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The U.N.'s War-Making Power


London -- The United Nations is in the former Yugoslavia, for better or worse, to try to keep the peace, which means attempting, however difficult, to stand equidistant between the hostile parties, negotiating, cajoling, policing mini-truces as they occur, and facilitating the transit of humanitarian relief. It is not there to make war, to roll back aggression, to bring freedom to a victimized people.

But it has that right. The U.N. Charter, 50 years old this month, says so. Article 42: "The Security Council . . . may take such action by air, sea or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security."

This was the great legacy of the allies' victory over Nazi Germany, that future misdeeds of conquest and subjugation would be met by the united determination of the community of nations.

In 1947, the Big Five -- the U.S., the Soviet Union, France, China and Britain -- instructed their Military Staff Committee at the U.N. to come up with a brief on the composition of such a force. The senior officers suggested an air force with 750 bombers and 500 fighters, a navy with 3 battleships, 6 carriers, 12 cruisers, 13 destroyers, 14 frigates, 24 minesweepers and 14 submarines, and an army with 15 divisions, 450,000 men.

Note the attitude in 1947. No peacekeeping. The talk was of peace-enforcement, employing professional warriors.

Peacekeeping as an idea evolved later under the tutelage of Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold.

The Cold War had precluded cooperative peace enforcement. In desperation Hammarskjold fashioned the half-way house of peacekeeping -- lightly armed, blue-helmeted units, traveling in highly visible white vehicles, who acted more like policemen than soldiers.

Peacekeepers separated the Egyptian and Israeli armies in 1973, as the superpowers threatened to take sides and President Richard Nixon put American forces on a nuclear alert. Peacekeepers in Cyprus averted a Bosnian-type Christian-Muslim war. Only two years ago peacekeepers brought peace and elections to the killing fields of Cambodia.

Most of the time, peacekeeping is by far the best option. Certainly it is in the murderous fratricidal wars of the Yugoslav meltdown. (If this war has proved anything, it is that large-scale inter-marriage is not the cure for ethnic enmity that we once thought it was.) Even though we know the Serbs started the fighting and have committed the worst atrocities, there are few rights and wrongs. And no outside country's interest is remotely threatened.

Nevertheless, undoubtedly in the next 50 years of the U.N. there will be situations when naked aggression must be repulsed, when non-military tools fail and the international community must take a military stand. Rather than America raising a posse as it did with Saddam Hussein (with the blessing of the Security Council) it would be better if it were done as Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin foresaw, under the direct aegis of the U.N.

The worst would be, as happened in Somalia and as started to happen in Bosnia, the confusion and intertwining of peacekeeping and peace-enforcement.

Let us seize this chance, in the U.N.'s 50th-anniversary month, to have an honest and creative discussion about enforcement. We must pick up from where the great statesmen left off in 1947. It should be a very important debate.

B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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