How Scotland’s size would advantage them as a peacekeeper
In the mid-1950s, Ireland barely had a meaningful foreign policy. External relations consisted almost entirely of the ‘sore thumb’ strategy, as it was proudly called: the perpetual repetition of anti-British resentment over the score. As one historian put it, the country occupied a “Celtic twilight”, from which “the outlines of the surrounding world could only be dimly discerned”.
However, in the 1960s, this situation changed. Ireland was now a leading “middle power”, alongside countries such as Canada, Sweden and Norway. His initiatives on issues ranging from nuclear non-proliferation to European security have been admired around the world. In global affairs, he truly embodied the cliché of “pushing above our weight.”
What motivated this national reinvention? It was largely born out of Ireland’s discovery of United Nations peacekeeping, a rich source of what we would today call ‘soft power’. Ireland’s role in UN operations in Lebanon, Congo and Cyprus gave shape and meaning to its defense forces and generated new national pride. The boots of Irish peacekeepers on the ground in these conflict zones then opened up a wider UN role for the country, which in turn created a whole new diplomatic identity.
Peacekeeping, Ireland guessed, is the only area of military engagement where “small size” is a positive advantage. No country wants to be “kept in peace” by big authoritarian powers with their own agendas. This is a basic tenet of peacekeeping and has obvious implications for Scotland’s post-independence choices.
Scotland, of course, wouldn’t have a hill as high as Ireland to climb. Its soft power is already well established even without state status. Additionally, the likelihood of an independent Scotland being a member of both NATO and the EU – options not available to Ireland as it developed its peacekeeping role – would give him a ready-made diplomatic springboard.
The numbers also seem to favor Scotland. Like Ireland, it has more than five million inhabitants. However, its military footprint would be greater. The scope of Scotland’s defense plan was set out in the 2013 White Paper. Ten years after independence it will have a regular defense force of 15,000. This would position it well for overseas peacekeeping compared to the current Irish regular force of 8,700 men.
What price should be paid for the global political benefits of a UN peacekeeping role? A rather small one, it seems.
Peacekeeping operates in a permanent seller’s market. The Troop Contributing Country (or “TCC” in the acronym of the peacekeeping world) primarily sets the terms of its own engagement. The balance of power in the peacekeeping relationship rests firmly with the contributing state. Market forces operate. National contingents can be difficult to find.
In recent years, partly to solve this problem, there has been a shift to countries in the global south in the constant search for TCC. This has been a good thing in many ways, but it has also raised questions about the training and professionalism of some contingents and there has been a growing feeling that traditional European players should be re-incentivized. So there are few boxes Scotland wouldn’t tick for UN planners.
Scotland, like other contributing states, could choose the operations to which it subscribed. Conditions can be defined, at least within certain limits. In 1964, for example, when the UN was desperate to recruit troops for its new Cypriot force, Ireland only agreed to participate if the idea of partition was excluded from any potential peace agreement. Irish soldiers could not participate in such a historically charged “solution”.
Contributions are also never unlimited. In 1973, when unrest threatened to spread south, all Irish personnel were quickly repatriated from UN service in the Middle East. More recently, Ukraine was able to immediately withdraw its forces from UN operations in Africa after the Russian invasion. While such an existential crisis seems unlikely for Scotland, this leeway should always be reassuring to national planners. In general, UN peace operations on the ground are not high-risk undertakings. With few exceptions, few missions put personnel at risk. And, of course, those who might do so can always be rejected.
Financially, the UN aims to maintain the neutrality of peacekeeping revenues for its troop contributors. Contributors are currently paid around $1,500 per head per month for their staff. The material is also chargeable. This might not be as critical for Scotland as it is for other small state ‘activists’. But it should certainly be a factor in policy planning.
There are other tangible benefits that might be more important to Scotland than finance. Multinational operations offer the possibility of practical contacts and cooperation with other armies. This can be a major advantage for small states looking to foster and strengthen their bilateral relationships. The appeal of a new state, literally making its way around the world, is obvious.
Peace operations are not entirely confined to the UN, of course. Scotland’s plans for a return to the European Union could be important here. The Lisbon Treaty of 2007 set the task of advancing the EU’s common security and defense policy. Out-of-area international peacekeeping was an explicit part of this. Different models have been considered, including the creation of exclusively “internal” EU peacekeeping structures. At a less ambitious level, the EU could develop its own identity within the broader framework of UN operations. This would imply that the EU acts as a single albeit multinational contributor to UN missions. In both models there are clear opportunities for Scottish to bring a lot to the table.
The balance sheet then points to the role of peacekeeping as a potentially rich component of post-independence policies in the diplomatic and security spheres.
Of course, that’s the situation in 2022. Scotland’s perspective as an international peacekeeper is for the future. UN peacekeeping is slowing down. No new mission has been mandated for several years. The reasons for this are diverse, including the increasingly fractured state of world politics. Peace operations require the consent of the entire UN Security Council and that is simply not the case at the moment. There has been a return to the polarization of the ongoing Cold War years long before Ukraine.
Yet despite this, 12 UN peacekeeping missions, involving more than 90,000 personnel, are still in place. The need for more troops from more countries remains pressing. Ireland, our comparator, participates in four of these United Nations operations as well as two of the European Union. The door will certainly still be open for Scotland, if and when it is granted the status to pass through it.
Dr. Norrie MacQueen has written a number of books on the UN and peacekeeping. He taught at Dundee and St Andrews Universities and was part of the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste.