BARRING a diplomatic miracle or an upheaval in Iraq, the world appears to be sliding toward war in the Persian Gulf. It is hard to see, at the beginning of the third month of the crisis, how the present confrontation between Iraq and the global community can be otherwise resolved. Although war would, at great cost, reduce the immediate Iraqi threat, it would not resolve the grave issues that lie at the base of the present crisis. Tragically, immersed as they are in the immediate question of Kuwait, policymakers in the worlds' capitals have been diverted from giving attention to the longer range implications of these basic problems. The first is the reduction of global dependence on the resources of the troubled Middle East. Four times in the past - in 1956, 1967, 1973, and through most of the 1980s - world economies have been affected by wars in this region. Even without a war, the current impasse has caused serious financial and supply problems for nations rich and poor; a war would cause substantially greater disruption. Yet it is hard to find among those at the center of the crisis anyone who is saying, ``never again,'' and urging a major international effort to find alternative sources of energy. The assumption appears to be that, once the Iraqi problem is resolved, this demonstrably volatile region will once more be a source of inexpensive, assured fuel. Such an assumption ignores the inherent volatility of the area - especially as long as just and permanent solutions are not found for its deep-seated ancient disputes, including particularly that between Palestinians and Israelis.
A second issue is the prevention of exports of material needed in the manufacture of the destructive weapons that Iraq now threatens to use. A recent five year review conference of the signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ended without agreement on extending it when it expires in 1995. Concern over Western countries' assistance in the construction of chemical weapons plants in Iraq and Libya has resulted in finger-pointing and in some indictments of individuals; it has yet to result in serious strengthening of international controls. And despite the existence of a biological weapons convention, nations eager to develop this form of destruction have found willing partners in other countries to supply their needs.
A third issue is the strengthening of the United Nations to act effectively in cases of aggression and international disputes. As the recent actions of the Security Council and the meeting of world leaders this week in New York have demonstrated, the world organization is once more at the center stage in an unfolding crisis. Nevertheless, it is not clear whether the current consensus represents an enhancement of UN power resulting from the end of the cold war or whether this unanimity results primarily from the economic significance of the Middle East. Although the rhetoric at the Security Council stresses that its recent actions are in response to Iraqi aggression against a sovereign state, would the action be as swift or concerted if the aggrieved state were not in the center of the world's oil reserves?
Today's consensus in New York is, further, a fragile coalition of national positions; each nation participating, whether financially or militarily, is doing so as it sees fit. None of the nations providing troops, including the US, has, for example, demonstrated any willingness to place them under a United Nations command. If, given the new accord between Moscow and Washington, the United Nations has the prospect of becoming a genuine peace-keeping organization, some willingness to subsume national prerogatives will be necessary.
If wars are to be fought, those who fight them deserve to know that leaders are looking beyond the battlefield to a less threatening future. When they met in the darkest days of World War II Roosevelt and Churchill were thinking and speaking of the world organization that could follow the peace. Whatever the developments of the next few weeks may bring along the borders of Kuwait, it is time that today's leaders look away from the immediate and begin to plan a world less vulnerable to the strife in the Middle East, to seek firm agreements on preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and to create a more effective reconciliation of sovereignty and responsibilities toward the United Nations in an era of unprecedented challenge to the passing order.