New caucus puts spotlight on UN peacekeeping
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As the United Nations commemorates the 70th anniversary of its founding this week, it can claim a major accomplishment in the 69 peacekeeping operations that it has led around the world since 1948. Soon, the U.N.'s "blue helmets" will be receiving a renewed spotlight on Capitol Hill through a Congressional Peacekeeping Caucus recently formed by Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerGOP lawmaker criticizes Trump tweets: Terror fight can't be 'Christian vs. Islam' Sen. Collins: If Moore is elected, 'no choice but to seat him' GOP rushes to cut ties to Moore MORE (R-Ill.), a veteran of the Afghanistan War, and Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineOvernight Tech: FCC won't delay net neutrality vote | Google pulls YouTube from Amazon devices | Biden scolds social media firms over transparency Overnight Regulation: Senate tax bill to include ObamaCare mandate repeal | Sessions sidesteps questions on WH influence on AT&T merger | Dems seek more transparency on student borrower rule AT&T wants to probe Trump's role in Time Warner merger: report MORE (D-R.I.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Although peacekeeping operations were not specifically established by the U.N.'s original charter, they grew directly out of the organization's mandate to de-escalate armed conflicts and stabilize combat zones. The U.N.'s 16 current operations include longstanding missions in Cyprus, Lebanon, India and Pakistan. But peacekeeping forces — which are provided voluntarily by member states and operate under the U.N. flag — are now also active in countries including Haiti, Mali, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Liberia. With more than 125,000 active personnel, U.N. peacekeepers are currently the world's single largest deployed military force.

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Formation of the new bipartisan Congressional Peacekeeping Caucus was spurred by a visit in late 2013 by Kinzinger and Cicilline to a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia. Afterward, in a joint op-ed in The Hill, the congressmen said that "the experience showcased that the U.S. must remain committed to working with the United Nations to tackle international problems." The new caucus aims to inform members and staff about the benefits and challenges of U.N. peacekeeping operations and how these can advance U.S. foreign policy and national security interests.

"Members don't hear much about U.N. peacekeeping, and so they don't always realize how much is being done beyond just enforcing ceasefires," said Micah Spangler, deputy director of legislative affairs at the U.N. Foundation, which sponsored the Liberia trip and has supported the formation of the caucus.

"The United States pays for 28 percent of the cost of U.N. peacekeeping, but gets a lot of bang for the buck," noted Spangler. "Peacekeepers are being asked to do more than ever before to help address complex, transnational challenges that no single country can handle alone," including terrorism and other forms of extremism, the regional effects of civil wars and coups, a growing worldwide refugee crisis, and earlier interventions to prevent genocide.

"It costs far less to the United States to address these issues working through the U.N. than to deploy our own troops," Spangler said, adding that a strong U.S.-U.N. partnership advances an array of American diplomatic and trade goals by promoting international stability and creating new markets. Missions carried out by peacekeepers include facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid, protecting vulnerable civilian populations and demobilizing child soldiers.

The inaugural event of the new Congressional Peacekeeping Caucus was a seminar in May for congressional staffers organized by the U.S. Institute of Peace. The event underscored the escalating array of challenges facing peacekeeping forces, including asymmetrical warfare, terrorist operations, drone surveillance and organized crime. Speaking to the Security Council earlier this month, the U.N.'s force commander in Mali stated that "we need to be fully capable of facing this environment in all aspects. That means capability to face hostile armed groups hiding amongst the population and to face challenging climates, geography and infrastructure."

All of this requires an expanded political commitment and, sometimes, increased funding. At the same time, peacekeeping operations do also need ongoing oversight and reform. Recently, evidence of sexual assault of children and other civilians in the Central African Republic by French troops has raised urgent questions about the conduct of peacekeepers in other countries. Also, U.N. peacekeepers have been accused of inadvertently starting a devastating outbreak of cholera in post-earthquake Haiti.

Such developments call attention to the need for increased scrutiny of peacekeeping operations, and they also offer a further example of why a peacekeeping caucus is so timely. As noted by Reps. Kinzinger and Cicilline, "the [U.N.] 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."

Smith is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute; an adjunct assistant professor of political science at Columbia University and New York University; and author of Importing Democracy: Ideas from Around the World to Reform and Revitalize American Politics and Government.