Nobel peace laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and under democratically-elected leadership, piped water, and paved roadways are gradually returning. Perhaps most importantly, peace has been sustained for a decade.

With so much headway, UNMIL is slowly reducing staff while training the Liberian National Police to provide security and build capacity within government agencies. Ultimately, the Liberian people must take a more active role in confronting the country’s challenges. However, these types of investments matter not only for Liberia’s well-being, but because it is manifestly in America’s interest. For example, in 2003—the year UN peacekeepers were first authorized to operate in Liberia—total U.S exports to the country amounted to $33 million. Beginning from that year, however, bilateral trade increased markedly, with U.S. exports rising to almost $200 million in 2011. This is a level, we might add, that is more than the U.S. pays annually for the peacekeeping operation.

Supporting UN peacekeepers is critical because those funds go directly to our allies, who contribute the troops and equipment to sustain these important missions. The UN is not a perfect institution, and U.S. efforts to push for greater accountability and transparency must continue. But, by working with the United Nations, the United States projects leadership and promotes stability around the world – and does so while sharing the burden with our allies.

Democrat or Republican, that is a premise we can both support.

Kinzinger has represented northern Illinois congressional districts since 2011. He sits on the Energy and Commerce and the Foreign Affairs committees. Cicilline has represented Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District since 2011. He sits on the Foreign Affairs and the Small Business committees.

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