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UN Peacekeeping Myth and Reality: Introduction

UN Peacekeeping Myth and Reality

 

Soldiers from all corners of the world congregate under the Blue Flag in god-forsaken places they have difficulty of finding on a map. What brings together young men from Zimbabwe and France, from Russia and Fiji, from Poland and Bangladesh, from Argentina and UK, and, rarely, even from the United States of America? Their common cause is United Nations peacekeeping, which in words of the UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, “… stands out, as one of the
Organization’s most original and ambitious undertakings in its efforts to control conflict and promote peace.” 1 But Fred Cuny, an American from Texas, the legendary international relief leader, liked to say that, if the United Nations had been around in 1939, we would all be speaking German.2 He was not alone in thinking that the contribution of the colorful contingents fell miserably short of the grand expectations people had of them.

I shared these expectations. The experience of the Second World War in Warsaw (Poland) made me to believe in the need for a world in which peace and freedom for people is internationally protected. The United Nations Charter contained such a promise. A few decades later, I was lucky enough to participate in a UN operation that delivered on that promise by ushering Namibia (South West Africa or SWA) into its independence in 1989. But that success was an exception rather then a rule and what followed was not a New World Order, promised also by the U.S. President in the wake of the first Gulf War, but a string of UN failures and humiliations in Somalia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia. Not convinced by confusing, contradictory, and simplistic explanations of these debacles offered by the media and by the politicians, I begun to search for more plausible answers on what went wrong and why. There were no simple answers in sight and I embarked on a closer examination of the subject the results of which I am sharing with the reader of this book.

Ultimately, I have come to believe that the UN doctrine and practice informed by the alleged contradiction between peacekeeping and peace enforcement is divorced from the reality of most contemporary armed conflicts. It is wasteful
and cripples all levels of a UN peacekeeping mission. Abdication in advance of peace enforcement by UN peacekeeping contingents has severely limited their effectiveness and allowed aggressors and warlords to carry on their trade of war,
atrocities, and ethnic cleansing with impunity.3 As Edward N. Luttwak rightly observed, the very presence of UN forces unable to effectively protect civilians inhibits the normal remedy of escape from war. Deluded into thinking that they would be protected, the endangered people stay in place, until it is too late to flee.4

FROM SUEZ CANAL TO RWANDA AND SREBRENICA

The first UN peacekeeping operation, United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), was deployed in 1956 to separate belligerents in the Suez Canal War. It acted under three guiding principles: consent of the parties to the conflict, impartiality, and use of force only in self-defense.5 Until its premature and forced withdrawal, it was a success. Peacekeeping was never formally defined by any UN organ or by its Secretariat. But this was not necessarily a problem, because the lack of an official definition could have been an advantage, allowing the UN to tailor its missions in keeping with the nature of the conflicts. Yet, although Brian Urquhart, one of the major architects of peacekeeping, considered the UN mission in Egypt to have been a face-saving operation of a unique kind,6 the UN choose to codify the UNEF’s guidelines as a doctrine which it has subsequently applied indiscriminately for some 50 years. As a result, international military contingents have deployed with the same face-saving guidelines as those formulated for UNEF, even when one of the faces to be saved was that of a genocidal killer, as it happened in the Rwanda of 1994. The ill-conceived and abusive deployment of lightly armed international contingents in areas of armed conflagrations has gradually made peacekeeping a travesty of the initially brilliant concept.

In 1995 the “safe area” of Srebrenica in Bosnia was overrun by Serbs despite the presence of a UN battalion which did not put any resistance to the attackers who massacred thousands of Bosnians afterward. The Security Council (SC) in resolution 836, which established the safe areas, explicitly authorized use of force to deter attacks on them. But the UN Secretariat argued that such an authorization should be read in the context of self-defense, which does not imply defense of a territory. It also pointed out that “deterrence” is different from “defense” or “protection.” As a high UN official in charge of the ex-Yugoslavia desk in the New York headquarters explained before the fall of Srebrenica “… we were deployed to help extinguish the flames of war, not to fan them.” After the enclave’s fall, he maintained that peacekeepers were being blamed for failing to do things that they were not mandated to do.7 It was not just UN officials who promoted this view.

In Yugoslavia the media shaped the perceptions and influenced the actions of their audiences by disseminating an image of peacekeepers made impotent by some undefined “international laws.” Parroting their sources and trotting out stereotypes, journalists bore considerable responsibility for the failure of the American and the international public to understand the conflict and to grasp the UN role in it.8 Indeed, the media has shaped our perceptions of other troubled UN missions to other tortured nations as well.

But the United Nations is too noble a project to debase itself by turning a blind eye to areas of its military deployment becoming killing fields, as it did in Rwanda and Srebrenica.9

DOCTRINAL CONFUSION AND CONCEPTUAL VOID

The real nature of the UN military interventions is obscured by the existing confusion about “peacekeeping” and “peace enforcement,” neither of which appears in the UN Charter. Both are open to differing interpretations, but in the UN view, first and foremost, are incompatible. According to Ghali: “The logic of peacekeeping flows from premises that are quite distinct from those of enforcement… . To blur the distinction between the two can undermine the viability of a peacekeeping operation and endanger its personnel.”10 But the guidelines for UNEF II, established in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli War in 1973, provided that the UN troops can use force in self-defense, “which would include resistance to attempts by forceful means to prevent it from discharging its duties under the Security Council’s mandate …”11 In less diplomatic language it means that force can be used in defense of the mandate, and such an action is nothing else than enforcement. These guidelines become standard for the future operations but that fact did not disturb the UN in repeating its mantra of a strict contradiction between peacekeeping and peace enforcement.

Members of UN Forces from the Commander to the privates face, therefore, hard choices. Is a forcible removal of an illegal roadblock on the way of a UN convoy an act of peacekeeping or an act of peace enforcement? The UN mission to Cambodia illustrated mutually exclusive but seemingly correct interpretations of the UN policy. The Force’s Commander, General John M. Sanderson, and his Deputy, General Michel Loridon, differed on the appropriate strategy toward the Khmer Rouge who, contrary to previous agreements, prevented UN peacekeepers from entering their zone. The Deputy rightly insisted that it was within the mission’s mandate to use force, if need be, to compel rebels to honor their own pledges and to maintain the UN troops’ freedom of movement. The Commander believed that such an action would amount to an offensive, which was outside the mission’s mandate. Both generals could have claimed to be following UN principles but the Deputy was sent packing.12 It was a telling illustration of a conceptual confusion that reigned at all levels of the UN peacekeeping operations. The results un peacekeeping of that confusion and of the conceptual void proved to be tragic for everyone
concerned.

The incompatibility of the original concept of peacekeeping with the nature of the prevailing intrastate conflicts has not gone unnoticed. But the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s bold admission of failures and errors in Srebrenica fell short of calling into question the peacekeeping doctrine itself. “It became apparent that the old rules of the game no longer eld,” declared Annan in his report on the fall of the enclave. Yet, he again insisted that peacekeeping and peace enforcement were distinct activities that should not be confused. A report produced in 2000 by a panel of experts contained a fitting analysis of the existing shortcomings, but confirmed the validity of the consensual peacekeeping principles, unchanged from the time of the Suez Canal crisis.13

Outside of the UN system, military strategists and academia produced in the last decade a vast body of theoretical contributions on peacekeeping’s doctrinal adjustment to the new challenges. To describe better the complex realities new
ideas and semantic innovations have been introduced, such as “robust,” “wider,” “expanded peacekeeping,” “peace support,” “peace restoration,” or “inducement” and also “humanitarian” operations-to name a few. As for peace enforcement a consensus seems emerging in considering it a subdivision of UN operations, falling into a “gray area” between peacekeeping and war fighting.14 But the existing debates have not affected policies and practices of peacekeeping, yet. Whatever turn these debates may take in the future, their participants cannot afford neglecting stark realities of peacekeeping on the ground, because what can be easily differentiated on paper may defy such a distinction in the field. Neither theoreticians nor practitioners should overlook the experience of the former commander of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia, General Michael Rose. According to the general, “… it is impossible to draw a clear line between the permissible use of force in a peacekeeping operation and an act of war.” 15 Until the theoretical questions are resolved, a common sense principle could be perhaps agreed upon: before deploying peacekeeping operations the UN should make sure that its military contingents are ready to defend themselves and their mandate and that they have means to do so. Otherwise it is better for the organization and for the soldiers that they stay home.

CONSTRAINTS OF CHANGE

An effective UN peacekeeping faces serious constraints on the part of the Secretariat of the organization and of the troop contributing governments. The leaders of the organization never came to terms with the idea that war sometime must be fought to keep up or create peace. The governments shy from commitments to operation exposing their troops to casualties. Thus, changing the UN peacekeeping doctrine or introducing more robust rules of engagement cannot by itself radically alter how the organization confronts challenges to international peace. The roots of the malaise reach deep, growing out of a soil fertilized by ubiquitous contradictions and an illusion. The first contradiction is a declared desire for peace but an unwillingness to pay its price. Equally contradictory is the nature of the United Nations composition. The very offenders of peace and human rights are among its members and exercise a corroding influence on the organization’s capability in challenging these violations. The illusion is the belief, widely spread in the West before September 11, 2001, that conflicts in distant, exotic places do not affect our own safety.

The reluctance of states to undertake risky interventions in foreign conflicts in the interest of an abstract concept of international peace found an institutional expression in a profound, if undeclared, shift in role of the United Nations. The world body whose Charter enabled it to restrain aggressors and prevent wars became in 1948 in Palestine an organization offering good offices for mediating, monitoring, and reporting from areas of conflict. The member governments either welcomed that shift or did not mind. That shift articulated during the cold war into the replacement of the collective security sought by the UN founding members by a less ambitious strategy called “peacekeeping,” which William Durch defined as “carving out a more narrow security role.”16

But the Great Powers, which exercise the veto over the Security Council’s resolutions, did not have a common agenda even after the cold war was over. Initial hopes for a more assertive role by the organization quickly floundered, thus. By 1996, a clear confirmation of the old stance came from Ghali, who pronounced the UN “a neutral intervening force and honest broker.” 17 He did so in spite of the Charter of the organization, which in Chapter VII provides for a ollective response to threats to international peace, including, as the last resort, military actions against the aggressors (see Appendix).18 Ghali’s confirmed retreat from the original aims of the UN was an expression of the institutional culture of neutrality that took a firm hold in the organization and Annan’s pronunciations to the contrary proved insufficient to break up that lock.

The ambiguity of the current official language on use of force by the UN remains an obstacle to any meaningful reform. It is best exposed by the contradictory interpretation of the mandates of the SC formulated in resolutions 678 and 836. Both resolutions authorized the intervening international contingents to employ “all necessary means” to discharge their mandates. The former was interpreted as an authorization for a flat-out war with Iraq or Desert Storm by a U.S.-led coalition of the willing. The latter was deemed insufficient for inducing a UN battalion to use force either in deterrence of attacks on the safe area of Srebrenica or in defense of itself.19

WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS

Short of a radical rewriting of the present peacekeeping rules, the Secretary General has no reason for wearing the sheriff’s star. The UN Secretariat should then follow its own logic of neutrality and disarm by restricting its peacekeeping missions to the dispatch of military observers. The organization can only gain from abandoning the false promises of peacekeeping by noncombatant troops, maintained at tremendous costs and to no avail. Building up its negotiating and mediating capabilities has a greater potential for the support of peace than feeble sable rattling. The money wasted on failed interventions could be released for a better use.20 Moreover, with UN pretences abandoned, neither islanders from Fiji, paratroopers from Belgium, nor young men from any other country would need to die in places like Bosnia, Lebanon, or Rwanda in actions that are no more than exercises in international hypocrisy, provided that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and coalitions of the willing who already replace Blue Helmets in UN authorized peacekeeping operations will learn from the organization’s failures.

But as the organization proved capable of absorbing the results of worst failures without a visible damage or change of its course, it may well be that peacekeeping will just continue in its present frame. The symbolic presence of international troops provides a smokescreen, a substitute for an effective intervention, and there is a constant demand for such a commodity on the international political market. It was recently confirmed in Afghanistan. After the American defeat of the Taliban regime in 2001, a multinational International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) authorized by the UN Security Council has been restricted to patrolling the relatively calm capital city of Kabul, while the provinces were left to their fate-armed clashes between competing factions, common banditry, and flourishing narco-business. NATO, which took over the command of the operation in August 2003, went outside of Kabul (after the U.S. administration dropped its opposition to that move).21 But it restricted the initial deployment to a symbolic force in the one and only, relatively calm region of Kunduz with the task of protecting a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). NATOS’ minimalist response to the risk of Afghanistan sliding into anarchy again shows that it is not immune to the UN peacekeeping syndrome of expecting to alter the behavior of warring parties by a symbolic presence of international noncombat troops. Some of the alliance’s members even believe that their peacekeepers need to obtain assurances of security before being deployed.22

When even NATO, the most powerful military alliance in the world, wavers in deployment of its might, may the UN play any significant role in what is called peacekeeping? It is an open question, but even in face of failures and shortcomings only too obvious, the organization cannot be dismissed easily. On the second anniversary of the terrorist attack of September 9, 2001, John Mearsheimer, leading American realist thinker, bluntly submitted that the United States cannot run the world by itself and that institutions like the UN are needed.23 If this is so, the question is not whether, but what for is the UN needed in the field of international security.

At the strategic level, there is a consensus, including the sole superpower, that authorization of the UN SC, if not necessary, is at least much desirable for any international military intervention, peacekeeping included. At the operational level in missions labeled peacekeeping, strict adherence to the consensual peacekeeping prevail. But an unexpected and undeclared divorce from these was taking place at an obscure front in the Congo at the end of 2005. UN and Congolese forces, acting in hot pursuit, killed about 80 rebels in a week south of Beni in the North Kivu district. Further, Congolese troops supported by the UN contingents retook nine localities in the Ituri district.24 Not a single cornerstone of the consensual peacekeeping doctrine remained in place in that operation. Consensus of the parties, impartiality of the UN troops, and the restriction of use of force to self-defense-all these principles were overturned. Strangely enough the edifice of peacekeeping did not go tumbling down in the UN HQ or anywhere else. It remains to be seen whether these events are an isolated incident or a quiet test of a new policy. But with even NATO having troubles in staffing its noncombat mission in Afghanistan, the later, if ever true, does not seem to have much chance. Availability of men ready to take risks under an international flag is at the roots of a success or a failure of any meaningful reform of peacekeeping.

Urquhart, remembering the remorse, felt by anyone involved, for the failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, rallies for giving the UN a real muscle by creating a volunteer-based rapid reaction force, permanently at the disposal of the SC. One of the UN peacekeeping architects, who was in the past against a permanent UN Force and peace enforcement by soldiers under the Blue Flag, clearly recognizes now that a changed nature of challenges require changes in response.25 Alas, his voice sounds like a call in the wilderness.

Conceivably there are also other new avenues for peacekeeping. An opportunity for opening an entirely new space for deployment of the Blue Helmets might had been lost during the countdown to the invasion of Iraq. While even the supposedly solid intelligence can turn out to be mistaken, the temptation to avert the danger of an imminent attack by a preemptive strike is great and the risks of inaction incalculable. Tedious and often-obstructed work of arms inspectors could had been supported by the UN international troops protecting the inspectors, aggressively supervising suspicious sites, and ready on coercive action in emergency. Their presence would amount to a preventive international occupation, leaving only the trappings of sovereignty intact. According to a publication in a usually well-informed German weekly, a project along these lines was supposedly considered by the German and French authorities before the invasion of Iraq.26

A permanent UN rapid reaction force and a preventive UN occupation are-by current political standards-unrealistic, to say the least. But reality is not a fixed commodity. It is rather a moving target defined by our priorities and perceptions. Any idea about coordinated air attacks on World Trade Center and Pentagon was utterly unrealistic-until it was proven otherwise by a bunch of obscured fanatics. These attacks transformed the reality radically but the matching adjustments of international security strategy are yet to come about.

In face of increasing global threats the UN may either take part in formulation of new strategies and their implementation or opt out by clinging to flawed concepts and practices. But doing business as usual seems to enjoy continuing support of the membership of the organization and of influential international policy makers. That support is qualified only by the recognition that high-risk operations should be performed by coalitions of the willing (under authorization by the SC) instead of by the Blue Helmets. As we are witnessing in Afghanistan, that qualification does not prevent problems experienced in the UN-led operations to appear in the new context. Continuation of business as usually is therefore the most likely scenario for the peacekeeping theatre.

A few years ago a prominent member of the UN Secretariat advanced a fitting comparison of the peacekeeping to other public services. It is clear, he said, that if the world wants the UN to serve, even occasionally, as a fire brigade, it will have to do better than the present system, under which the fire breaks out, the aldermen on the Security Council agree it needs to be put out, and the fire chief is then sent out to hire firemen, rent fire trucks, find hoses of the right length, and look for sources of water to put into them while hoping that, when he has what he needs, there will still be enough survivors to rescue.27 But the otherwise accurate description invites an essential supplement: the firemen may use the water hoses only in self-defense, when their own pants catch fire. Despite the calamities suffered and contrary to declarations of readiness to change, the old paradox seem to keep all actors in the peacekeeping theatre in a lock: the firemen brigade refrains from making any use of the water hoses in order not to fan the flames; the peacekeepers do not make use of their arms because they do not want to inflame wars. So, the UN either leaves wars and other violent crises alone so that they can burn themselves out, or, when in place already, keeps a safe distance from fire and reports on the outcome. Thus, global policing of this imperfect world is practically left to the United States with an occasional input from UK and France, the later mainly in emergencies affecting their former colonies. It is only too obvious that the scope of such policing must be severely restricted by political and material constraints. In absence of any meaningful input from the UN or from any other unlikely party stepping into its boots, the global insecurity may only grow more intractable than
before.

Until the political elite, the international media, and the public take a genuine interest and learn to detect and repudiate the real substance of the present peacekeeping policies and practices, the chances for change are negligible.

STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK

Chapter 1 is an inquiry into the theoretical background for peacekeeping that is but one of tools in the arsenal of tools for conflict resolution. But, according to A.B. Fetherston, in essence, we are still largely in the dark in terms of improving analysis, effectiveness, and success of peacekeeping. That is the case, he said, due to the lack of theoretical underpinning for the field.28

The UN military contingents alone do not provide for a quick fix-up of violent conflagrations. To meaningfully contribute to conflict resolution or, less ambitiously, to its management or containment, the Blue Helmets have to be credible and effective. But views on what for they appear in distants land with their guns differ widely. There is no clear answer from the UN still and an emerging consensus on placement of peace enforcement in the gray area between peacekeeping and war fighting does not inform the policies and practices of international military interventions yet.

Chapter 2 analyzes the responsibilities of the main actors in running the peacekeeping operations and shows how these were discharged.

The Security Council, empowered by the UN Charter to decide on matters of peace and war, resembles a security organ of a world government that neither exists nor will exist in a foreseeable future. The Council launches UN peacekeeping operations under its exclusive discretion. Whether it deploys international contingents on a successful mission to Namibia or on a misconceived one to Somalia, or does nothing to effectively intervene in a much bloodier civil war in Sudan, there is no official scrutiny. More often than not the emphasis in the Council is on political correctness of resolutions with scant regard to the realities on the ground. In the case of ex-Yugoslavia the sheer volume of the Council’s official pronouncements amounted to a political pornography: more than seventy resolutions have been issued in 3 years and largely ignored.

Peacekeeping operations are authorized by the Council either under Chapter VI or VII of the UN Charter (see Appendix) and the latter are commonly but inaccurately labeled peace enforcement missions. It may be recalled, that the Council authorized the use of force in the first UN operation in the Congo without evoking Chapter VII.29

The Secretary General of the United Nations and his staff, the UN Secretariat in short, function as the executive arm of the Security Council. The Secretariat is a bureaucracy, only more so because of its international composition and unaccountability. Convinced of its impartiality, for half of the century it portrayed itself steadfastly as a neutral technical force simply following orders by the SC or other intergovernmental UN bodies. But Annan, the first UN Secretary General elevated from among the UN bureaucrats, made a dramatic and unexpected turnabout. In a clear break with the long tradition of the UN infallibility, the repenting now SG exposed serious mistakes and errors of the Secretariat in failed peacekeeping missions in Rwanda and ex-Yugoslavia.30 Alas, neither of these groundbreaking reports seemed to attract the attention they deserved and the UN peacekeeping rules remained unchanged.

The troop-contributing governments’ role in the peacekeeping theatre is three-fold. As members of the Security Council and/or of the General Assembly, they bear the responsibility for the actions of the organization. Outside these assemblies, they represent sovereign states, capable and willing to criticize these actions and the organization itself. Finally, they can and more often than not they do meddle in the conduct of the missions by instructing their national contingents over the heads of the UN command. Real motives and implications of governmental decisions concerning contributions to the UN peacekeeping operations remain often obscure not only to the public opinion, but also to the political elite. It is the military men of all ranks that carry the burden of their governments temporarily disowning them, of the ambiguous marching orders of the SC, and of the fuzzy policies of the UN Secretariat. But it is the commander of the UN Force who has to translate the mandate into the rules of engagement for his men and to decide if and how they should defend themselves and their mission. Despite all limitations, his and his men’s attitudes make a difference to the outcome of their mission.

The case studies in Chapters 3 to 9 show how peacekeeping worked in the past. The nineteen missions described are representative in size and kind of the totality of the sixty peacekeeping operations undertaken by the UN from the first
mediating and monitoring mission in Palestine in 1948 through 2005 (thirteen were launched in the 40 years prior to the end of the cold war in 1989 and forty-seven since).

This book covers the region of Middle East, five countries (the Congo, Namibia, Somalia, Cambodia, and Rwanda), and a federative state under dissolution (ex-Yugoslavia). An exception from the country-by-country presentation was made for the Middle East, which became a formative ground for the UN peacekeeping doctrine and policies. Three operations are ongoing in that region yet and the UN continuing military presence there for about half of a century allows to assess its effects from a historical perspective. The featured operations range from a simple monitoring of cease-fires or armistices to securing and supervising elections, protecting humanitarian missions, and nation building. Both of the only two cases in which the peacekeepers went to war-in the first and second operation in the Congo and in Somalia-are included, and also the extremes of the peacekeeping experience are reflected in the most successful operation to date in Namibia and in the tragic failure of the mission to Rwanda. The aggregated total maximum strength of the UN contingents deployed in the operations fea-
tured in this book was over 160,000 of military and police personnel compared to uniformed personnel of 71,554 deployed worldwide in sixteen missions in 2005.31 In reconstructing origins, records, and results of these operations, I focused on the impact that the guiding principles of UN peacekeeping doctrine had on the outcome of the operations. In analyzing the anatomy and functioning of the operations, I particularly highlighted the performance of the troops in regard to the right to use of force to self-defense of themselves and of the mandates, their ability to move freely, and the impact of an authorization to act under provisions of Chapter VII of the UN Charter. I also tried to shed light on considerably varying interpretation of these principles by UN civilian and military leaders. The conflicts themselves, and their historical background, are described only to the extent necessary for understanding the environment in which the international troops deployed.

The concluding Chapter 10 reflects on prospects for change. The international response to the ongoing genocide in Darfur (Sudan) does not leave much hope for a substantial reform of UN peacekeeping. Should it be undertaken, however, the UN has to refrain from recycling the stereotypes about what its peacekeepers should do in favor of declaring what they can achieve. For a clear break with the past, the term “peacekeeping” should best be dropped out from the political discourse.
“Peace support operations” or PSO seems a suitable candidate to replace it. All PSO, except the observatory missions, should be deployed under the provisions of Chapter VII of the UN Charter. New avenues for deployment of international troops should be explored with a preventive deployment given a priority. The present system of troop contribution on call does not work for missions of high risk. The alternatives seem to be limited to recruitment of UN volunteers to be permanently at the disposal of the SC and to employment of corporate armies. But in the present political climate none of these alternatives seems to have chances of approval. Therefore demilitarization of the UN by restricting it to military observer missions might be a lesser evil than the protracted and ill-fated deployment of armed but helpless contingents.

Since the prospects for a renewal or a reinvention of the role of the UN in promotion of peace are bleak, the responsibility for what is going to happen in the international security environment rests with the members of the organization directly. But even the only one of them who is capable of worldwide deployment of troops would benefit from sharing the burden with a more efficient organization.

Source: Andrzej Sitkowski, “UN Peacekeeping: Myth and Reality,” Praeger Security International, London, 2006

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis


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