Silke Weinlich, The UN Secretariat’s Influence on the Evolution of Peacekeeping (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 290pp.

Reviewed by Kseniya Oksamytna (University of Warwick)

During the first decade following the Cold War, UN peacekeeping underwent a series of groundbreaking transformations. The so-called multidimensional peacekeeping missions pioneered a variety of novel activities ranging from election observation to disarmament and reintegration of former combatants. After the late 1990s crisis of confidence caused by the failures in Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the future of peacekeeping seemed uncertain. Eventually, rather than becoming confined to the traditional model (small-scale observer missions deployed after the cessation of hostilities), UN peacekeeping was endowed with new goals and great ambitions. Nowadays UN peacekeeping missions are mandated to protect civilians under the imminent threat of physical violence, support the extension of state authority, and assist host states in security and justice sector reforms.

United Nations Secretariat Building Photo Credit: UN Photo/Andrea Brizzi

United Nations Secretariat Building
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Andrea Brizzi

Silke Weinlich’s book focuses on the UN Secretariat’s role in the reforms and innovations in UN peacekeeping during the second half of 1999 and the first decade of the twenty-first century. Few studies have explicitly sought to assess the influence of the entire Secretariat, rather than the Secretary-General personally, on UN peacekeeping, with the exception of Barnett and Finnemore’s chapter in their book on the authority of international organizations [1] and Margaret P. Karns’s chapter in Joel E. Oestreich’s volume [2]. The UN Secretariat’s Influence on the Evolution of Peacekeeping is therefore a timely and valuable contribution.

The book follows the recent trend in the literature on international organizations to integrate insights from the rational choice and constructivist scholarship [3]. The book is light on theory: it defines the influence of international bureaucracies as their ability to produce noticeable effects on actors, processes or structures of their organizations. It analyzes the influence of the UN Secretariat on the process and substance of peacekeeping decisions at the agenda-setting, policy formulation, and adoption stages, as well as on member state positions. It uses process tracing to assess the Secretariat’s impact on the establishment of the UN transitional administration in East Timor in October 1999; the development of peacekeeping doctrine as called for in the 2000 Brahimi Report; and the creation of the Standing Police Capacity in the aftermath of the 2005 World Summit.

The book concludes that the Secretariat’s influence has mostly been moderate. However, it sets a high bar by comparing its impact to that of other actors, including powerful member states, as well as other factors, which usually means the overall political climate. The book confirms rather than challenges what we know about IO secretariats: they are more influential at the agenda-setting and policy formulation stages than during inter-governmental negotiations. In many instances examined in the book, the Secretariat plays a role by “only doing its job” (p. 226): preparing reports, fostering coalition, and launching internal reform agendas.

Besides the introduction and conclusion, there are three theoretical and three empirical chapters. The theoretical chapters describe the emergence of the twenty-first-century peacekeeping model, review the literature on the influence of international bureaucracies, and describe the Secretariat’s capacity for autonomous action as a function of its mandate, size, financial resources, and member states’ control mechanisms.

The empirical chapter on the UN transitional administration in East Timor (UNTAET) portrays the Secretariat as a mediator and convener. When a window of opportunity to determine the status of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony annexed by Indonesia in 1975, was created by the resignation of Indonesia’s president Suharto in 1998, the Secretariat supported the dialogue between the parties and convened various state groupings that were interested in the resolution of the long-standing dispute. As in the case with other peacekeeping operations, the Secretariat prepared a report recommending the parameters for UNTAET. The resolution authorizing the mission incorporated “virtually all substantive proposals” made in the report (p. 128). It is not unusual for the Council to accept most or all of the recommendations made in such reports: it is instances of substantive disagreement that attract scholar’s attention [4], and I hope to discover more systematic patterns in an ongoing project of my own [5].

The second empirical chapter, on the Brahimi panel’s role in stimulating the development of peacekeeping doctrine, describes the Secretariat’s creative use of eminent persons’ authority to advance its own interests. International bureaucracies’ ability to use experts strategically has been explored by scholars studying other organizations as well [6]. The UN Secretariat convened the Brahimi panel six months before the Millennium Summit in the hope to seize the political momentum and have member states endorse an ambitious peacekeeping reform package. The Brahimi Report made a number of far-reaching proposals, for instance, on strengthening the Secretariat’s peacekeeping capacities, especially for strategic analysis and organizational learning; enhancing the deployability of peacekeeping troops; ensuring that mandates are clear and achievable and that resources are available for their implementation; and developing doctrine for new, “robust”, peacekeeping missions. Not all of the recommendations were approved by the membership, at least not immediately, but many were. Silke Weinlich argues that the proposals would have been less acceptable if they had come from the Secretariat itself rather than an independent, broadly representative panel of experts. However, the Brahimi panel was not as independent as one might think: the Secretariat not only handpicked the chairman, panelists and a writing team, but also remained closely involved in the process throughout.

Wreath-laying Ceremony on International Day of Peacekeepers Photo Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas Opening remarks by USG for Peacekeeping Operations, Herve Ladsous; and USG for Field Support, Atul Khare Remarks by the Secretary-General

Wreath-laying Ceremony on International Day of Peacekeepers
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The third empirical chapter, on the establishment of the Standing Police Capacity (SPC), details how the creation of a permanent body of UN police was suggested in a report by another independent panel, the 2004 High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, and thereafter in the Secretary-General’s own 2005 report, In Larger Freedom. The Secretariat formed a working group with interested states, which produced a concept paper for the SPC. The proposal was then included in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document. Although only 27 posts were authorized, much less than a hundred initially envisioned by the Secretariat, it became “the UN’s first permanent body of deployable, uniformed personnel” (p. 212). This case study demonstrates the Secretariat’s ability to work together with sympathetic states and subtly encourage the progress of its preferred agendas. As has been observed with regard to the Secretary-General, but can be argued to apply to the Secretariat as a whole, UN officials are most effective when they are able “to crystallize emerging understandings among states and non-state actors, rather than striking out in entirely new normative directions” [7].

The book would have benefited from a more explicit comparison between the three case studies and more extensive engagement with the recent literature. The three cases explored in the book exhibit substantial differences: UNTAET was an instance of international conflict resolution, which is a traditional preoccupation of interstate diplomacy; the Brahimi Report addressed both the Secretariat’s functioning and more politicized matters concerning the future of peacekeeping; and the SPC was an internal efficiency-enhancing reform. Unsurprisingly, the Secretariat’s influence has been the strongest in the third case, but there is little discussion — apart from less than a paragraph on p. 219 — of the differences between operational, conceptual and institutional dimensions of peacekeeping. A stronger conclusion, however qualified it might have been from the three case studies, could have demonstrated the significance of the findings beyond the specific example of the UN Secretariat. Under what conditions can we expect international secretariats to exert influence? When members states are involved or uninterested? When the environment is stable or volatile? On what type of issues should we expect influence? On the second point, the book makes references to many relevant sources but does not discuss how it builds on or disagrees with them. It would be interesting to see how the findings fit with the broader literature, especially considering that some recent publications have addressed similar issues (for instance, the establishment of the SPC has been analyzed from an organizational learning perspective [8]).

These minor criticisms notwithstanding, the book provides a wealth of interesting material and calls attention to important questions that need further study. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the evolution and reform of UN peacekeeping. Each empirical chapter opens with a description of “constellations of interests and policy positions” (p. 93) of the key actors, including the conflict parties, Security Council members, Secretariat officials, experts and NGOs, and the ensuing negotiations. The rich and nuanced account of the politics of UN peacekeeping is perhaps the book’s most interesting contribution.



[1] Barnett, Michael, and Martha Finnemore, “Genocide and the Peacekeeping Culture at the United Nations”, in Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global Politics, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.

[2] Karns, Margaret, “The Roots of UN Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: A Case Study of Autonomous Agency”, in Joel E. Oestreich (ed.), International Organizations as Self-Directed Actors: A Framework for Analysis (pp. 60-88), Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2002.

[3] Michael Tierney, and Catherine Weaver, “Principles and Principals? The Possibilities for Theoretical Synthesis and Scientific Progress in the Study of International Organizations”, available from <>, accessed 23 January 2016.

[4] Dijkstra, Hylke, “Shadow Bureaucracies and the Unilateral Control of International Secretariats: Insights from UN Peacekeeping”, Review of International Organizations, 10.1 (2015), pp. 23-41.

[5] Oksamytna, Kseniya, “Variations in the UN Secretariat’s Authority in Peacekeeping: When are Secretary-General’s Proposals Followed?”, available from <>, accessed 23 January 2016.

[6] Littoz-Monnet, Annabelle, “Ethics Experts as an Instrument of Technocratic Governance: Evidence from EU Medical Biotechnology Policy”, Governance, 28.1 (2015), pp. 357–372.

[7] Johnstone, Ian, “The Secretary-General as Norm Entrepreneur”, in Simon Chesterman (ed.), Secretary or General? The UN Secretary-General in World Politics (p. 124), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[8] Benner, Thorsten, Stephan Mergenthaler, and Philipp Rotmann, The New World of UN Peace Operations: Learning to Build Peace?, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.