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In 2022 there were twelve ongoing United Nations peacekeeping operations around the world. Since the founding of the UN in 1945, more than a million men and women have worn the blue helmets of the international peacekeepers.
The United States is the largest contributor to UN operations, paying about a quarter of the costs. Other rich countries pay smaller shares; all 193 members of the UN pay something.
The UN didn’t invent peacekeeping, but it gave the concept credibility for an age that aspired to democracy. Imperialism, which antedates the UN by two or three millennia, is a kind of peacekeeping. The most successful empire of classical times, that of Rome, imposed peace—the Pax Romana—on the territories it conquered.
The Romans ruled the Mediterranean world by force, but not by force alone. The Romans cut a deal with those they ruled: You obey our laws and pay your taxes, and we keep the peace, protecting you from outsiders and from one another.
The deal wasn’t an agreement among equals, yet neither was it wholly one-sided. If it had been, the Roman empire wouldn’t have lasted; there simply weren’t enough legionnaires to keep every part of the empire in line if all those parts had been in regular revolt. It’s impossible to know how ordinary folks in the provinces felt about Roman rule; no one asked them. But the stability of the empire over centuries suggests they found it less onerous than the capricious rule of the local warlords the Romans displaced. Naturally the warlords objected, but the people at large were likely better off.
Other empires operated differently in detail, but the essential dynamic was a trade of tribute or taxes—two names for the same thing—for peace and predictability. British imperial control over India was accomplished partly by force of British arms but partly by the efficiency of British administration. Again, the princes and the maharajahs might complain, but rarely before the twentieth century did the Indian masses rise up against British rule.
America acquired a formal empire in the Philippines and Puerto Rico at the end of the nineteenth century and an informal empire elsewhere in the Caribbean in the early twentieth century. Filipino nationalists resisted American rule for a few years before putting down their weapons, after which Filipinos as a group became resigned to American control and eventually attached to it. In fact, independence for the Philippines had to be forced upon the country in the 1930s. The American Congress was tired of paying for Philippine defense, and American sugar growers wanted to throw the islands’ sugar industry over the tariff wall. Philippine leaders, observing the rise of expansionist Japan, which had already gobbled up Korean and Taiwan, lobbied to delay independence. A ten-year transition was settled upon.
The point of this survey of imperial history is not to contend that imperialism was a form of outdoor philanthropy. Some empires—the Japanese in Asia, the German and Belgian in Africa, the Aztec in Mexico—were humanitarian disasters. But the better ones didn’t serve the interests of the imperialists only. And when they disappeared, something had to replace them.
Which is where the UN peacekeepers come in. They are peacekeepers, not peacemakers. They don’t end wars between different nations. They mostly try to keep potentially warring domestic factions from making war on each other and on the populace. They have to be paid, and in the post-colonial times of the present, the peacekeepers don’t extract their pay from the locals. The money comes from rich countries motivated by a mix of historical guilt, contemporary altruism and fear of border-crossing chaos.
Sometimes the UN operations succeed in keeping the peace and letting folks go about their lives. Peacekeepers in Lebanon helped wind down that country’s civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. Sometimes they fail, as most tragically in Rwanda in 1994. Sometimes they are not allowed to try: the Syrian civil war of the 2010s.
But their very existence is a reminder that self-government isn’t easy, even today. In ages past and present, peace and order have sometimes been more easily imposed by outsiders than by squabbling locals. Whether the peacekeepers wave an imperial ensign or the flag of the United Nations, they don't work for free.
When outside countries are paying, they have to decide whether the return continues to warrant the investment. The United States doesn’t pay its full share of what the UN thinks it should; Congress has capped the American contribution. And even that is paid grudgingly.
The merit of imperialism was that it was self-funding. Of course, that was its demerit too: imperialists were tempted to extract returns far beyond their investment. But imperialism did keep peace within the empires, for the most part. The murderous partition of India occurred when the British left. There was no Syrian civil war when the Ottomans ruled the Middle East, and no war between Russia and Ukraine when both were part of the Soviet empire.
Until humans master self-government, we will require sheriffs. Whether they answer to an international organization or to themselves, they have to be paid. Freedom from anarchy and predation isn't free.