Putting the UN in Focus

ONE of the stranger facets of groups like the radical militias in the United States is their fear of imminent invasion by United Nations forces. Don't they know the UN is stretched so thin by 17 peacekeeping operations in various parts of the globe that it has little time, and even less money, to devote to such an undertaking?

Such wildly skewed perceptions of UN purposes and capabilities are the tattered fringes of a line of thinking that extends far and wide in the US. Isolationism and concern about supranational obligations have their mainstream manifestations, after all -- some of which are evident in Congress, including moves to virtually withdraw US funding from UN peacekeeping.

Distrust of international organization is an enduring theme of far-right politics, with the UN and such groups as the Trilateral Commission figuring in many a conspiracy theory.

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To their credit, most Americans who bother to read a newspaper, or even watch the evening news, realize that the UN is a hard-pressed organization that can only do what its members -- notably the US -- want it to, and that it is often asked to do much more than it's capable of. Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia are all examples of undersupported, imperfectly planned operations. But what would the situation have been without a UN to temper the fighting and feed the starving?

The danger, on American soil, isn't that the thinking of wild-eyed militia- men will prevail, but that mainstream political backing for the UN could seep away, depriving the world of its best and only tool for responding to far-flung crises.

According to recent polls, however, most Americans still strongly back UN peacekeeping, though that percentage is slipping a bit and public perceptions of how much Washington devotes to such operations in terms of manpower and money is way off the mark. (Only 4 percent of peacekeepers are American and the US spends less than 1 percent of its defense budget on UN peacekeeping.)

The question facing the UN is not when, or whether, it will become a genuine ''world government'' -- confirming right-wing fears -- but whether it can sustain the crucial work of peacekeeping and humanitarian relief in the face of shrinking support.

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