PRINCETON, N.J. -- The United Nations' once-high hopes that its blue-helmeted peacekeepers could put out bloody conflagrations and feed the world's needy have been replaced by a shroud of despair that the missions have failed disastrously.
That was the message at a weekend conference of U.N. officials, diplomats, relief workers and scholars at Princeton University. Those present agreed that the post-Cold War vision of a new, aggressive and relevant United Nations has been laid low by recent debacles in Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In a somber report on Bosnia, Jose-Maria Mendiluce of Spain, who had led relief operations in the war-torn nation for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, bemoaned the fact that relief for the victims had been used as "a palliative, an alibi, an excuse" for the failure of the international community to do anything meaningful to stop the killing.
In Somalia, many U.N. peacekeepers believe the United States has undercut them by planning to withdraw in six months without disarming the warlords there.
Kofi Annan, the undersecretary-general in charge of peacekeeping, expressed fears that Somalia might revert to chaos and starvation if President Clinton goes through with the planned March 31 pullout.
Reporting that Mr. Clinton had already asked 30 heads of state and government for troops to replace the departing Americans, Mr. Annan, fresh from an inspection trip there, said, "Other presidents and prime ministers are going to have difficulty explaining to their people that the American president is removing his troops because it is too dangerous but is encouraging them to send their own troops."
A number of difficult, heart-rending choices lie ahead for the United Nations and its staff, and the issues surfaced at the conference, which was sponsored by the U.N. refugee agency, the private International Peace Academy and Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Does it make sense for the United Nations -- as it is doing in Bosnia -- to try delivering relief supplies when there is no political settlement to ease the way? Can a U.N. relief operation run successfully in a chaotic civil conflict without the use of a large military force -- as the Clinton administration hopes in Somalia?
The answers are far from simple.
Citing Bosnia as her example, Sadako Ogata of Japan, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, asked, "How long and how far can a humanitarian institution go in assisting and, to some extent, saving the victims, without damaging its image, credibility and principles and the self-respect of its staff in the face of manipulation, blackmail, abuse, humiliation and murder?"
The conference took up the example of Cambodia as a successful case of U.N. peacekeeping, but this was overshadowed by the failures in Bosnia and Somalia.
The thorough and pessimistic reports on Bosnia made it clear that U.N. officials on the scene, though they have probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives, believe they have been assigned an impossible mission.
The Security Council dispatched the peacekeepers to Bosnia not to stop the fighting but to protect the relief convoys. With only 8,000 troops, the United Nations has been unable to force the convoys through, instead having to cajole and persuade at every Serbian checkpoint. If they did shoot their way through one checkpoint, U.N. officers reasoned,they would inflame the Serbs into resisting convoys throughout the countryside.
They simply do not have the resources to force convoys through every checkpoint, U.N. officials said.
The situation was not improving either for the peacekeepers or the Bosnians.
In a speech to the conference, Mr. Annan, obviously referring to Somalia, said, "When the reason for a humanitarian crisis is man-made -- when starvation, for instance, is not caused by drought but by the willful blocking of supplies by armed elements, there cannot be a purely humanitarian response."
Mr. Annan, discussing the coming U.S. pullout, warned: "Any precipitous withdrawal would bring us back to the chaos of before."
He resisted suggestions from some representatives of humanitarian agencies and some U.N. officials that the United Nations ought to forgo military operations when the primary need is relief for the needy.
"The reality," said Mr. Annan, "is there are situations when you cannot assist people unless you are prepared to take certain measures."