© 2018

The UN at War

Peace Operations in a New Era


  • Is very topical, as UN peace operations are under pressure from member states to be more effective and take on more difficult conflicts

  • Provides a rare insight into peace operations owing to the author's access to the field

  • Brings out some of the key dilemmas and challenges that UN peace operations are facing at a key juncture

  • Offers a detailed analysis of the political economy of peace operations


Table of contents

About this book


This book is a critical political and institutional reflection on UN peace operations. It provides constructive suggestions as to how the UN and the international system can evolve to remain relevant and tackle the peace and security challenges of the 21st century, without abandoning the principles that the UN was founded upon and on which the legitimacy of UN peace operations rests. The author analyses the evolving politics on UN peace operations of the five veto powers of the UN Security Council, as well as major troop-contributing countries and western powers. He investigates the move towards peace enforcement and counter-terrorism, and what consequences this development may have for the UN. Karlsrud issues a challenge to practitioners and politicians to make sure that the calls for reform are anchored in a desire to improve the lives of people suffering in conflicts on the ground—and not spurred by intra-organizational turf battles or solely the narrow self-interests of member states. Finally, he asks how the UN can adapt its practices to become more field- and people-centered, in line with its core, primary commitments of protecting and serving people in need.

“An excellent resource for researchers, policy-makers, practitioners and students, this work provides a very useful analysis on the past, present and future of peace missions, as well as how they have and could face the challenges of today’s world.”

—Séverine Autesserre, Associate Professor, Barnard College,Columbia University, USA

“The international community and the new Secretary-General will have a chance to initiate meaningful, transformative reforms in the way the United Nations addresses social, political and security challenges; the road map is provided by John Karlsrud, highly recommended to all international peace and security academics and practitioners.”

—José Ramos-Horta, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former President and Prime Minister of Timor Leste

“This is the most current, up-to-date assessment of UN Peace Operations available. A must-read for both analysts and practitioners of peacekeeping.”

—Lise Morjé Howard, Georgetown University, USA



Development Studies UN United Nations Peacekeeping Peace Security Council Imperialism Self-sustainable peace International Relations People-centered reform African Union 21st Century Humanitarian crisis Conflict Studies Peacebuilding Statebuilding Post-Conflict Intervention

Authors and affiliations

  1. 1.NUPIOsloNorway

About the authors

John Karlsrud is Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), Oslo, Norway, and has previously been Special Assistant to the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Chad and the Central African Republic. His most recent books are UN Peacekeeping Doctrine in a New Era (2017), and The Future of African Peace Operations (2016). 

Bibliographic information


“This is an ambitious, rigorous, comprehensive and deeply thoughtful analysis of the state of the UN peace operations. Karlsrud persuasively demonstrates that the trend in favour of ever more “robust” peacekeeping, a notable feature of UN operations since 2000, carries very real risks. Through a detailed and illuminating analysis of on-going operations – informed in part by the author’s personal experience in the field – the overall conclusion is unmistakable: “the urge to resort to use UN peace operations for peace enforcement purposes, whether against armed opposition groups or terrorists” needs to be resisted and critically reexamined.” (Mats Berdal, Director, Conflict, Security and Development Research Group (CSDRG), Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy, Department of War Studies, King's College London)

"For those who are wondering what relevance UN peacekeeping has today, or what role UN peacekeeping can or should play in resolving twenty-first century conflicts fueled by extremist beliefs, terrorism and debilitating violence and destabilization, Karlsrud offers highly readable, yet analytically rigorous insight on both the opportunities facing UN peacekeeping and the gaps between reality and expectations. Scholars and practitioners alike will find that his orientation to people-centered peacekeeping goes far in broadening their perspective." (Chiyuki Aoi, Professor, Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Tokyo)

 "This is an important and timely work that examines UN peace operations in an evolving international context. It takes on the thorny issues of a changing global geopolitical balance of power and the shifting priorities of key states involved in peacekeeping; the gaps between what is asked and expected of missions and the will and resources given to them; the obstacles to but potentially enormous benefits of using new technologies in peace operations; if - and how - the UN should address new security challenges, including terrorism and violent extremism; and how to make peace operations more responsive to the needs of the people they seek to help. Karlsrud's analysis is detailed but succinct and hard-hitting, and this book will have notable import for those who work for, watch, and study the UN as it continues its mission to maintain peace and security around the world." (Dr Sarah B. K. von Billerbeck, Lecturer in International Relations, University of Reading)
"John Karlsrud provides a timely and cogent analysis of changing peacekeeping practice, especially with regard to the use of force, the many definitions of stabilization, and the potentially increasing connection to counterterrorism. Highly recommended for those interested in assessing the overall significance of these trends in light of core peacekeeping principles as Karlsrud also examines what the UN should want its peacekeeping to be." (Dr Ingvild Bode, Lecturer in International Relations, University of Kent, UK)
"A comprehensive and current overview that succinctly and clearly covers the main challenges facing peace operations at a time of transition. This work will be of use to students and policy-makers alike." (Jane Boulden, Professor, Department of Political Science, Royal Military College of Canada)
"The UN at War is a thought provoking and timely contribution to current policy debates around the use and abuse of United Nations’ peace and security tools, which adequacy and relevance are increasingly questioned in the face of contemporary challenges they are thrown at in places where there is little or no peace to keep. John Karlsrud strikes a rare balance of scholarly and practical analysis of the dilemmas, doctrinal and political debates that will be determinant for the future of UN peace operations." (Arthur Boutellis, Director of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute, IPI)
"This book comprehensively analyses the dilemmas facing UN peace operations, and examines the most controversial trend: the gradual slide towards peace enforcement. Karlsrud warns against the shift towards Chapter 7½ solutions, where regional enforcement forces are used under the UN banner. He argues that the UN should deal proactively with spoilers at the tactical level, but refrain from operational and strategic level enforcement. Instead the UN must ensure that it continues to carve out space for political and prevention-orientated responses. If you are looking for one book that explains the state of UN peace operations in the first quarter of the 21st century, this is it." (Cedric de Coning, Senior Research Fellow, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, NUPI)
"Peacekeeping is a much more complex affair than it used to be. This book vividly illustrates the ambiguity and nuance of modern UN peace operations." (Jim Della-Giacoma, former Editor-in-Chief, Global Peace Operations Review, New York University)
"John Karlsrud gives an excellent in depth overview of the evolution of peacekeeping and what is required in the future. It describes and analyses the increasing threat in missions where sometimes there is not even a peace to keep. Fundamental questions are discussed such as “should the UN update its principles and practices to a new context—or are existing principles and practices still valid?” What will be the role of the Western countries and regional organizations in this volatile environment? The “hot” item of the Protection of Civilians (POC) in all of the Chapter VII operations and the use of force are widely discussed. This book is an excellent tool for commanders, junior and senior, during pre-deployment training and at Staff Colleges for a better understanding what the challenges are in UN peace operations and the differences in regional led operations such as NATO, EU or AU." (Maj. Gen. (ret.) Patrick Cammaert, former Military Advisor to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Force Commander in Ethiopia and Eritrea, UNMEE)
"In the quest for making itself fit for changing conditions, the UN peacekeeping has gone through various changes, particularly since the demise of the Cold War. With the changes in the type of threats facing the UN in many of its theatres of operations, there has been increasing push from within the UN and diverse group of member states for the UN peacekeeping to take on counterterrorism operations. Drawing on diverse sources of data on the experience of both UN and regional peace operations, in this timely book on The UN at War, a close observer of UN peacekeeping John Karlsrud not only presents cogent arguments cautioning against the contemporary temptation for reviewing of long standing principles of UN peacekeeping but also draws attention to the options available for dealing with the serious threats that UN peacekeeping is facing in places such as Mali. A book that probes the factors that shape UN peacekeeping from the de facto division of labor between the UN and the African Union in which the AU is assuming commendably increasing responsibilities to new technologies, John offers a fascinating reading for everyone interested in the current state of UN peacekeeping and its possible future." (Solomon Dersso, Commissioner, African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights)
"This book is truly impressive in how it weaves together the core pillars and drivers of contemporary UN peace operations, by centering the discussion around transformation and evolution. It is an engaging read that will no doubt ruffle a few feathers, yet, I hope, inspire sober, constructive and critical reflection. Karlsrud has no doubt moved the discussion forward on the question of how far countering violent extremism and terrorism should be the business of peacekeepers." (Dr Linnea Gelot, Senior Researcher, The Nordic Africa Institute)
"In this timely book, Dr Karlsrud succeeds admirably in its purpose to bring out some of the key dilemmas and challenges facing UN peace operations as well as discussing how UN peace operations can become more people-centered. The author also addresses the tensions between the traditional principles of UN peacekeeping and the new complex mandates assigned to the peacekeepers. The book is a must read to all those who are interested in using the UN more effectively in peace operations." (Dr Ronald Hatto, Senior Lecturer, Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Sciences Po)
"With The UN at War, John Karlsrud contributes an important study that adds greatly to the growing literature on multilateral (global) peace interventions and their changing nature. With a focus on member states preferences, tools and capabilities as well as (inter-)institutional changes, Karlsrud reminds the reader that peace operations cannot be the option of last resort but need to be first and foremost needs-based." (Stephanie C. Hofmann, Associate Professor of Political Science, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva)

 "Karlsrud’s critical account of recent developments in UN peace operations takes issue with the idea that such operations should be used for peace enforcement against terrorists and violent extremists. The book is especially timely given recent major reviews of UN peace operations, the election of a new secretary-general, and the possibility that the UN will be asked to take on additional, complex challenges in Libya and Yemen. The analysis of shifts underway within the UN, among Western powers and troop contributing countries along with the overview of efforts to upgrade the planning and execution of peace operations, including issues surrounding the use of new capabilities, plus the growing role of the African Union and its evolving partnership with the UN, all make the book valuable to scholars and policy-makers alike." (Margaret Karns, Professor Emerita of Political Science, University of Dayton)
"This book is a timely and compelling invitation to seriously reflect on the future of peace operations, as they are relentlessly challenged to adapt to increasingly asymmetric threat environments. The robust posture language inserted into the mandates of contemporary peacekeeping operations to counter these threats, are putting under stress the fundamental principles of peacekeeping. The book rightly reminds us that the ultimate aim of peace operations is to serve “we the peoples” and lay the foundations for self-sustaining peace. No amount of technological wizardry or other force multiplier adaptations should distract us from this overarching aim. Under the guise of stabilization, excessively militarized peace operations may end up legitimizing the use of violence in the pursuit of peace." (Youssef Mahmoud, Senior Advisor at the International Peace Institute, former Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Chad and Burundi, and member of the High-level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations)
"In times of unprecedented challenges for UN peace operations, this volume offers a timely and brilliant analysis of the new realities they face. While it has become almost a cliché to say that the world is changing, when it comes to peace operations both their target – conflict – and the system that manage them – the UN – are in the mist of dramatic contextual transformations, driven by multiple factors, from geopolitics to new technology. Karlsrud’s comprehensive analysis becomes an essential guide to navigate the new complex world of peace operations, to comprehend the changes it faces, and to develop ideas to cope with it." (Francesco Mancini, Assistant Dean & Visiting Associate Professor, National University of Singapore)
"John Karlsrud is not afraid to take on the most difficult and controversial issues facing United Nations peace operations: their limitations in a world of violent extremists and terrorist networks, their need for intelligence and other new capabilities, their complementarities with African regional organisations, and how they must better relate to and protect the people of countries in conflict. His timely analysis and clear opinions will further inform and stimulate these essential debates." (Ian Martin, member of the High-level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations and former Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Libya, Nepal and Timor Leste)
"In this short and crisp book, Karlsrud argues persuasively for UN restraint in the 21st century. Drawing on contemporary UN stabilization operations in Africa, he concludes that the UN is not equipped to address the threats posed by counterterrorism and violent extremism. The UN cannot lose its legitimacy as an impartial arbitrator and cannot serve as a substitute for political action. The UN needs to return to a people-centered approach. Academics and policymakers alike will benefit from this thorough analysis of the UN's predicament." (Karen A. Mingst, Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky USA)
"Karlsrud provides a comprehensive and insightful overview of the challenges confronting peacekeeping in the 21st century. It offers an excellent critical analysis of contemporary policies and practices from the highest political levels in the Security Council to the issues on the ground in individual mission areas. The book should be read by all those interested in identifying current trends and how peacekeeping is evolving. It is essential reading for policy makers, practitioners and researchers at all levels. It is a most valuable contribution to research and scholarship in the field of peacekeeping." (Prof Ray Murphy, Irish Centre for Human Rights, National University of Ireland Galway)
"If you are looking for a relevant assessment of all the current challenges facing UN peacekeeping operations, this is a must read by one of the main researchers on the matter." (Dr Alexandra Novosseloff, Senior Visiting Fellow, NYU Center on International Cooperation, New York)