Re-establishing congruence: UN peacebuilding in a shifting world order

Sara Hellmüller
Senior Researcher, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

Synopsis: The effectiveness of the UN as the guardian of international peace and security has been questioned in recent years over its failure to bring armed conflicts, such as in Syria or Libya, to a negotiated end. When analyzing these challenges, we need to pay particular attention to structural factors related to changes in world politics. We are currently experiencing a shift from unipolarity towards multipolarity. While the US remains the most powerful actor in material terms, its normative leadership has waned with Russia’s and China’s rising political influence. Other states, such as Brazil, India, South Africa, and Turkey, are also playing increasingly important roles in global affairs. This emerging multipolarity influences UN peacebuilding.

Keywords: United Nations, World Order, Peacebuilding, Multipolarity

Relative neglect of macro-level perspectives in the peacebuilding literature

In spite of the impact of multipolarity on UN peacebuilding, the peacebuilding literature remains dominated by micro-level perspectives characterized by a focus on the inner workings of international peacebuilding. This is not surprising, given that for at least two decades (~ 1990-2010), approaches to peacebuilding were congruent with the broader world political order. Indeed, UN peace missions – be it peacekeeping operations, special political missions, or special envoys – in the early post-Cold War years reflected the dominant liberal world order as they considered democracy and market-based economic reforms as a key driver of sustainable peace. In the mid-2000s, researchers coined the term ‘liberal peacebuilding’ to describe the liberal nature of these peacebuilding efforts.

In such a context, a macro-level perspective was not indispensable because world politics and UN peacebuilding interacted in a mutually reinforcing way. Peacebuilding scholars took the liberal macro-context in which peacebuilding was embedded mostly for granted and concentrated on criticizing peacebuilding itself. They accused liberal peacebuilding of falsely portraying the liberal model as universal, of upholding western dominance, and of further destabilizing, rather than pacifying, conflict contexts. Overall, they argued that international peacebuilding failed to integrate local actors, perspectives, and capacities. These critiques heralded the so-called ‘local turn’ in peacebuilding, with scholars calling for a greater focus on how international peacebuilding interacts with local processes.

Without a systematic analysis of the processes through which world politics influence UN peacebuilding, we risk leaving peacebuilding ‘out of sync’ with the context in which it takes place.

While this increased attention to the local dimensions of international peacebuilding was a much-needed remedy to former top-down and template approaches, the inward-looking perspective led to a relative neglect of the world political factors that influence peacebuilding. Yet, an awareness of the broader structural factors is particularly relevant in times of tectonic shifts in world politics, such as those we are currently experiencing with emerging multipolarity. Without a systematic analysis of the processes through which world politics influence UN peacebuilding, we risk leaving peacebuilding ‘out of sync’ with the context in which it takes place.

Re-establishing congruence

To re-establish congruence, a macro-level perspective on UN peacebuilding is required. Two main aspects are at the core of such an analysis.

First, we need to examine the material and ideational implications of the shift from unipolarity to multipolarity for UN peacebuilding. Materially, multipolarity creates more incentives for geopolitical competition because there is no longer a unipolar superpower in a clear hierarchical order. Ideationally, multipolarity also leads to higher normative plurality since the ideology of the unipolar superpower no longer dominates. Analyzing the effects of both geopolitical competition and normative plurality on UN peacebuilding is crucial. We can for instance examine how they influence UN peace missions in terms of whether a peacekeeping operation, a special political mission, or a special envoy is deployed in response to a given conflict or in terms of whether they have extensive (and usually liberal) or restrictive mandates.

Second, we need to examine the impact of multipolarity on core concepts for UN peacebuilding, such as security and sovereignty. Concerning security, what powerful states identify as a security threat determines the cases in which the UN – as main guarantor of international security – can act, as well as which forms of security it promotes in its peacebuilding efforts. Regarding sovereignty, its conceptualization determines the balance between the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of a state and the UN’s responsibility to maintain international peace. As an illustration, a realist approach focused on state security and sovereignty as authority is likely to result in UN peace missions with limited mandates, while a liberal approach focused on human security and sovereignty as responsibility is likely to enable more extensive mandates of UN peace missions. The liberal world order in the immediate post-Cold War years favored liberal conceptualizations of these core concepts, resulting in liberal UN peace missions, as mentioned above. To understand the scope of current UN peacebuilding, it is thus crucial to examine how the presently dominant powers conceptualize security and sovereignty, and with what effects on UN peace missions.


A macro-level perspective on UN peacebuilding provides a more comprehensive analysis of contemporary UN efforts to build peace. Without it, we risk misinterpreting the determinants of current peacebuilding objectives and outcomes, which may result in ineffective or even counterproductive policy recommendations. In sum, a macro-level perspective will allow for the re-establishment of congruence between UN peacebuilding and the world political context in which it takes place.

Sara Hellmüller is a senior researcher at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. She leads a five-year SNSF PRIMA project on the impact of world politics on UN peacebuilding at the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding. She is also a research associate at the Global Governance Centre and teaches in the Department of International Relations/Political Science and in the Interdisciplinary Programmes. Her research interests include multilateralism and international organizations, peacebuilding and mediation, diversity and local-global interactions, norm diffusion and contestation, knowledge production, and qualitative research methods in conflict-affected contexts.

One Reply to “Re-establishing congruence: UN peacebuilding in a shifting world order”

  1. We also need to consider the concept of democracy and whether the UN organisation is fit for purpose.

    I as a German citizen and resident in the United Kingdom would describe both countries as at best proto-democracies. I as a citizen have almost no influence on the daily political decision-making and the selection of politicians. There is a huge gap between the functioning of the Athenean democracy and the modern political system which you describe as democracy. The elections can be seen as a tokenism of democracy rather than a way to exercise real influence on the political system.

    The UN as it has been designed as organisation in the Post-World War 2 order is dysfunctional and not able to maintain or enforce peace anywhere in the world. One reason among many others is the disproportionate power given to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Another reason is the complete exclusion of African countries from this exclusive club of permanent members. There are several other reasons.

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