WHILE the Persian Gulf is seething at the crisis level and friction threatens the Soviet Union, there is a place in New York where options to settle national and international conflicts are weighed and communicated in an atmosphere of thoughtful calm. Quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy is a hallmark of the International Peace Academy, an agency affiliated with the United Nations and financed mostly by United States corporations and individual contributors.
Its president is Ambassador Olara Otunnu, a Ugandan diplomat with very close ties to the UN secretary general and an extraordinary network of international connections.
``Our main task is to promote the approaches to conflict resolution,'' Ambassador Otunnu explained in his office recently. ``We emphasize collective security for all nations and people.
``We organize meetings that seek to facilitate settlements to specific conflict situations, bringing together the opposing parties and trying to explore with them informally the options that are available,'' he says. ``Beyond that we cannot go, but it has turned out to be very helpful when the need is there.''
Mr. Otunnu points with pride to the Peace Academy's efforts in Cambodia, where it countered political turmoil with a proposal for a supreme council. All the parties met and discussed alternatives at a workshop in Canada.
``The only obstacle that now remains is an agreement by the various internal parties on a procedure for the council. So far, they haven't been able to agree,'' says F.T. Liu, special adviser to the academy.
At the end of last year, when President Bush and Iraq's Saddam Hussein were hurling verbal barbs at one another, academy members met in a quiet boardroom here to discuss the Gulf crisis and its possible diplomatic solutions.
What they came up with, and communicated to United Nations Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, was a proposal to have a UN peacekeeping force supervise an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. When the UN secretary general flew to Baghdad, he reportedly carried with him such a proposal - rejected by Saddam along with all other peacemaking efforts.
The International Peace Academy was started in 1970 by India's Maj. Gen. Indar Jit Rikhye (Ret.), primarily as an organization to help train the UN's peacekeeping forces at a time when the UN found the task politically untenable, what with the Soviets firmly opposed to any peacekeeping operations. The UN peacekeeping forces were later awarded a Nobel prize. Having earned both legitimacy and wide approval, the academy has subtly shifted emphasis more toward mediation.
Otunnu has been busy behind the scenes linking ideas and exploring attitudes in the South African conflict, and those talks are currently going on.
``Now that Mr. de Klerk and Mr. Mandela and others have crossed the Rubicon, so to speak, they are committed to a negotiated settlement, but do not know how to proceed from here. They are groping for ideas. They are looking for options that will work. They welcome independent experts who can help them explore the possibilities,'' the ambassador commented.
He recently returned from a trip to Africa, where the academy is involved in the Somalia conflict. There was a seminar in Dakar, Senegal, in an effort to explore the frictions in the area.
Scheduled for February is a seminar in Moscow that will examine both the Gulf crisis and the situation in the Horn of Africa. A number of African experts will attend to propose solutions to conflict, which will then be forwarded to the UN and to individual governments for possible action.
In June, the academy plans to assemble a select group of diplomats, legal experts, businessmen, and academicians in New York for a seminar on the Gulf crisis. It will be addressed by Ambassador Arthur Pickering, the chief American representative at the UN, who will provide the American perspective.
The Peace Academy anticipates crises and then produces possible alternatives in a quiet attempt to avoid flash points. But, Onunnu says, ``There comes a point where the parties are so determined to fight that a negotiated settlement is simply impossible, regardless of the peace options that may be offered.'' He cites Liberia as an example.
Cyprus, too, defies mediation, though the academy is peripherally involved on the island through the UN peacekeeping force stationed there.
Educated at Oxford and Harvard universities, Otunnu was Uganda's foreign minister before becoming his country's permanent representative at the UN and, later, president of the Security Council, chairman of the UN Commission on Human Rights, and vice president of the General Assembly.
It was Otunnu who broke the deadlock and brought about the 1982 election of Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar as the UN Secretary General. Otunnu became president of the Peace Academy a year ago.
OTUNNU says the interest of the African nations in a resolution of the Gulf crisis goes beyond principles and is very much rooted in practical current African realities.
``The African countries hope very much that the swift reaction of the UN in the case of the invasion of Kuwait will be repeated in other, similar situations in other parts of the world,'' he says, ``because they recall - with a deep disquiet - situations in the past where invasions have taken place and the UN has not acted in the same way.
``So they hope that this will form a precedent for the future, and that the international community will be just as concerned, as vigorous in its reaction, in other incidents of invasion.''
Otunnu says the third world was disturbed by the self-absorption of the northern, industrialized Western countries with German unification, Eastern Europe, 1992, the Soviet problem, and US trade relations with Japan.
``The whole question of north-south relations is not receiving the attention it should,'' he says. ``In a way, unwittingly, the Gulf crisis has jolted public opinion in the West that was in a state of slumber. It has demonstrated that you can't have global peace and at the same time have various areas of the world at war. It won't work.''
Directly, as in the case of the training of the peacekeeping forces, or indirectly, it all strengthens Otunnu's passionate conviction that peace, while often difficult to achieve, is essential and that the Peace Academy fits right into that pattern.
``The academy can do things that government can't do,'' says Sir Brian Urquhart, formerly at the UN and today scholar in residence at the Ford Foundation in New York.
``I think it is extremely valuable to have a place where people from the UN and others can go, talk absolutely freely and without restraint, and speculate about future events,'' he says.
Mr. Liu notes the expanding scope of the academy, which has moved its focus from self-governing territories to independent nations. ``We are likely to move into new areas of operations as the concept of the UN peacekeeping force continues to widen and grow,'' he says.
``We have already been dealing with the organization and supervision of elections. All of this is really an expansion of the peacekeeping function.''
Liu sees something of a parallel between the Gulf and the 1956 Israeli-Egyptian conflict over the Sinai peninsula, which was settled when the Israelis agreed to withdraw, and the Egyptians allowed the UN to station its force in the Sharm-el-Sheik area.
``Hopefully, we can end up with something like that when it comes to the resolution of the confrontation in the Gulf,'' he says.