The U.N.'s Policy of Impotence


Paris. --

Thomas Hobbes wrote that the reputation of power is power. If that reputation is lost, it cannot be restored other than by gross and costly measures. That is what has gone wrong with the United Nations' peacekeeping and peacemaking operations.

The paradox is that when the U.N. has to fight it has already lost. I do not mean that symbolically. There have been two wars won by forces that flew the U.N. flag, in the Persian Gulf and in Korea in the early 1950s (if Korea was a victory, which may be debated). But both were actually American wars. The U.N. flag, and auxiliary forces from other members of the U.N., gave international rationalization to what the United States had unilaterally determined to do.

Otherwise, U.N. peacekeeping operations have been successful only when there was no substantial opposition. Against opposition, the U.N. is hopelessly compromised both by its forces' military makeup and their mission. They necessarily involve mixed national units of uneven quality, unpredictably commanded, with constantly improvised lines of communication, and often a real lack of practical communication.

Sarajevo's U.N. force was for many months a mixture of French, Ukrainian and Egyptian. The commanders could get along in English or Franglais, but the troops, generally, could not, and this resulted in more than one blunder into extreme danger. The situation in Somalia would seem in recent weeks to have been worse than that.

U.N. peacekeeping and peacemaking have been run from New York by a small and militarily inexperienced staff, compelled for political and organizational reasons to attempt detailed long-distance management of difficult affairs, on the basis of imprecise and sometimes impossible Security Council mandates. This is not the way to run a serious operation.

The power of the U.N. must lie in the reputation of power. There must be an implied but enforceable threat that if a U.N. force committed to peacekeeping or peacemaking is interfered with, the Security Council will send massive and overwhelming reinforcement to crush resistance to its authority. This is not the case today, and the reason for that is political.

When U.N. forces were first deployed in Croatia, at the beginning of 1992, to separate Croatian and Serbian forces, the United Nations should have said to the combatants: "We are the nations of the world in their power and majesty, acting in common accord to enforce the law of nations and the will of international society; we intend to prevail." The first Serb or Croatian militiaman who tried to hinder the U.N. mission or hold up a U.N. convoy should have been run over or shot -- and the U.N. force then conspicuously reinforced. This might have prevented all the horrors that have followed in what was Yugoslavia.

But, of course, the U.N.'s policy in 1992 with respect to peacekeeping was to act only with the agreement of the parties to the conflict. All the humiliations to U.N. forces that have followed, and all the frustration and heartbreaking futility in U.N. Yugoslav operations, have come from that policy. It was -- and remains -- a policy of powerlessness.

In Somalia, for the first time, the U.N. has tried to assert international authority and impose peace, in a place where the problem is not aggression across recognized frontiers or ethnic murder but anarchy within a disintegrating society and arti- ficial nation.

All the problems inherent in the U.N. military structure have re-emerged since the withdrawal from Somalia of the American Army Mr. Bush had dispatched as fireworks dramatization of his departure from public life. The withdrawal was itself Washington's acknowledgment of the intractability of the Somalia problem and its attempt to hand failure on to the U.N. Nothing could better explain why the U.N. has neither authority nor power.

The result in Somalia has been political confusion and military blundering by the U.N., so that Italy, the Western participant in the U.N. force with the most experience of Somalia, now is openly hostile to what remains a U.S.-dominated operation. The U.N. has become simply another faction in Somalia's anarchical struggle, which means that such authority as it possessed in the beginning has been wasted.

Is it possible to restore the U.N.'s authority, so as to restore its power? The problem chiefly concerns the permanent members of the Security Council. (Creation of a U.N. volunteer force, currently under debate, is an instrumental issue, not a basic one.) The U.N.'s authority is the authority of the major powers that dominate the Security Council. It is collective great-power authority, channeled through the U.N. because it is enhanced by becoming the formal collective policy of the Security Council, acquiesced in by the U.N. majority.

Until now the major powers have ordinarily used the Security Council either to advance their own national policies or as a method for avoiding politically difficult or dangerous commitments of national prestige. So long as the latter remains true, the U.N. will remain powerless. If that changes, the U.N. can act with authority and enjoy respect. But the present situation is convenient to the major powers, as it absolves them from troubling and costly responsibilities. It is difficult to see that it will change. One can always hope, however -- and argue.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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