Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Isaiah Wall and the World: Peacekeeping in a World Without Peace to Keep

Robert J. Joustra


[Editor’s Note: A longer version of this article appeared in a publication by the International Bible Advocacy Centre (IBAC) titled Democracy, Conflict & the Bible: Reflections on the Role of the Bible in International Affairs. Other commentary includes Sean Oliver-Dee on “The Contribution of the Bible in Addressing Social Conflict,” and Theos’s Nick Spencer on “The UN and Its Expansion of Democracy Around the World: Does the Bible Support It?”]

On First Avenue, across from the United Nations in New York City, sits a small park, less than a quarter of an acre, named for Ralph Bunche, the first African-American recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s so close to the UN that people often mistake the park for being part of it. It’s not. But the mistake is natural, because the park is also home to the famous “Isaiah Wall” which so many people naturally associate with the United Nations and its peacekeeping. There, carved into granite, is the old prophesy of an obscure Hebrew itinerant, predicting a day that seems as far away now as it did then in ancient Mesopotamia-- a day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall we learn war any longer.

The truth is that UN peacekeeping today is in crisis. But that crisis is about much more than blue helmets, an emergency force that has lost, if it ever had, the enthusiasm of the great powers. The muddied waters of peacekeeping come from toxins-- failures in governance-- further upstream.

Simply put, there can be no peacekeeping where there is no peace to keep.

The Crisis

George Moose, Vice Chairman of the United States Institute of Peace, writes that “the alarming state of the overtaxed United Nations peacekeeping system endangers human rights, genocide prevention, development, and the prospects for sustainable peace.” Moose describes peacekeeping as the United Nations’ “signature brand,” (which earned the UN the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001), and one very much in danger because its capacities have been stretched to their absolute limits. This, despite the fact the UN ranks first in the number of operational forces deployed around the world, with 130,000 peacekeepers assigned to sixteen missions (as of June 2015). The challenge, Moose argues bluntly, is political. Peacekeeping is no longer seen as a primary tool of many nations’ foreign policies, and some countries, like Canada, have opted for regional military alliances and deployments like NATO, partly because they no longer see the UN as the obvious or most effective instrument for peacekeeping.

Part of this is also because of the perceived limits of UN peacekeeping in many of these hot spots around the globe where, clearly, these peacekeepers are no silver bullet. Peacekeeping missions have been deployed, and in some instances badly failed, in places like Somalia, Congo, Central African Republic, Rwanda, and elsewhere. The truism of politics has long been that there is no police force robust or powerful enough to enact justice and the rule of law only by force. Failed states, in other words, as some of the latter most certainly are, test the boundaries and possibilities of this kind of peacekeeping. It is difficult to imagine a peacekeeping force deployed to Syria or Iraq that would not quickly be caught up in the front lines between the Islamic State and the Iraqi Army, or Shi’a militias from Iran. This is not peacekeeping—it is armed intervention; it is state building and peacemaking.

Peacekeeping: Upstream Failures in Global Governance

The limits of peacekeeping were well recognized by its earlier adopters. Even Lester B. Pearson, the great Canadian diplomat whose arguments at the United Nations created the UN Emergency Force during the Suez Crisis (what would later become “peacekeeping”) did not imagine these forces alone could secure peace. The UN itself, according to Pearson, was but one vehicle. One of those other organizations, which Pearson vocally supported, was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And lest Pearson’s legacy be badly represented here to suggest he was hawkish on peace and security, his most lasting legacy is almost certainly in foreign aid and the Commission on International Development, prepared for Robert S. McNamara at the World Bank.

Peacekeeping was an important tool in the box of global governance, but it was only one tool, and it neither exhausted the vision of the just and durable peace that inspired the United Nations, nor did it comprehensively address the very real needs of a world with international terrorism, religious violence, climate changes, and trade and currency wars. If we are to talk of the Biblical vision, if we are to invoke Isaiah’s vision for human security, armed peacekeepers may well be a part of it, but they would be the smallest, maybe even the least significant part of it.

This is why some Christian theologians have found common cause with the human security literature, calling for things like positive peace, stable peace, or sustainable peace. Such a peace is not defined merely by an absence of war (a “kept” peace), or by cease-fires and peace treaties. This peace is part of an entire political-theological imagination of good, international society. The somewhat overused, and occasionally abused, Hebrew shalom is the word Old Testament scholars use to describe this. It invokes not only restoration, but public justice, a peaceful and ongoing conciliation of diversity rooted in a balanced covenant between God, people, and the whole creation. Sustainable peace, in other words, is about “good governance,” about loving faithful institutions (institutions, plural).

Some Christian leaders, like Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros in their book The Locust Effect, have argued that we must attend more deeply to causes of conflict and injustice in the world than to mere “peacekeeping.” They invoke what Abraham Kuyper called an architectonic critique, that “we must courageously and openly acknowledge that the situation calls not only for the physician [for the peacekeeper] but most certainly for the architect as well.” Any Christian picture of international peace must take seriously, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer does, that “we are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” A just and durable peace means more than peacekeeping and emergency aid. It means stopping the wheel of injustice and poverty; it means a renewed global architecture.

Such an argument for the simultaneous realization of norms is already emerging in the social science. Paul Collier, the famous economist and author of The Bottom Billion, gives us a reasonably readable and academically sound picture of what that architecture might be. Public justice and the rule of law is one of four critical pieces (his list comprises foreign aid, security, trade, and laws and charters). Any approach to peace, argues Collier, that focuses solely on one or two pieces of this package tends to fail. Haugen and Boutros cite economist Hernando de Soto at length in The Locust Effect, making a persuasive argument that no development can take place apart from the basic settlement of property rights, or the rule of law which tells you who owns what and how legitimate buying and selling can go on.

The point of these new Christian thinkers is to draw out the architectonic aspects of Isaiah’s vision of human security: that Christians, especially Christians thinking globally, must think not only about “helping” in emergency ways, but must think long and hard about structural transformation.

Peacekeeping is, in this respect, a last resort. That it is in crisis owes as much to the quality of conflicts in today’s world, as to the intractable problems that feed conflicts upstream. A crisis in peacekeeping, then, isn’t about that little place in the stream-- it’s about a whole ecosystem.

Peacekeeping: The Simultaneous Restoration of Norms

A Biblical model of international peace is neither reductionist, leaning on merely one or another institution, even the United Nations, nor is it consumed only with “global” governance, recognizing as it does that local justice enables global justice, and that these two global/local aspects are not rivals, but partners in peace and development. Nor is the Biblical work of global peace merely concerned with the outward manifestations of outright violence. It is concerned with the simultaneous realization of norms – security (including peacekeeping), economic growth (trade, investment), the rule of law (rights), and charity (aid) - which make possible good societies.

The ecosystem of global governance is therefore a complex system. Peacekeeping is a realpolitik recognition that the internal norms of its many parts will sometimes badly break, and enforced peace will be necessary. What a crisis in peacekeeping signals is an ecosystem in crisis, institutions that have begun to fail in tandem, chaining reactions with devastating consequences. It means aid has failed. Trade and business have failed. Laws and public justice have failed. Until, finally, security has failed. If development is about the simultaneous realization of norms, peacekeeping is about needing to simultaneously restore them. Blue helmets are just one piece of that project.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What do you know about the UN’s peacekeeping mandate and mechanisms? How effective and relevant are they given our current global realities? How might these peacekeeping efforts be better used?
  2. How do you understand the connection between local justice and global justice? What are some examples that can illustrate this connection?
  3. What role can Christian citizens play in the structural transformation that the article calls for?


- Robert Joustra teaches politics and international studies at Redeemer University College, where he is Director of the Centre for Christian Scholarship. His latest book, co-authored with Alissa Wilkinson, How to Survive the Apocalypse, is due out this spring with Eerdmans. He is a fellow with CPJ and with the Institute for Global Engagement.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”