UN observers monitor a border discussion between Indian and Pakistani officers, 1963

Rethinking the history of UN peacekeeping

This article was written by Margot Tudor
This article was published on

Margot Tudor, winner of the 2021 Michael Nicholson Thesis Prize, discusses the findings from her thesis 'Blue Helmet Bureaucrats: UN Peacekeeping Missions and the Formation of the Post-Colonial International Order, 1956 – 1971'.  The thesis was described by the judges as "an exceptionally rich and nuanced account of these missions, producing novel insights into how the conduct of peacekeeping operations on the ground were shaped by a changing international order."

Although peacekeeping operations are often criticised for their colonial underpinnings, most recently in relation to French involvement in the UN’s Mali mission (est. 2013), we lack a clear understanding of the ways in which colonial actors and ideas influenced peacekeepers on the ground from 1948 to 1971.

During the era of decolonisation, United Nations (UN) peacekeeping staff orchestrated a reinvention of sovereignty and a remaking of colonial-era hierarchies for Global South populations on the front-line of post-colonial statehood. My thesis complicated concepts of the UN as a passive, faceless organisation and sought to uncover the officials that reconfigured the functions of global governance, and sites of diplomatic power in the post-war world. At its core, my thesis traced the peaks and troughs of the UN as a peacekeeper agency throughout the period of decolonisation and the early Cold War, identifying colonial continuities and evolving peacekeeper practices in the field.

Bringing together histories of peacekeeping, decolonisation, and the global Cold War, my thesis shed light on the mechanisms through which sovereignty was negotiated and renegotiated from the late-1940s onwards. During the transformative era of decolonisation, UN peacekeeping staff orchestrated a reinvention of sovereignty and a remaking of colonial-era hierarchies for Global South populations on the front-line of post-colonial statehood. Peacekeeping missions perpetuated colonial structures, racial imaginaries, and staffing into newly independent or politically transitional spaces. Using a humanitarian or peacebuilding guise, the organisation set host populations and the international community’s expectations of the rights-based motivations and interests protected by peacekeeping staff. Mid-level UN peacekeeping officials – defined as mission or organisation leadership present and active in the field – used their direct access to local politicians, populations, and activists to shape governance structures, for example post-colonial territorial borders and development programs, that would conform to the organisation’s fundamental nation-state framework, in exchange for technical support and international legitimacy.

Mid-level peacekeepers played a pivotal role in curating the norms and structures of the post-colonial international order, contrary to dominant scholarly focuses on New York- or Geneva-based diplomatic internationalist networks. UN leadership recruited mid-level officials from a variety of past positions, from managing mining corporations to leading anti-colonial debates within the General Assembly, but they were integrated within the UN international civil service and, thus, belonged to the same international epistemic community of liberal internationalists and peacekeepers. Grounded in racist and technocratic exceptionalism and anti-communism, mid-level peacekeeping personnel took inspiration, often instinctively, from previous imperial administrations or career experiences to establish ‘stability’ in the host countries and assert political authority over the population. The peacekeeping staff became knowledge gatekeepers to the global community and held substantial power over how local populations’ rights were conceived by international forums, thus impacting on host states’ political futures.

Rather than passive intermediaries, mid-level peacekeepers sought to cut through red tape and exploit their power to shape the political future of the host territory and the post-colonial international order. Mid-level UN officials used their direct access to belligerents and political activists to negotiate political and governance structures, such as national unity, a non-aligned ideology, and democratic processes, that benefited the organisation’s nation-state system in exchange for support and legitimacy from the UN officials. Thus, as peacekeepers experimented with non-state diplomacy in the field, internally debated mission decision-making, and bargained with the warring parties, they reinforced a post-colonial world vision with the UN at the centre of state regulation and the international security paradigm.

My thesis also situated peacekeeping missions as part of the longer historical legacies of nineteenth-century interventionism and liberal imperialism. Thus, rather than confirming beliefs that post-Cold War 21st century peacekeeping missions strayed from the original, apolitical standards of UN operations, my thesis demonstrated how past peacekeeping missions perpetuated racial hierarchies, international interference, and technocratic supremacy into post-colonial conflict contexts.


Dr Margot Tudor is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. She is currently working on a manuscript, building on her PhD research, that focuses on tracing how mid-level UN peacekeepers shaped the post-colonial international order and remade sovereignty from 1946-1971.