All talk and no action or no action without talk?

Peacekeeping will struggle to be successful if it is not viewed as legitimate by host country populations, donors, troop contributing countries and other beneficiaries. But it will equally struggle to be successful if it is not viewed as legitimate by DPKO staff themselves.

United Nations peacekeeping and internal legitimacy

When I worked for the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Congo – MONUC [UN Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo] at the time – I once hosted a local politician for a meeting. As we walked to my office, he commented on the many posters lining the corridor celebrating the bravery and sacrifice of UN troops and the accomplishments of the mission – for example, the number of police officers trained or ex-combatants demobilised. He noted that these weren’t put up for the benefit of outsiders: they were in a restricted part of the building and were therefore clearly aimed at the UN staff who passed them every day.

I had never really noticed this ‘self-celebration’ before, this internally-directed ‘advertising’ of the good work of UN peacekeeping personnel and of the legitimacy of our efforts for peace. For the first time, it struck me as something relatively widespread in peace operations as well as something entirely lacking in studies of peacekeeping and legitimacy. Now an academic who researches the UN, I’ve undertaken a large-scale study across three international organisations (the UN, NATO and the World Bank), conducting nearly 90 detailed staff interviews to find out why, when, and how these staff seek to build and maintain legitimacy not for others, but for themselves.

Legitimacy matters for success – but whose legitimacy?

There is, of course, plenty of research that shows that legitimacy matters for UN peacekeeping. If host country populations, governments and others view the UN as legitimate, its peace operations will be more effective, efficient and successful. But these analyses leave out how Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) staff themselves feel about their work and their own sense of doing the right thing – in other words, their internal legitimacy, as described above.

The UN’s split personality

These analyses also often overlook the fact that peacekeeping is an endeavour full of contradictions and dilemmas. The UN is a hugely complex and multifaceted organisation, one with a kind of split personality, which makes it particularly difficult to maintain a coherent sense of internal legitimacy. There are two dichotomies that are particularly important in peacekeeping:

1) Peacekeeping is both an operational and a normative activity. Therefore DPKO has a dual identity as an operational and normative actor. It upholds and disseminates norms and principles in the international system, but also participates in a very concrete way in the management of conflicts, deploying troops, (sometimes) engaging in combat, and building institutions. It is expected to both deliver concrete outputs in line with its operational mission and contribute to norm dissemination more broadly.

2) DPKO is both part of the UN Secretariat and an instrument at the disposal of Member States and therefore must do as instructed by the Security Council. At the same time, it is a body of highly-experienced international civil servants that has the ability to act autonomously, and staff want to use their expertise to feed into the policy process.

The dilemmas of peacekeeping: How to manage contradictions?

These different normative, operational and institutional roles, however, sometimes dictate contradictory courses of action for peacekeeping staff. For example, should staff negotiate with war criminals to secure a ceasefire or should they exclude them in order to promote human rights? Should they engage in lengthy processes of capacity-building to ensure local ownership or should they implement unilaterally in order to ensure rapid results? These are all valid objectives, and peacekeeping staff are thus forced to make difficult choices. In these circumstances, how can DPKO staff maintain a sense of the rightness and legitimacy of their work?

There are three types of situations in which DPKO staff question their legitimacy:

  • Where operational and normative imperatives conflict, as described
  • Where they feel peacekeeping is dictated by narrow Member State interests, particularly ones that diverge from the ideals of the UN Charter, and they cannot use their own expertise
  • Where peacekeeping is not going very well or where there are scandals (eg instances of sexual exploitation and abuse [SEA] by troops).

In these situations, DPKO staff deeply question their own legitimacy, and as a result engage in a variety of practices intended to reassert a more coherent identity and reaffirm their overall legitimacy – not for others but for themselves. These practices involve the use of language, image, and ritual, and include narrative-telling, internal communications, and ceremonies and symbols, such as International Day of UN Peacekeepers or medal parades in mission settings.

‘Intrinsically good’ and always successful?

All of these practices focus on a couple of things. First, they highlight the multilateral nature of peacekeeping – multilateralism is commonly associated with legitimacy because it forces countries to act for the common good rather than their own narrow interests, and DPKO staff ascribe strongly to this. So when they are prevented from taking or compelled to take particular actions by a small set of Member States, they often revert to language that highlights the multilateral nature of peacekeeping, which staff described as ‘giving them a level of legitimacy that no one else can claim.’

Second, they highlight the normative content of peacekeeping. It’s difficult to argue against the goals of peacekeeping, including peace, protecting civilians and human rights. So DPKO staff often talk about their work in these terms, invoking the language of the UN Charter to show that, despite any contradictions or trade-offs, peacekeeping is ‘self-evidently right’ and ‘good intrinsically.’

Third, they tend to define success to include not only quantifiable deliverables, but also, or even primarily, advocacy, accompanying countries through their darkest hours, and sticking with them, rather than concrete outputs. By doing so, even where things are going badly or when there are scandals, there can be a sense of achievement. Peacekeeping is, without a doubt, hard work, and results are slow. But for DPKO staff, having the right intentions counts: the difficult choices don’t matter as much ‘if your heart is in the right place.’

What all of these practices do then is allow UN staff to feel that they are acting in line with all of their obligations and duties – normative, operational and institutional – even where they actually face strong trade-offs between them.

So, why does this matter?

No action without talk?

First, these practices may decrease external perceptions of DPKO legitimacy. DPKO staff spend a lot of time on these activities aimed at reassuring themselves that they’re doing the right thing – on pushing back against Member States on peacekeeping policy, on branding and on ceremonies and events. To outsiders, this may contribute to the popular, if uninformed, view that the UN is a creaky bureaucracy with a lot of talk but little action (see this and this). There is a lot of talk within DPKO, but that talk is actually an important enabler for action, one that helps staff to cope with the extremely difficult nature of the work they are doing.

Second, these practices may increase resistance to reform. DPKO staff believe very deeply in the mission they’ve taken up. But if they view peacekeeping as necessarily legitimate and beyond reproach, then the incentive to reform falls. Moreover, if reform proposals are seen to threaten the UN’s commitment to peacekeeping or the ability of staff to promote the values of the Charter, then they risk losing that mission, and reform becomes almost an existential question.

Finally, these practices may decrease risk aversion. DPKO staff define success as sticking with countries in their darkest hours and going to the hardest places. In fact they pride themselves on taking on the challenges that Member States won’t because they’re not considered strategically important or the chances of success are too low. If staff need to tell themselves a few morale-boosting stories to do this, Member States and others who delegate away this hard work may want to more forgiving about these practices.

Indeed, DPKO staff are immensely proud to work in UN peacekeeping and they demonstrate an extreme, even religious loyalty to the institution. Several referred to themselves as ‘believers’ and one characterised the organisational culture as ‘a cult of devotion.’ Nearly all staff surround themselves with symbols of the UN, decorating their offices with UN mousepads, posters, Lego models of the Secretariat building and blue berets.

Such staff dedication is an asset that many organisations would be thrilled to have, and so it may be worth reassessing what looks like time-consuming, bureaucratic self-celebration in a more favourable light. Indeed, behaviour that may appear unproductive and unnecessary may actually be critical and constitutive.


Peacekeeping will struggle to be successful if it is not viewed as legitimate by host country populations, donors, troop contributing countries and other beneficiaries. But it will equally struggle to be successful if it is not viewed as legitimate by DPKO staff themselves.

This is not unique to the UN. My study has found a similar need for internal legitimacy in other international organisations that face complex and contradictory operational environments.  While different organisations face different types of trade-offs and highlight different normative aspects of their work, they are remarkably similar in the need for internal legitimacy and the ways in which they try to generate it. Like DPKO staff, they tell themselves stories, highlight their values and achievements, and redefine success in order to convince themselves of their own legitimacy.

It seems, then, that the posters lining the halls, the grand proclamations and discussions of values, and even the signature blue memorabilia adorning staff offices in the UN are much more than just decoration and talk. They are central to staff identity, legitimacy and dedication.

Note: This touches on topics that are a part of a larger study.