About That Decline in EU Contributions to UN Peacekeeping

A couple of days ago, Ambassador Samantha Power, the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, gave a speech on peacekeeping in Brussels that, among other things, lamented a decline in the participation of European personnel in UN peacekeeping missions:

Twenty years ago, European countries were leaders in UN peacekeeping. 25,000 troops from European militaries served in UN peacekeeping operations – more than 40 percent of blue helmets at the time. Yet today, with UN troop demands at an all-time high of more than 90,000 troops, fewer than 6,000 European troops are serving in UN peacekeeping missions. That is less than 7 percent of UN troops.

The same day, Mark Leon Goldberg wrote a post for UN Dispatch (here) that echoed Ambassador Power’s remarks and visualized her point with a chart that was promptly tweeted by the US Mission to the UN:

Percentage of western European Troops in UN Peacekeeping missions (source: UN Dispatch)

When I saw that chart, I wondered if it might be a little misleading. As Ambassador Power noted in her remarks, the number of troops deployed as UN peacekeepers has increased significantly in recent years. With so much growth in the size of the pool, changes in the share of that pool contributed by EU members could result from declining contributions, but they could also result from no change, or from slower growth in EU contributions relative to other countries.

To see which it was, I used data from the International Peace Institute’s Providing for Peacekeeping Project to plot monthly personnel contributions from late 1991 to early 2014 for EU members and all other countries. Here’s what I got (and here is the R script I used to get there):

Monthly UN PKO personnel totals by country of origin, Nov 1991-Feb 2014

Monthly UN PKO personnel totals by country of origin, November 1991-February 2014

To me, that chart tells a different story than the one Ambassador Power and UN Dispatch describe. Instead of a sharp decline in European contributions over the past 20 years, we see a few-year surge in the early 1990s followed by a fairly constant level of EU member contributions since then. There’s even a mini-surge in 2005–2006 followed by a slow and steady return to the average level after that.

In her remarks, Ambassador Power compared Europe’s participation now to 20 years ago. Twenty years ago—late 1994 and early 1995—just happens to be the absolute peak of EU contributions. Not coincidentally, that peak coincided with the deployment of a UN PKO in Europe, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to which European countries contributed the bulk of the troops. In other words, when UN peacekeeping was focused on Europe, EU members contributed most of the troops. As the UN has expanded its peacekeeping operations around the world (see here for current info), EU member states haven’t really reduced their participation; instead, other countries have greatly increased theirs.

We can and should argue about how much peacekeeping the UN should try to do, and what various countries should contribute to those efforts. After looking at European participation from another angle, though, I’m not sure it’s fair to criticize EU members for “declining” involvement in the task.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering like I was, here’s a comparison of personnel contributions from EU members to ones from the United States over that same period. The US pays the largest share, but on the dimension Ambassador Power and UN Dispatch chose to spotlight—troop contributions—it offers very little.


Monthly UN PKO personnel totals by country of origin, November 1991-February 2014

Leave a comment


  1. bruce kay

     /  March 11, 2015

    Love this analysis. I see at the UN website that uniformed blue helmet personnel come mostly from South Asia and East Africa nowadays

    • Thanks, Bruce. It looks like Bangladesh and India are the biggies in South Asia, and Ethiopia’s contributions explain the East Africa result. It’s also worth noting that Norway — not an EU member — ranks second overall in troop contributions.

  2. Michael Boyce

     /  March 11, 2015

    Thanks for this piece, Jay! As you point out, one has to acknowledge that the decline in European contributions to UN peacekeeping is more relative than absolute. For many reasons (geopolitical, normative, financial), militaries from Asia, Africa, and Latin America have hugely increased their contributions to UN peace operations over the last 20 years.

    I also agree with your suggestion that “when UN peacekeeping was focused on Europe, EU members contributed most of the troops.” That was true for UNPROFOR in Yugoslavia. It’s also true today, with missions like UNFICYP (Cyprus) and UNMIK (Kosovo) having much higher rates of European troop deployment than UN missions in Africa. But if you controlled for the regions where missions are deployed, I still think you would see a significant decline in relative participation by European nations.

    One potentially representative comparison is between UNAMIR (Rwanda) in 1994 and MONUSCO (DRC) today. Rwanda and DRC are, of course, neighbors who have been closely linked throughout history. But according to my quick calculations, European troops/police comprised roughly 32% of UNAMIR’s force in January 1994, before that mission’s ignominious end. Today, Europeans make up about 0.3% of MONUSCO’s force. Also in January 1994, European nations provided 24% of the troops/police for ONUMOZ in Mozambique, 55% for UNIFIL in Lebanon (versus 33% today), and 16% for UNOSOM in Somalia – all well above today’s 7% overall level.

    They say that “geography is destiny,” and that is often the case with UN troop contributions. But there may be both quantitative and qualitative evidence to suggest that Europe’s overall approach to UN peacekeeping also changed in the mid/late 1990s, following failures in Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda.

    One other thing to note: The mini-surge in 2006 that you noted is most likely attributable to an expansion of UNIFIL following the conflict that year between Israel and Hizbollah. In August 2006, UNIFIL’s authorized troop strength went from about 2,000 to roughly 15,000. European nations have historically contributed heavily to UNIFIL, and they continued to do so after 2006. It’s also worth noting that since 2006, the Europeans have basically had a lock on UNIFIL’s top command positions, which (not surprisingly), makes it more palatable for European leaders to send troops there.

    Looking forward to more of your analysis on this topic!

  3. Major General AK Bardalai, Indian Army, Retired

     /  March 17, 2015

    It is a very good analysis. I have been a peacekeeper myself while in service in army and two years in UNIFIL as the Deputy Head of the Mission and Deputy Force Commander. I could not have agreed with you more. I think you could consider analysing the reasons for such participation or the lack of it. Is it more to do with strategic interests? Middle east is the gateway to Europe and hence any development in middle east must concern Europe. Similarly, countries from South Asian regions are taking the lead.

  4. Why is it? Because EU nations see an artificial nature of recent war conflicts?

  5. Paul Harper

     /  March 23, 2015

    The two traditional peacekeeping nations who have cut back on UN operations are Canada and Australia. Troop commitments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are part of the reason. But the fact that they are both ruled by Prime Ministers somewhat to the right of the US Tea Party is a big factor. Some background on Canada: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/12/21/canada_evolves_from_peacekeeper_to_warfighter.html and Australia: http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2015/01/22/Australia-UN-peacekeeping-Time-for-a-reset.aspx?COLLCC=867958233&

  1. One Measure By Which Things Have Recently Gotten Worse | Dart-Throwing Chimp

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