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The Work of Peace: History, Imperialism, and Peacekeeping

The size and complexity of recent peacebuilding mandates have led scholars to liken these efforts to imperialism, but most are quick to dismiss any deeper comparison. This article argues against such assumptions by using the 1884-1885 Berlin West Africa Conference and the Congo Free State crisis to show that the Scramble for Africa fits within the definition of multilateralism and that European imperialism was, at the time, also seen as a humanitarian endeavor. Peacebuilding and imperialism are very different enterprises, but acknowledging their connections enables peacekeepers to draw lessons from the imperial past and better understand its continued implications for the present. The article also considers how imperial scholarship can inform efforts to increase civic participation in peacebuilding as well as the way we think about and categorize peacebuilding in Africa.

The Work of Peace History Imperialism and Peacekeeping
A UN peacekeeper stands guard at a newly established base in the Djug area of Ituri, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on March 27, 2018. ALEX MCBRIDE / AFP / Getty Images
 

Introduction

The end of the Cold War dramatically altered the landscape of international peacekeeping, particularly in Africa. In the four decades between 1948 and 1988, there were only thirteen United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions, two of which addressed African conflicts, whereas there have been 58 missions since that time, 30 of which were in Africa.1 Many of those more recent missions have also been substantial, requiring thousands of personnel and massive financial outlays. The overall cost of African missions has been well in excess of $36 billion.2 Peacekeeping is now “big business for the leading state funders of UN missions”3 and, like international aid, has become an important axis for engaging with African countries and building regional connections.

The changing realities of peacekeeping have raised new questions about the intrusive nature of peacebuilding and its similarities to 19th and 20th century imperialism. Before addressing those connections, it is helpful to consider why peacekeeping changed in 1989. As the date suggests, the end of the Cold War was a critical factor, but the antagonism between the United States (U.S.) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) only made multilateral peacekeeping difficult, not impossible.4 By way of comparison, there were seven missions to the Middle East between 1948 and 1988, and only three since.5 To understand the remarkable uptick in the number and scope of peacekeeping missions in Africa specifically, one must consider the changing notions of state sovereignty and the nature of conflicts on the continent.

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