Jean-Marie Guéhenno (center), then the UN’s undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, at a meeting at the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, with deputy special representative Joël Adechi and military adviser Major-General Randhir Kumar Mehta, Asmara, Eritrea, December 2005

Rick Bajornas/UNMEE/Reuters

Jean-Marie Guéhenno (center), then the UN’s undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, at a meeting at the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, with deputy special representative Joël Adechi and military adviser Major-General Randhir Kumar Mehta, Asmara, Eritrea, December 2005

The UN has never had a standing army ready to carry out the directives of the Security Council. It has instead engaged, with varying success, in different kinds of “peacekeeping,” using forces recruited by the UN Secretariat. This started in 1948 when the first two UN military observer missions were dispatched to monitor truces in Palestine and Kashmir. A revised form of such missions—one that would serve as a model for many of the contemporary practices of peacekeeping—was developed by the then UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and the Canadian diplomat (and future prime minister) Lester Pearson in response to the botched Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956. The UN observers were assigned to monitor the Egyptian border following the withdrawal of the attacking troops.

UN peacekeeping was conceived as a way of using soldiers “as the catalyst for peace rather than as the instruments of war.” This was the definition of Sir Brian Urquhart, the UN official who was largely responsible for turning Hammarskjöld and Pearson’s ad hoc concept into one of the core functions of the United Nations. But as Urquhart has always emphasized, there is no mention of such peacekeeping in the UN Charter.

In fact, peacekeeping worked reasonably well throughout what Urquhart called “the paralyzing rigors of the Cold War.” There were failures, of course, notably in the Congo in 1961 when the deposed president Patrice Lumumba was killed and when Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash soon after. Some operations worked well for a time but were eventually rendered ineffective when peace agreements fell apart. This was the case in Sinai when the UN Emergency Force1 that had been deployed there since the end of the Suez Crisis in 1956 was ordered out by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser prior to the Six-Day War of 1967.

But these failures were outweighed by peacekeeping’s many successes, notably in Cyprus, where the UN presided over the division of the island between Greece and Turkey. With the exception of the Congo, all of the sixteen peacekeeping operations undertaken during the cold war involved the UN sending troops to monitor international borders, in order, as Urquhart put it, “to provide the pretext for peaceful conduct and the atmosphere for negotiation,” while remaining resolutely impartial and never using weapons except in self-defense.

All this changed at the end of the cold war, the era of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali’s 1992 paper “An Agenda for Peace,” when many people imagined that a UN freed from the constraints of the US–Soviet rivalry could be effective in ensuring global peace and security, as the authors of the UN Charter had originally envisaged for the world body. As Urquhart once put it in what for him was a rare moment of optimism, “Why should not the lion sometimes lie down with the lion instead of terrifying all the lambs by their mutual hostility?”

An immediate result of the new post–cold war dispensation was a radical increase in the number of peacekeeping operations that a less discordant Security Council was able to authorize; the military and, increasingly, the civilian forces that were also being deployed grew in size. In 1986, for example, there were five operations with 10,000 uniformed personnel and a budget of $240 million. In contrast, in 1993, at the height of UN involvement in the Balkans, there were fifteen operations with 55,000 uniformed personnel and a budget of $2.7 billion.

These missions were not only larger but were also of a very different character than those of the cold war era. Instead of being on the borders separating the military forces of one nation from another after, or at least at the end of, a conflict, UN peacekeepers were largely deployed inside countries, in many cases while fighting still raged. They either had an explicit mandate from the Security Council to deal with political, human rights, and humanitarian issues; or they found that, even without a mandate, they were obliged to deal with these issues. If there was a precedent for this kind of mission it was the UN operation charged with keeping peace among the opposing factions in the Congo in 1960, hardly a happy precedent.

Virtually every cardinal rule for successful peacekeeping was violated by these post–cold war involvements. There were no clear and realistic mandates from the Security Council based on a strong consensus among its permanent members about what the goal of a mission was to be. There was no reasonable expectation that the belligerents—for example Slobodan Milošević’s Serbian forces in Srebrenica—would cooperate with the peacekeepers, especially since the UN had no forces of its own. The old problems of insufficient financing and the need to secure contributions of troops from UN member states on what often amounted to an emergency basis remained the same. As Kofi Annan, who ran the Department of Peacekeeping Operations between 1993 and 1996 before becoming UN secretary-general the following year, put it, the United Nations “is the only fire brigade in the world that has to wait for the fire to break out before it can acquire a fire engine.”


There was blame enough to go around for this. Too many badly conceived peacekeeping missions were imposed on the UN Secretariat by the Security Council. In a number of cases, such as Bosnia and Rwanda, the UN itself made terrible mistakes in carrying out these missions. But in retrospect failure was probably inevitable since the UN was either unable itself or was not given the means by the powerful member states to make the distinction between, on the one hand, launching such operations when the belligerents wanted a setting for making peace and, on the other, deploying peacekeeping troops in conflicts in which there was no peace to keep.

The late 1990s marked the nadir of the reputation of the UN’s peacekeeping missions, particularly because of its involvement in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda between 1991 and 1995. The peacekeepers were either unable or unwilling to prevent or even to curtail the genocide in Rwanda. They could not avert the massacre of thousands of civilians by Serbian and other forces in the former Yugoslavia. UN peacekeeping was thrown into what was generally agreed both within the UN and outside it, and by the UN’s supporters as well as by its critics, to be a crisis over whether the UN could be effective at all. The least that could be said was that, as Urquhart would later put it,

a new approach needs to be found, something between peace enforcement action by large and battle-ready national contingents made available under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, and the improvised, more or less symbolic, peacekeeping that served so well during the Cold War but has often proved inadequate since.

It was against this background that in 2000 Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a career French diplomat who had been the head of the policy planning staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was named by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan to take over the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). As he puts it in The Fog of Peace, his immensely valuable and also unusually frank memoir of his tenure there, which ended in 2008, “In early 1999 the common wisdom was that UN peacekeeping was a thing of the past.”

Guéhenno had no previous UN experience. Indeed, in the prologue to his book he writes that his one direct experience of the institution had left him unimpressed. He had been passing through New York and a colleague at the French mission to the UN had given him a pass to the small room in which the Security Council holds its private consultations. “I had expected,” he confesses,

some solemn and orderly chamber, and what I saw was a cramped little space…. The ambassadors were huddled around the table, but they did not look like my idea of ambassadors. The whole place looked more like one of those small auction houses I used to visit in Paris, or worse, like some kind of clandestine parlor where card players play unauthorized games. It did not look like the keystone of the international system.

Guéhenno was by no means certain that his “combination of diplomatic, military, and management experience [outweighed his] lack of UN experience,” and after a conversation he had with the man he was hoping to replace, the fellow French diplomat Bernard Miyet, he even wondered whether he was “the right person for the job.” Yet he claims to have wanted the post of under-secretary-general in charge of peacekeeping “more than my competitors.” In this, he confesses, his motivations were as much personal as professional. “I saw it as a unique opportunity to change my life,” he writes, “by having for the first time the opportunity to change the lives of others.”

But while Guéhenno is surprisingly candid about his motivations, he never makes clear how seriously he considered the crisis in UN peacekeeping to be. For example, toward the end of The Fog of Peace, he offers a detailed account of attending a retreat at the Greentree Center on Long Island that Kofi Annan had organized to discuss the tasks that the Security Council had given the Secretariat in East Timor and Kosovo. Those present included members of Annan’s inner circle such as Sergio Vieira de Mello, Bernard Kouchner, Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette, Annan’s chef de cabinet Iqbal Riza, the head of public information Shashi Tharoor, and the former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, whose report on the reform of UN peacekeeping had just been issued.


Guéhenno writes, “Everyone in the room was aware that UN peacekeeping was at a critical juncture after the hopes and the failures of the 1990s.” And although he praises the views of both Kouchner and Vieira de Mello, and notes that the meeting ended on a note of optimism, he also writes that

while the difficulties and challenges of such wide-ranging mandates [as those in East Timor and Kosovo] were considered, we did not ask whether there was a consensus among member states about how to implement these mandates.

He does not explain why they did not pose this question. And yet the point is a crucial one, since if the participants indeed did not do so, it is difficult to understand on what they based their optimism—a mood that Guéhenno suggests persisted within the Secretariat until relations between Annan and the Bush administration broke down in the months before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

It was not as if the importance of the attitudes of member states was unknown to the Secretariat. Indeed, part of the reason why the crisis of UN peacekeeping proved so difficult to address was that there was no consensus either about where blame for failure needed to be laid or what should be done, and, far more importantly in a UN where so many options were ruled out, what could be done. Some nations, including rising powers such as India and China as well as many other developing countries, were profoundly skeptical of any form of UN peacekeeping that would go beyond the strict neutrality it was generally thought to have maintained through the 1980s, even if the reality had actually been far more complex.2

In contrast, at the time the US and most EU member states tended to blame the UN Secretariat, above all then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali, for what had gone wrong in Bosnia and Rwanda, claiming that these UN missions should have taken more forceful positions. Meanwhile, within the UN Secretariat itself, there was deep resentment at what was perceived to be a pattern of powerful member states giving the UN ever more complex and often contradictory, not to say impossible, mandates without, in most cases, providing either sufficient political support or adequate resources, and thus often making failure a foregone conclusion.

Sir Marrack Goulding, another of Guéhenno’s predecessors, wrote in his memoir, Peacemonger (2002), “Most of the disasters which brought UN peacekeeping into disrepute in the mid-nineties occurred when governments and the Secretary-General were at odds.” There is nothing in The Fog of Peace to suggest that Guéhenno would disagree, though the analysis he offers is less personal and more systemic. “I found time and time again,” he writes,

from Côte d’Ivoire to Sudan or Lebanon, that powerful member states…exaggerated the authority of the Security Council and were unwilling to accept that peacekeeping troops, when confronted by a reluctant government, have only a symbolic authority that can easily be brushed aside, especially if the Security Council is not prepared for any political escalation or to back them with force.

There is nothing new about this part of Guéhenno’s analysis, though he restates it with verve and authority. To the contrary, decrying the ease with which member states blame the UN when things go wrong has been common wisdom within the Secretariat for decades. But where Guéhenno diverges sharply from this view is in his insistence that “many UN civil servants…have a symmetrical tendency to blame member states for their own failures.” This view very much reflects the views of Kofi Annan, who had been in charge of peacekeeping before his election to the secretary-generalship in 1996. It was Annan’s conviction that it was time to address the crisis of UN peacekeeping, and that conviction led him to ask Brahimi to convene a panel to review UN peacekeeping operations, take stock of their shortcomings as they had been so brutally exposed in the Balkans and in the Great Lakes region of Africa, and make recommendations about how to reform them.

What Annan was determined to do, Guéhenno writes, was both to “confront member states with their responsibilities, but also to spur the UN Secretariat into action.” Obviously the Secretariat could not force the member states to change their ways, yet the report that Brahimi finally delivered to Annan seemed to herald a shift at least in how the Secretariat would act in the future. This change was exemplified by a phrase from the report that many UN staffers found particularly resonant. Brahimi argued that the Secretariat and the DPKO needed to tell the Security Council “what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear.” More broadly, the report called for clear, credible, and achievable mandates; demanded that there be far more robust forces and rules of engagement whenever a peacekeeping mission was to be undertaken; and insisted that there needed to be what Brahimi called a “doctrinal shift” in which the UN would have to plan for having to run transitional administrations in the failed states to which peacekeepers had originally been sent.

Dutch soldiers in a UN convoy on its way to Lukavac, at the same time that another convoy was sent to Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, February 1994. In July 1995 UN peacekeepers were unable to defend Srebrenica against the attacks of the Bosnian Serbs, who captured the city and massacred more than eight thousand Bosnian Muslims.

Ed Oudenaarden/AFP/Getty Images

Dutch soldiers in a UN convoy on its way to Lukavac, at the same time that another convoy was sent to Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, February 1994. In July 1995 UN peacekeepers were unable to defend Srebrenica against the attacks of the Bosnian Serbs, who captured the city and massacred more than eight thousand Bosnian Muslims.

According to Guéhenno, in the aftermath of Brahimi’s report, there was tremendous optimism within the Secretariat and among other senior UN officials that peacekeeping was going to be put on a new footing. But again, it is not clear why Guéhenno was so willing to take this optimism for reality. Guéhenno makes it clear that he agreed with the overall argument and most of the specific recommendations of the Brahimi report. But when he writes of it as something he would “have the responsibility of implementing,” he does not explain why he appears to have been so confident that the member states would allow him to do so. For in reality, when the report was issued, it was anything but clear that the crucial member states would accept its recommendations en bloc, rather than do what they so often did: praise the report while largely carrying on as before. As Guéhenno himself notes ruefully in his valuable discussion about what he calls the “overstretching” of UN peacekeeping, the Brahimi report called for no more than one peacekeeping mission to be deployed in any given year. And yet in 2004, the Security Council vastly expanded the mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while deploying new missions in Haiti and Côte d’Ivoire.

The Brahimi report didn’t have a transformative effect on the way in which the powerful member states conceived of peacekeeping. As Guéhenno himself emphasizes, by the time of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the UN was an organization “under siege” from many of its member states, the US under Bush first and foremost. Indeed, at one point the situation had grown so venomous between Washington and the Secretariat that Annan was seriously considering resigning the secretary-generalship. For the UN, as Guéhenno notes, “the most painful lesson of Iraq [was] actually how little care, political as well as human, key member states showed for the organization they had created in 1945.” Most flagrantly, the US and UK disregarded the findings of the UN weapons inspector Hans Blix that no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq and that the search for them should continue.

In Guéhenno’s view, the UN is still affected by “the scars of the Iraq crisis.” This leads him to the central argument in his book, an argument whose caution and moderation are extremely valuable in a time when rhetoric about the UN is either extraordinarily grandiloquent, as in the case of the recently promulgated Sustainable Development Goals that promise a final end to extreme poverty and hunger by 2030 but whose advocates concede will require trillions of dollars to implement, or minimalist, as when critics dismiss the UN as essentially a servicing secretariat to member states, much along the lines of the African Union.

To make his case, Guéhenno treats the UN during the cold war era not as an institution to be disdained or transcended, but rather as one that the twenty-first-century UN should try to learn from. “The UN did not solve the cold war,” he writes,

nor did it make any pretense it could. That is how the UN survived and could play a very useful role in crises of a lesser order, which could have escalated if they had not been addressed.

What the Iraq imbroglio taught Guéhenno was that far less had changed than either the UN’s supporters or its detractors often seemed to assume. Yes, it was easier during the cold war for UN officials to distinguish between the crises their interventions could help resolve and those they should stay well away from; but for Guéhenno the principles of an institution that understands its limits and tries whenever it can not to go beyond them remained much the same. “I became more and more convinced,” Guéhenno writes, “that the best may be the enemy of the good, and that the pretense of ambitious goals can actually kill more limited but important endeavors.”

A person with a more missionary view of the UN’s mission—Guéhenno’s friend and colleague Bernard Kouchner comes to mind here—might view this as too pessimistic an assessment of what the UN in general, and UN peacekeeping in particular, can accomplish. But Guéhenno makes no apologies for this. He remains as much an advocate for UN peacekeeping now that he is outside the system, directing the International Crisis Group, as he was when he was head of the DPKO. But he does so while morally and intellectually seeing the world as “all the shades of grey.” “Assessing the ultimate consequences of our actions,” he writes, “is becoming even more difficult.” Unlike Kouchner, Guéhenno states flatly that while he believes in “global responsibility,” he does not believe there is any such thing as an “international community.” It is not surprising that during his time at the UN he “often thought of the humanitarian principle: do no harm.”

The Fog of Peace is by far the best analysis of UN peacekeeping since Brian Urquhart’s indispensable writings on the subject. And Guéhenno’s conclusion is worthy both of Urquhart’s moral resolution and of his moral modesty. “Between the extremes of isolationist denial and unrealistic universalism,” Guéhenno writes, “lies a very narrow path for the UN, but also for all concerned and informed citizens.” We must, he insists, “be modest, but not defeatist.”

That modesty makes The Fog of Peace as valuable for the questions it raises as for its account of peacekeeping successes and failures under Guéhenno’s leadership, from Côte d’Ivoire to Georgia to the Democratic Republic of Congo. As he himself seems to realize better than anyone, the DPKO’s record under his leadership was a mixed one. In Georgia, the failure was well-nigh absolute and Guéhenno does not shrink from saying as much. In contrast, he points to the peacekeeping deployment in Congo as at least a qualified success, writing that the UN’s engagement “helped end the division of Congo and a full-fledged civil war.” But it is not in individual cases, many of which he acknowledges as at least partial failures, that he claims any special success, but rather in having preserved a significant working function for UN peacekeeping—a function whose continuation, as he rightly insists, was very much in doubt when he took over the DPKO.

To have institutionalized new procedures “to reflect the enormous growth of peacekeeping,” as Guéhenno puts it, and to have done so much to restore the shattered morale of a department that when he took it over was at the nadir of its fortunes was unquestionably a considerable accomplishment, for which he deserves great credit. Whether he is right to claim that the reforms he undertook did indeed demonstrate to the member states that the DPKO was now “a capable and competent operator” is more debatable. The revelations in 2005 of the abuse on a large scale and over a long period of time of Congolese women and girls by UN peacekeepers in one of the more successful missions undertaken during his tenure as head of the DPKO can hardly have inspired confidence. Even if Guéhenno is correct when he says that the UN “gradually turned the crisis into an opportunity to achieve long-overdue reforms,” the future of the DPKO in particular and, indeed, of the UN itself is anything but clear. It is too early to judge the Security Council’s recent attempt to intervene in Syria.

Guéhenno is absolutely right to insist that there are neither any easy answers nor any shortcuts to what he describes as “adapting the UN to the twenty-first century.” As head of the DPKO he had to

answer in a very practical way the question that so dominated the twentieth century: How far should one go to ensure peace? And who are we to decide for others when to compromise and when not to compromise?

The answers, of course, are anything but obvious. And while Guéhenno does not say so, it is hardly reassuring that while many reforms recommended in the Brahimi report have not been carried out, the number of peacekeeping operations authorized by the Security Council and sent into the field was at an all-time high in 2015, both in the number of missions undertaken (sixteen) and the number of troops deployed (106,000). The Secretariat is indeed now more willing to tell the Security Council what it needs to know rather than what it wants to hear.3 But that is hardly sufficient, nor does it make peacekeeping a success in the twenty-first century.

Guéhenno ends The Fog of Peace on a note of optimism. But this is hard to reconcile with the contradictions he raises: that the UN’s doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” is not working very well and that rich member states in the Security Council order peacekeeping operations but force personnel from poor countries to staff them, to mention only two.

There are signs of change. During the 2015 UN General Assembly meetings, President Obama convened a conference that was meant to secure commitments from powerful countries in the Global North to contribute more peacekeepers (at present the largest European or North American troop contributor is Italy…at number twenty-six!). The initial responses were said to be encouraging. But even if rich countries do indeed follow through on the commitments they made at the meeting, it is hardly likely to be enough. As Guéhenno writes, while “they may agree on some universal principles,” they are “moving away from the vision they endorsed in 1945 and now seem less and less prepared to voluntarily limit their own power.” Anyone doubting this need only look at what Beijing is doing in the South China Sea, what Moscow is doing in Ukraine and Syria, and what the US and its NATO partners have been doing in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and in the Sahelian regions of sub-Saharan Africa.