The Trouble with Titles: On Perspective and Opinion

On Friday afternoon, I published an op-ed highlighting *some* of the challenges associated with international peacekeeping. Specifically, the piece tackled the unequal troop contributions when comparing the members of the U.N. Security Council (US, UK, Russia, China and France) and countries such as India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Philippines, Bangladesh and Fiji. Troops contributions from the former group now constitutes only four percent of all U.N. troops, while the latter provide nearly 40 percent of UN personnel. This imbalance comes at a moment where conflicts are both increasingly asymmetrical and involve actors who pledge no allegiance to compacts of international law.

After the story made its rounds on social media, I received a few comments and critiques. While perhaps unnecessary to tackle them directly, I believe the topic is important enough —and chronically under-discussed— to warrant a short follow up.

On the title: For those familiar with the journalism world, titles are far more important and infinitely more hazardous than they might appear. But they are often the choice of an editor, not the author. In fairness, compelling readers with clickable, cogent, and captivating story titles requires a little bit of dark magic. But sometimes, the compelling can be compromising. In this case, when I submitted my final text to TIME, the story was titled: Prisoners of Peace. An hour later, readers saw this:

This headline ruffled some feathers:

For what it is worth (and this is clear for those who read the story), you’ll notice that I never use “poor” as a descriptor in the piece. Instead, I opt for terms like “developing countries” or the “global south” to broker the difference between the groups of countries I compare. These terms are not perfect and will (no doubt) upset those who, parsing language instead of intention, take offense for their own reasons. But to respond to @sallyyui directly: I agree.

“Poor” does not best describe the countries listed in the article. Few would (or should) argue that the differences between India and Rwanda, for instance, aren’t as significant as those between the United States and India. In addition, “poor” suggests that finance is the only measure of importance. Economics are part of the argument: poorer countries will have relatively less money to invest in military training, leaving their troops relatively less prepared than their counterparts. But money isn’t everything. Insofar as we’ve endorsed peacekeeping as a collective action with “international responsibility”, the burden of peacekeeping ought to be more equitably shared. This is an argument from principle.

On the question of agency: A friend/colleague suggested the piece may have sidestepped the question of agency. I agree. Posited as an op-ed, the story was intended to condemn. In this case, the indictment looked something like this: The West/developed countries is/are sitting back on its/their laurels while the hard work of peace is foisted upon the less fortunate in conflicts that are only growing more dangerous. This narrative shrinks the voice of these “victim” countries: it suggests the current imbalance is one where the less fortunate are merely “put upon” by the powerful — the cattle led towards the slaughter. This isn’t accurate.

For one, contributing troops has clear financial benefits for member states. Writing in African Affairs this spring, Danielle Beswick found that Rwanda’s 2010 participation in peace operations earned “reimbursements from the U.N. worth more than two-thirds of its defense budget” that year. These financial motivations complicate any “argument from principle” and belay the unfortunate moral architecture of international peacekeeping: states, regardless of their status, often look out for their own interests first —and opt to pull the levers of power at their disposal. After all, while Rwanda might contribute a greater number of peacekeeping troops than the United States, the Rwandan government also armed and directed factions of the M23 rebels in neighboring DRC —a group that U.N. troops (Rwandans included) were specifically deployed to pacify.

More to the point, just because Rwanda chooses to contribute troops, does not explain why their contribution (and the contribution of similar countries) must outstrip that of the West.  Inequality does not negate agency, inequality shapes agency. In the case of the United Nations, the inequality is clear.

On the question of understanding: A few hours after the story was published, I received the following response:

When I asked for elaboration, @DarcyPenrhyn responded with the following:

In fairness, @DarcyPenrhyn’s assertions are credible. A UN commander, often the most thankless job, must navigate the physical minefields of combat, as well as the metaphorical minefields of politics. These commanders are bound to the UN-issued mandate —and they are present thanks only to the grace of the host government and international backing (troops, money, etc…). These commanders also oversee troops from myriad countries, and these various groups arrive with specific restrictions on how they are allowed to be used. Some troops might not be permitted to patrol at night, others restricted to specific tasks in particular regions. In short, the logistics of a multinational peacekeeping operation can be crushing.

But @DarcyPenrhyn’s critiques pertain to a separate charge: that peacekeeping is, itself, an ineffective tool.
This is the most vital debate of all, and it is not without baggage. More importantly, though, it isn’t the central argument in my article.

But on that count, I’ll share a single thought: From Suez in 1956 to Rwanda in 1994, from 1960 Katanga (Congo) to this month’s mission in the Central African Republic, peacekeeping has been (and will continue to be) a half-measure —an expensive and increasingly risky band-aid hastily applied to slow the flow of blood while the staff seeks desperately for a competent doctor. Peacekeeping isn’t pretty, and it isn’t getting prettier. But so long as it persists, we ought not overlook it.

My op-ed was not intended —in a meager 800 words— to clearly render the entire landscape of U.N. peacekeeping. The goal was to illustrate how responsibility —and the empty rhetoric that follows its invocation— demands accounting. For what it is worth, today’s balance sheet —on the measure of troop contributions (among others)— reveals an increasingly worrisome debt.


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