Sometimes debate topics can be torn from the headlines and sometimes they can be a bit retro. This one is certainly in the latter category.
The question of whether the UN should adopt a Standing Army (SA) was a big debate in the mid-1990s. Tim Sheehy wrote in 1993:
A campaign is underway in Congress to endorse the concept of a standing army controlled by the United Nations. Senator Joe Biden, the Democrat from Delaware, has introduced a resolution (S.J. Res. 112) to allow American troops to be part of such a force.
Ultimately, the idea never really got off the ground due to three significant problems. UN General Secretary Koffi Anaan said in 1996:, Annan said there are also far too many financial and legal issues involved in the establishment of a U.N. army which makes the concept a non-starter.
First, leaders in the United States feared (very reasonably) that a SA could essentially force the United States into wars it didn’t want to get into. Since the US has the strongest military in the world and the only one really capable of contributing significant and effective forces, this was not a minor concern.
Second, and a bit in tension with the first reason, it would not likely result in any significant deployments to important hotspots because in order for it to be activated, all permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC)(China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) would have to agree. As with any UNSC action or resolution, a veto by any single member means there would be no activity by the SA.
Third, with the world divided into competing alliances (which is even more pronounced today), it’s not clear that there would ever be enough support for meaningful action. For example, if North Korea invaded South Korea, China would likely veto any action by the SA. If Pakistan attacked India, China would likely veto that as well. If the US invaded Iraq (….), the US would veto any action.
Similarly, some teams will argue that a SA is needed to intervene to prevent human rights abuses, and there is recent evidence about the global decline of human rights. The problem is that the global decline is occurring in places like, China, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Is a SA really going to fight one of these countries? If it does it would either get smashed or have to be led by the US, which would likely trigger a world war. Obviously what is most likely to happen is that the SA would just end invading small African countries to protect human rights, resulting in imperialism and violations of sovereignty.
There are certainly many other problems: (1) the workability of foreign intervention in general; (2) the workability of peacekeeping specifically; (3) military tech theft by non-allies; (4) and military resource prioritization, but these are actually relatively minor concerns.
Oh, and there is the problem of having another set of countries order your military into action not being the best idea.
Plus, of course, all personnel aren’t going to be able to go to particular places (think basic language barriers, training to operate in particular geographic environments, etc). The UN Peacekeeping Organization notes: “standing reserve sounds logical, but it would be immensely costly to have a force of several thousand people on permanent standby. Although it takes time, it is much more practical to generate the military personnel once the go-ahead has been given. This also ensures we recruit personnel with the appropriate background, training and language skills relevant to the place they are being deployed to.”
Anyhow, these basic (insurmountable) problems really killed the idea of a SA in the mid-1990s and very little been written about it since. But, hey, if you want to debate like it’s 1995, this one is for you. Just keep in mind that that is the time frame the evidence will come from (see the bibliography below).
To understand the difficulties of having an actionable SA, It is important to clarify a couple of things about the UN.
First, the UN is a an organization of 193 countries.
It’s activity is organized by various councils
The UN has six principal organs: the General Assembly; the Security Council; the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC); the Trusteeship Council; the International Court of Justice; and the UN Secretariat. The UN System includes a multitude of specialized agencies, funds and programmes such as the World Bank Group, the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme, UNESCO, and UNICEF (Wikipedia).
Second, the Security Council, which would oversee any SA, has a process for decision-making.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is one of the six principal organs of the United Nations (UN) and is charged with ensuring international peace and security, recommending the admission of new UN members to the General Assembly, and approving any changes to the UN Charter. Its powers include establishing peacekeeping operations, enacting international sanctions, and authorizing military action. The UNSC is the only UN body with the authority to issue binding resolutions on member states…The Security Council consists of fifteen members, of which five are permanent: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These were the great powers that were the victors of World War II (or their successor states). Permanent members can veto (block) any substantive resolution, including those on the admission of new member states to the United Nations or nominees for the office of Secretary-General, but there is no veto right in emergency special sessions of the General Assembly. The other ten members are elected on a regional basis for a term of two years. The body’s presidency rotates monthly among its members…Resolutions of the Security Council are typically enforced by UN peacekeepers, which consist of military forces voluntarily provided by member states and funded independently of the main UN budget. As of March 2019, there had been thirteen peacekeeping missions with over 81,000 personnel from 121 countries, with a total budget of nearly $6.7 billion. [Wikipedia]
So, to put this in bit of perspective, the UN currently has 81,000 peacekeepers (who are not engaged in combat) spread around the world. What would it take for a SA to react? Well, Russian invaded the Ukraine with 200,000 troops. That’s just the initial force. North Korea has 1.3 million activate personnell. How many would a SA need to repel a North Korean attack? China has 2.1 million active troops. How many would a SA need to repel an attack by China on Taiwan? Of course, this is just imagining you to imagine the number of troops it might take…Now let’s imagine the weapons this SA would have to have to fight a war. And the training….”Even if Boutros-Ghali raises the necessary troops, a United Nations force would still require additional soldiers, equipment, heavy weapons, and air and sea support.’ “(Rothestein)
In fact, as noted by a 1995 advocate, the proposal assumes that the Cold War (the period of terrible relations between the US and the Soviet Union) has ended and not that the US and Russia are currently locked into an argued proxy war in the Ukraine. Arguing for a Standing Army, Rothsfield (1995) writes: The end of the cold war and the demise of the Soviet Union resulted in an unprecedented number of requests for the United Nations to resolve conflicts throughout the world.33 Ethnic rivalries which were often suppressed by the superpowers during the cold war are no longer held in check and have increased in intensity.’
This particular advocate even assumes NATO has some resources to contribute to the SA:”It is not necessary for all nations to supply troops; 20 2 for example, some nations could supply the logistics of transport and support supplies, while others could ensure that supply depots remained ready. 2 3 The Council might also enter into agreements with regional bodies such as NATO, to bolster the United Nations’ ability to maintain the peace.” The problem, of course, is that NATO is a bit tied down trying to defend Western Europe against the Russians at the moment.
It’s not just that the evidence advocating this proposal is old; the proposal itself assumes an entirely different geopolitical environment.
A “Standing Army”
What precisely would a UN SA be comprised of, especially one that was effective in deterring any modern conflict, both in terms of the number of soldiers and the modern military weaponry the force would need. In other words, here are some very simple Cross-X questions:
(1) Approximately how many troops would be in this SA?
(2) Where would the troops come from?
(3) What type of weapons would this SA have? Nuclear weapons? Subs? Aircraft carriers? Fighter jets? Anti-tank weapons? Chemical weapons protective gear? Drones? Suicide drones? How many? How would pay for this?
(4) How would the training be conducted?
One of the more recent articles (2020) with a very vague advocacy for this proposal notes:
Enter the proposal to create a standing, all-volunteer, directly-recruited “U.N. Rapid Deployment Force.” Its raison d’être would be to defend not the national interests of any state, but our common human interest in creating a world free of such outrages. It would be filled with crack soldiers from around the planet, well-equipped, extensively trained, and led by experienced military officers. They would explicitly volunteer to put their lives on the line not to defend their own country but to protect humanity — even when their own country has no dog in the fight. To bring an end to crimes against humanity, the world needs an army of humanity.
Seriously? “Crack soldiers.” Are these mercenaries? How are they trained? How many are there? How are they paid? Who determines what the, “Crimes against humanity” are? Most of the world thinks they are fighting evil Russian aggression? But most Russians think their military is engaged in important combat against Nazis.
Others (Rothestein) argue for “providing the United Nations with “teeth”by forming a standing United Nations army composed of troops from and funded by the member states,” though Rothestein notes:
For the first time since the inception of the United Nations, the new political climate has eliminated longstanding obstacles to achieving these arrangements.’ 27 Currently, there are three potential methods of structuring forces: (1) troops from various armed forces permanently assigned to United Nations duty and activated jointly by the Council and the Secretary-General; (2) units designated by various nations for United Nations use but requiring each government to approve participation in any United Nations mission; and (3) the formation of a foreign legion in which individuals from various nations would volunteer to serve in United Nations units.
Writing in 1992, David Boren referred to a similar proposal:
Richard Gardner, a professor of international law at Columbia University, proposes that 40 to 50 member nations contribute to a rapid-deployment force of 100,000 volunteers that could train under common leadership and with standardized equipment. Intelligence could also be shared to allow the United Nations to anticipate problems and take preemptive action.
Despite advocacy for the SA, Rothstein doesn’t even hint at answers to any of the questions above let alone how this force could solve any of these problems. The best it suggests is: Who would authorize the deployment of a UNRDF? Could preventive deployments sometimes forestall violence? Might its very existence serve as a deterrent? These kinds of questions have been thoroughly explored in the literature over the years. None of them are inherently unanswerable.
Jett (2019) argues, “The basic problem with the military contingents stems from the fact that the UN has no standing army,” but doesn’t address any of the questions above, talk about how a standing army would solve the deficiencies, or even, honestly, advocate for a Standing Army. The quote from Jett is the only reference to it in the article.
These are the only two articles in favor of a SA that I can find since the UN determined it was not possible to create on in the mid-1990s. That said, recent Con articles are hard to find as well because no one is really talking about this. Imagine this UN Standing Army of volunteers “crack soldiers” trying to fight China.
But you are thinking, yeah, but sometimes I’ll have to go Pro. Yes, you will. And, as much as I hate to say it, you are just going to have to pull the wool over the judges’ eyes.
How will you do that?
Hot Spots. Hot Spots. Hot Spots. You need to focus the debate on the impact level and less on the workability of the SA because there are multiple places around the world where there are ongoing wars (Africa, the Middle East) and the potential outbreak of larger wars (East Asia, South Asia, China). You basically need to be able to portray the world as on the bring of massive, multiple conflicts.
Horrors of war. Horrors of war. As the Russian invasion of the Ukraine is making clear, war is horrible, and the atrocities being reported do happen in all conflicts. Some of the activity is arguably genocide.
Basically, you need to get into the judges’ heads that war could break out in many places around the globe and that we need to deter the aggressors and fight them off if needed.
Workability? Whatevs. You need to not only highlight the horrors of war but keep the focus of the debate on that rather than the technical workability of the SA. Yes, it’s practically impossible, but you need to argue that in PF debaters don’t have to present plans, so that you should start the debate by simply imagining that a SA exists (either because there are so many righteous volunteers or because so many nations decide to contribute all of the troops and military resources needed to make this work. You need to scoff/blow off/dance around all the reasons that a SA could really never be created.
Military deterrence. Pro teams need to make simple arguments that strong military capabilities are needed to deter aggressive tyrants and that when deterrence fail the tyrants and human rights abusers need to be blasted away. Military deterrence could be strengthened by a large number of countries working together to create even more credible deterrence.
America First. I think teams can appeal to some individuals in the judge pool by arguing the world’s problems should not all be solved by the US military and that others need to be involved as well.
The Pro can be made to seem more reasonable with the arguments above, but the Con still has the upper hand.
Workability. I would not advise Con teams that get into the workability arguments related to the creation of the SA (these are probably insurmountable but the Pro will stress they don’t need a plan…). I would discuss the workability problems related to what happens after the SA is created.
Can you give an example of a current conflict the SA could prevent?
Do you have any evidence that all 5 members of the UNSC would agree to send the force there?
Do you have any evidence from after 2020 (you know, when the world started falling apart) that major countries could work together on a SA?
Vetos. China and/or Russia would veto almost any conflict the SA might get involved in. The US and Western allies (UK, France) would probably veto any conflicts Russia and China would want to get involved in.
Cost. It’s best to turn this into a disadvantage, but the costs of creating an army with 10s of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands of troops) that need to be trained, deployed, and possibly fight in wars would be astronomical. At a minimum, how would this be funded?
Command. What country would command this? A US commander? Why would a Russian commander listen to US troops? Or a Chinese troops?
Logistics. Modern weapons systems run on integrated software and simple things such as sharing jet fighter technology among allies presents risk of tech and intellectual property theft. How could the US organize a SA with Russia and China that was actually effective? In another context, Richard Weitz explained this basic problem:
On July 17, the U.S. announced that it had terminated Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter jet program, five days after Ankara took delivery of components for four batteries of Russian S-400 air defense systems that Turkey purchased in 2017. The systems will not be assembled and operational until the fall, but in receiving the first shipment, Turkey ignored repeated warnings from Washington that it considered the presence of the S-400 to be incompatible with operating the F-35.
The Trump administration gave several reasons for the suspension: the intelligence risk posed by the presence of an advanced Russian data-collection platform in a NATO country; Turkey’s refusal to accept a Western air defense system as an alternative; and the damage to NATO interoperability resulting from the deployment of a non-Western weapon system by a member state.
Canceling Turkey’s planned purchase of more than 100 F-35s, as well as its participation in the production of many of the plane’s major components, is justified. Nonetheless, the United States needs to contain the damage to bilateral relations by eschewing additional harsh sanctions on Turkey, while also drawing the proper conclusions from the current dispute to avoid over investment in the F-35 program.
Deterrence/Conflict reduction. Military deterrence is not a simple idea and it often fails to deter war. Moreover, even once troops and weapons are committed wars are not always won by, “the good guys.” Deploying more military forces could also exacerbate conflicts. Command and logistics issues (above) could make this all worse.
See: Ethnic Conflict: The Perils of Military Intervention (1995); Assessing the Trade-Offs in US Military Intervention Decisions (2021) ( Although U.S. intervention might shorten conflicts or make them less likely to recur in some circumstances, it could have the opposite effect in others. Although we do not observe an overall pattern in the effects of U.S. interventions on conflict outcomes, U.S. interventions have substantial potential to affect these outcomes. However, it appears that their effects are dependent on other factors, such as how these interventions might affect the local balance of power in the conflict or how they will affect the calculations of third parties, including the local population in the host nation and other regional or global powers. Where a U.S. intervention establishes a clear balance of power in favor of the side on which it intervenes, or where an intervention incentivizes other states to support U.S. efforts, it can shorten or limit the conflict. Where an intervention merely forestalls defeat for the supported side or leads to a stalemate, or where an intervention causes a popular backlash or incentivizes other states to intervene to counter the U.S. effort, it could prolong or intensify the conflict. Careful analysis of these factors therefore appears to be crucial for anticipating the effect that U.S. intervention might have on conflict outcomes. We did not find substantial evidence that U.S. decisions regarding the timing or size of the intervention would be expected to affect conflict dynamics directly, though we would expect that timing and size could well affect the course of the conflict through these same intermediary variables of the local balance of power and third-party reactions.; Why military interventions fail (2005); Failed Interventions and What they Teach (2015) (The roughly $1 trillion we spend on military and related activities in the budgets for defense, veterans affairs, intelligence, military assistance programs, homeland security, nuclear weapons and propulsion, and the like is two-thirds of government operations. It is all — every cent of it — borrowed from future taxpayers and current trading partners abroad. A lot of this escalating debt for military expenditures is attributable to the Middle East. Even if our military operations there were achieving their objectives — which they are not — they are fiscally unsustainable in the long term. As Herb Stein’s mother famously observed, “if something can’t go on forever, sooner or later it will stop.”…An end to military intervention abroad except for decisive action for precise purposes and over a limited time would go a long way toward curbing the further growth of the terrorist threat to our country. A serious effort by our government and public intellectuals to counter and reverse the bigotry of current discourse about Islam and the Arabs in this country could lay a basis for enhanced cooperation with Arab and Muslim governments against Islamist extremists who practice violent politics. After all, they are the enemies of Americans and Muslims alike.) Why Military Interventions Fail (2015); LESSONS FROM AFRICA: MILITARY INTERVENTION FAILS TO COUNTER TERRORISM (2020)
There are a couple of strong disadvantages to creating a SA.
Russia/China (and maybe North Korea). The US is currently engaging in significant draw-downs to keep the Ukrainian military armed. These draw-downs are so significant, that some concern has been expressed that the US needs to limit direct transfers from its own stocks in order to protect its military readiness to defend Western Europe from Russia and Taiwan and Japan from China. South Korea has not given weapons because it needs to retain its military readiness against North Korea.
Thomas Sheehy (1993) argued that contributing to a SA would undermine US military deterrence against North Korea and in Persian Gulf region, which were the big security concerns in the era the SA was discussed. Today he would likely be writing about how it would trade-off with defending against Russia and China.
Cost. As discussed, this would be astronomically expensive. Military intervention is generally expensive and a SA would likely draw the US into more conflicts where it would contribute a majority of the troops.
Intervention/imperialism bad. More military intervention in the developing world is likely to exacerbate violence and imperialism. As discussed above, the SA would be most likely to intervene in the developing world.
UN “peacekeeping” bad. Although a SA is not technically a peacekeeping force, the SA would be exposed to some of the same arguments against peacekeeping: sexual assault by peacekeepers; lack of an ability to court martial/prevent crimes; human rights violations. These are all going to be magnified if they operate under the aegis of the UN and not their home countries, as the UN does not have a court system that can prosecute military crimes. Pro teams will try to argue these problems can be avoided with a regular SA, but some of the problems are intrinsic.
Mercenaries bad. Most proposals assume the troops would come from UN member countries, but if the one recent article that says they will come from mercenaries/volunteers from around the world is right, then there are major problems with mercenaries, including massive human rights violations and a lack of accountability.
This article does not come out in favor of a SA (it just mentions it once), but it does emphasize the importance of rapid response, which is an argument that advocates of the SA make.
Improving United Nations Rapid Reaction Capability: is a volunteer rapid reaction force the
answer? This thesis is written by a college student, so I’m not sure if you want to quote it, but it has some good evidence.
Conflict Prevention: Options for Rapid Deployment and UN Standing Forces (2000). This article generally makes the case for a Standing Army
David Boren, The World Needs an Army on Call, N.Y. TIMES, Aug. 26, 1992, a
It is time to create a United Nations army that can confront present and future crises.”‘ The provisions already exist in the United Nations Charter for the formation of such an army; however, the reluctance of the United States continues to prevent such a formation. Yet, without a United Nations army, the United States quite possibly will be forced to act as the world’s police officer in order to resolve international conflicts, an idea that does not appeal to most Americans.27 Furthermore, the existence of a United Nations army would allow the United States to maintain its international commitments at a fraction of the material, energy, and monetary costs to do it alone.
A truly integrated fighting force capable of projecting United Nations power worldwide cannot be created overnight. However, NATO represents a successful model to emulate; moreover, militarily adept nations, such as the United States, could provide equipment, bases, and training for United Nations forces. While financial, military, and political problems remain to be solved if a United Nations army is to become an effective tool for preventing and resolving international conflicts, such concerns should not prevent the formation of such an army. Members should focus on how a United Nations force should be structured, not on whether it should be created.
A United Nations army will not be a panacea for the world’s problems. Some situations may be unsuitable for United Nations intervention; however, an army would provide the United Nations with enhanced ability to offer solutions to international crises. By itself, the threat of armed United Nations intervention may be sufficient to deter aggression or spur efforts to find diplomatic solutions. The old ways of doing business will not work in the new world order; the formation of a United Nations army is the next logical step in the evolution of collective security. For the United Nations to serve as an effective forum for peaceful cooperation among nations, it must also be the world’s police officer when the situation dictates.
Creating a permanent UN capability would mean that the UN could intervene much more quickly. It would also make it more likely that forces assigned to the UN follow the same military doctrines. It would also help address chronic shortages of equipment. As things stand, UN forces often lack the kit they need. The peacekeeping operation in Darfur is hamstrung by its lack of helicopters, for example.
Forty-five years later it would be wise to consider again the usefulness of some kind of UN legion. The Security Council is today able to reach unanimous decisions on most of the important questions that come before it. The Council’s problem now is how to make these decisions stick. The technique of peacekeeping without using force has often proved effective in conflicts between states, whether in the Middle East, Cyprus, or Africa. Predictably enough, in chaotic and violent situations within states or former states, peacekeeping forces have often been unable to impose the Security Council’s decisions on partisan militias and other non-governmental groups. Thus, the Security Council is often reduced to delivering admonitions or demands that have little or no impact on the actual situation. Like the legendary King Canute, it orders the waves to go back with small hope of practical results.
Note: This article is one problem with most of the evidence on this topic being so old. It claims: “. The Security Council is today able to reach unanimous decisions on most of the important questions that come before it”. But today this is not true – witness the Ukraine! Russia is (unsurprisingly) vetoing UN Security Council action on the Ukraine.
This article identifies many practical barriers to a UNSA.
I shall argue that the formation of an effective standing U.N. army is neither possible nor desirable in the foreseeable future. Instead, it is both preferable and possible to seek incremental steps that could narrow the gap between expectations and capabilities and ultimately enhance the power of the United Nations.
To reject a U.N. standing army is not to reject U.N. peacekeeping. There is plenty for the U.S. to do to improve the financial, logistical, and professional aspects of the U.N.’s current peacekeeping activities. For example, officers in the U.N. “command center” in New York rely on CNN television news broadcasts for their information from the field. The Clinton Administration could help correct this problem by establishing an improved command, control, and communications structure for U.N. military operations.
A standing U.N. army encourages the misguided perception that a “good” commitment of U.S. force is one for which there is multilateral support, making future commanders in chief more reluctant to apply force unilaterally to defend American interests abroad. Moreover, it will embolden the U.N. into greater activism in conflicts to which the U.S. would otherwise not have committed American lives and resources.
“They didn’t have in mind the kind of [peacekeeping] operations we are now accustomed to,” she said. But due to differences between the United States and the Soviet Union, which disagreed over the scope of the forces mandate, the standby force never came into existence. The Military Staff Committee continued to hold its biweekly meeting, but its role in enforcing global peace and security became largely irrelevant.
“Ultimately, the U.N.’s political credibility still rests on its ability to prevent major conflict. It’s struggling with that now,” Gowan said. “But I’m not sure anyone is going to be painting submarines light blue and offering them to Antonio Gutérres!”
Proposals for a UN standing army have a long history. Indeed, the UN Charter itself calls for armed forces to be put at the disposal of the Security Council (SC) on the basis of Article 43 “special agreements” to be signed by the SC and member states. However, the Cold War intervened in 1947 and negotiations between the US and USSR on the forces they would make available ground to a halt. With the world’s two most militarily powerful states unable to take the first step, no “special agreements” were ever signed.
The notion of a UN standing army (or police force) of any size bumps up against a deep reluctance to empower the organization in that way. The principle of state sovereignty is still clung to by most member states — from the Global North and Global South. The world is not ready for a standing force of even 13,000 let alone 800,000.