WASHINGTON — Exactly 40 years ago this month, the world witnessed a signal event in the history of relations between nations: the birth of the multinational peacekeeping force.
Acting under the authority of the United Nations, troops from 10 countries deployed in the Suez Canal Zone to secure a cease-fire following a disastrous attempt by Britain, France, and Israel to wrest control of the strategic waterway from Egypt.
The American troops being sent to help aid Rwandan refugees and participate in a new NATO force in Bosnia are marching in the well-intentioned footsteps of that first operation. But today's operations reflect sweeping changes in peacekeeping since 1956.
Those changes are mirrored in the evolution of American policy on participation in peacekeeping and humanitarian-relief operations. That fact is illustrated by President Clinton's decision to lend some 1,000 troops to the Canadian-led mission to Zaire.
A February 1996 presidential directive stresses safeguarding American interests as the leading criterion for participation in peacekeeping. But in sending troops to the chaotic heart of Central Africa, where there are no US economic or political interests, Mr. Clinton has been swayed by the humanitarian imperative of saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
Observes a senior American official: "A careful look at all of this and the criteria shows an evolution in the policy process."
The Zaire mission and the US-led NATO force that will replace the current contingent in Bosnia embody the modern approach to peacekeeping. Both are to be heavily armed with the latest weaponry, operate under tough rules of engagement, and adhere strictly to tightly drawn missions. They are designed to not intrude into local politics of the kind that brought disaster to the American force in Somalia in 1993.
This is a far cry from the way things used to be.
The concept of peacekeeping originated in UN observer missions whose only functions were to monitor truces in 1947 in the war between India and Pakistan, and in Palestine, says Tim Sparling, vice president of Canada's Pearson Peacekeeping Center.
Between 1956 and the end of the cold war, many experts say, UN peacekeeping missions generally involved positioning lightly armed "blue helmets" between adversaries to monitor adherence to truces and give the sides time and confidence to negotiate permanent settlements.
International peacekeeping was also shaped by the US-Soviet rivalry. In the case of Cyprus, a UN mission that began in 1964 and continues today, the mission's goal was to avert a war between NATO members Greece and Turkey that would have shaken the anti-Soviet alliance.
In such missions, the US public generally was supportive, experts say. "There was an automatic cold war rationale," says William Durch, an expert on peacekeeping operations at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington. "You could go anywhere and do anything and pull a number from the cold war dispenser and you'd have your rationale."
THE collapse of the Soviet Union thrust peacekeeping into a new realm. UN Security Council members dramatically increased support for peacekeeping missions. In 1992, there were some 12,000 military and police personnel operating under UN authority around the world. Within two years, the total had exploded to 80,000, excluding the 10,000 American soldiers sent to restore democracy in Haiti.
"With the fall of the Berlin Wall, there came this euphoria that we could fix everything in the world with peacekeeping," Mr. Sparling says.
With the increase in number, UN peacekeeping became more complex, challenging, and risky. The results of such efforts, experts say, have been mixed. Post-cold-war UN missions have helped bring peace to a number of countries and saved millions of people from starvation and disease. But the successes have been offset by humiliating failures due mainly to the setting of too ambitious goals.
In Somalia, the American-led mission turned to disaster when it switched from distributing food aid to trying to restore political stability. In Bosnia, UN peacekeepers were given insufficient resources to keep Croatian troops and Serb rebels separated and to enforce "safe havens" around Muslim towns besieged by Serb forces. The UN debacle in Bosnia led to the deployment of a well-armed NATO force with tighter objectives.
"What the UN does not do well is peace enforcement where the parties are still at war with each other and there is a humanitarian reason to intervene," says Michael Doyle, a professor of international relations at Princeton University in New Jersey. "Bosnia represented this problem to a 'T.' Zaire represents another chance. The question is whether it can be done right this time."