Pessimism Does Not Help Fragile States


| Dec 11, 2023


“An uncomfortable reality” is the title and conclusion of a recently published report that evaluates Dutch national participation in international peace and security missions. The report highlights the successes of the Dutch civilian, police, and troop contributions to missions like those in Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Mali. But also does not mince words about the many failures it analyses.

While the report itself was quite nuanced, Dutch public debate mostly picked up on its negative conclusions: such missions were presented as highly costly with very limited impact. It wasn’t long before the (rhetorical) question was asked: Why are we even doing this in the first place? Frames like this feed isolationist thinking, and several of the larger parties upholding such ideas won big in the Dutch parliamentary elections in November 2023.

The Dutch experience in many ways demonstrates the discussions and dilemmas of many Western countries, that struggle to convince parliament and voters of the need and utility of sending civilian and uniformed personnel to crisis and conflict zones in strange lands on the other side of the world.

Navigating Without a Map

Most people will know by now that it is an illusion to think that a few years of international peace and security missions will transform a fragile State into a well-governed, democratic State. The collapse of the Afghan government in 2021 after the departure of foreign troops proved it once more. The Dutch evaluation report is useful in that it reveals the symptoms that many national contributions to international missions suffer from.

These include the facts that expectation management lacks realism, the local context is undervalued, and intra-governmental cooperation between the involved departments could be much better. The report paints a picture of the Dutch—and many other countries sending civilians, police, and troops to international missions—entering into their roles with the naïve innocence of someone embarking on a new journey without a map, without prior experience or guidance, and without a clear sense of direction.

There was limited conflict awareness, insufficient adaptability to a demanding and ever-changing situation, and limited understanding of long-term goals. Coupled with a misguided expectation of a host State’s political will to change and a dwindling prospect of turning the vicious cycle of violence, ambitious Dutch interventions quickly turned into a mission impossible.

Peace and Security: A Long Game

However, if you read the report a bit more closely, you notice that it is actually much more detailed and nuanced. The negative framing that was done by the media therefore does not do justice to its depth and actual conclusions.

If we adopt a more positive lens, the uncomfortable reality sketched by the report obtains a different hue. Indeed, even if they are sometimes somewhat naïve, high-income countries are expertly placed to operate in insecure settings. In Mali, the Dutch and German troops were among the best equipped in the UN mission. In South Sudan, Dutch personnel stayed while other countries withdrew their people at the outbreak of civil war. In Afghanistan, there were significant advances in women’s rights as long as international troops were around. Extensive training, high-class equipment, first rate medical services, subject matter expertise, and many other advantages make the high-income countries among the most effective on the ground, with the lowest relative human cost as compared to other contributing nations.

This is not to say that sending troops, police, and civilian personnel to international missions in fragile contexts makes for smooth sailing. On the contrary. The conditions are harsh and the immediate impact of each nation’s efforts is small. Building peace and turning an economy of violence around is a long, long game.

However, studies and experience have demonstrated that missions, and thus their constituent national contributions, do bring about positive effects. Many academic publications, most recently an overview by Walter, Howard, and Fortna, show that the presence of peace operations reduces the chance of civilian deaths and decreases the risk of conflict escalation.

Doing Nothing is Not an Option

Pessimistic pundits tend to forget that these missions exist for very good reasons. Doing nothing is not an option and would make crises only worse. The Dutch report underlines that civilian resilience grows as a result of international mission presence. In addition, missions give a commercial impulse to local economies, create employment, and improve local security. This means space for education, development, and humanitarian service delivery.

Such effects are challenging to measure and quantify, but they are very real. Of course, these contributions can be short-lived in worst case scenarios. After the Taliban took back control of Afghanistan, women’s rights quickly regressed. But, if anything, this is evidence of the importance and urgency to continue international deployments and support to missions.

For Western countries, participation in international missions is also a chance for growth. Each deployed soldier, civilian expert, and police officer returns home with a broader horizon and a new professionalism.

This presents an opportunity to integrate this knowledge into their homeland’s organizations, enhance their country’s understanding of the world, and strengthen foreign policy. These are direct yields from participation in international missions.

This is without even broaching the subject of preventing disastrous illegal migration trails by creating more stability locally, or the importance of living up to the duties and obligations that rich countries have as members of a broader international community.

Patience and Optimism as a Way Forward

Therefore, we would like to call for more optimism about participation in international missions, an optimism that is ambitious but realistic, without any blinders on. This requires acknowledgment that it is impossible to establish—within a few years—well-balanced governance structures in a country dangling for decades at the bottom of the development chain while standing at the top of the corruption ladder. This requires long-term efforts, an incredible amount of patience, and dedicated commitment.

We should not formulate impossible goals and then wonder why the political and public support to send people into missions crumbles away as missions inevitably fail to achieve them. For success, we need to develop a realistic, self-critical view on the measure of our impact.

The reality of international peace and security missions is tough and indeed uncomfortable. Navigating through sandstorms, dodging bullets, confronting dire human rights crises, grappling with convoluted bureaucracies, and facing staunch political opposition all pose highly challenging obstacles that are far from ideal for accomplishing substantial objectives.

Therefore, States sending personnel should focus on small wins, long-term thinking, and above all, keep an optimistic spirit in the knowledge that we are doing something that is worth it.


Tom Buitelaar is an Assistant Professor in the War, Peace & Justice program of the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University.

Welmoet Wels is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.



Photo credit: Ministry of Defence, Netherlands