THE United Nations faces a rare opportunity to begin building a new global security system that prevents as well as responds to conflict. In the view of one of the foremost experts on reform of the world body, the first step is to assess the UN's Gulf war and cold war experiences.
"I strongly feel that the Security Council should set aside time for a post mortem on all this," says Sir Brian Urquhart during an interview at his office at the Ford Foundation, where he is a scholar in residence.
UN members should decide in the process whether or not to craft a stronger role for both UN peacekeeping forces and the Security Council's Military Staff Committee, he says. And the UN should be on the lookout for ways to increase global stability. Prime candidates for attention, in his view, are the $1 trillion annual arms-sale business and the growing gap between rich and poor.
"The UN has to completely renew itself," says Sir Brian, who spent much of his 41-year UN career developing the world body's peacekeeping arm. He was undersecretary-general for special political affairs when he retired in 1986.
The 1945 UN Charter, which he terms the distillation of all the lessons learned from "the disastrous '30s" and World War II, has held up "amazingly well," he says. Yet he likens the UN itself to a "wonderful vintage car" that needs to be redesigned to cope with changed "driving conditions" - new global challenges, including environmental terrorism.
On the whole, he says, the UN's handling of the Iraqi crisis stands as a remarkable achievement. It is the first major collective security decision taken by the world body in which the objective has been fully achieved.
"I think it's the first time an aggressor has actually been physically ejected from a country he took over," says Sir Brian.
The gain in his view is untarnished by charges that it was manipulated by Washington. Leadership was needed, he says, and the US did a "masterful" job of worldwide lobbying. The UN Security Council is made up of 15 "big, grown-up governments," well able to make decisions for themselves.
He says he also thinks there was more "genuine fear and revulsion" over this instance of aggression than is generally acknowledged: "Every small country in the world was 201&gt; wondering about its stronger neigbhors."
A key lesson of the experience, he says, is that the Security Council, with the help of closer ties to regional groups such as the Arab League, must do better at anticipating problems.
"The Council has been basically a reactive body, flying to the scene after the fire breaks out," he says. "It's been very slow on preventative measures."
UN members must ask themselves, he says, why they were "asleep at the switch when Iraq's President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait last August. There wasn't any mystery about his claim on Kuwait or that the two nations spent the summer bickering in a very nasty way about the price of oil, debt, borders."
One key mistake, in Sir Brian's view, was the UN's failure to send a prompt, clear signal to the Iraqi leader that aggression would not be tolerated right after his move into Iran in 1980. Between that lapse and ongoing arms sales, he says, the message was "go right ahead."
UN peacekeeping forces could play a key role in monitoring and preventing such conflicts in the future, says Sir Brian. Evolved out of necessity rather than any specific charter provision, these unarmed or lightly armed troops often serve as buffers between conflicting national forces, such as Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights.
The UN troops have also verified cease-fires, disarmed military forces such as Nicaragua's contras, and supervised national elections. Sir Brian says he hopes peacekeeping forces will be more freely used for a variety of chores in the future.
If, however, such UN "watchmen" are overrun and efforts to settle conflicts peacefully fail, Sir Brian says a broader system of UN collective security, one more akin to a national guard or an army, should automatically come into play. He says Washington cannot and should not be expected to act as the world's policeman.
"I think the time has come to make the Gulf experience the stepping stone to a more serious system of security, rather than the last-resort, safety-net game we've always played before," he says.
The development of such a system in his view would involve more work, including contingency planning, by the little-used Military Staff Committee. He says the committee should study the feasibility both of putting national military forces at the disposal of the Security Council and of their reporting to an actual UN military command. UN founders thought they were equipping the UN with sufficient enforcement power to keep the peace, he says.
In his view, part of the UN's credibility problem has been that it has sometimes made decisions that could not be enforced.
"If Saddam Hussein knew there was in place a UN contingency plan to deal with him in no uncertain terms if he committed another act of aggression, it might have made him think twice," Sir Brian says.
In his view, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze raised several ideas worth exploring in his speech last fall before the General Assembly. These include his call for a global register of certain kinds of arms, agreement on sufficient defense levels and on basic arms sales principles, and creation of a possible UN rapid-response force for use in crises, from hostage-taking to hijackings.
Though disarmament was considered a vital condition for peace by UN founders, says Sir Brian, most countries forgot that provision very quickly. Arms sales are such a lucrative source of foreign currency that all governments are involved, he says. He admits to being shocked by the recent disclosure that the White House intends to underwrite overseas arms sales by United States military contractors to help keep them globally competitive.
"That makes me very skeptical about all this talk about a new world order," he says. "I really wonder when this issue is going to be faced."
Lastly, he says, the UN must do a better job of addressing the root causes of such sources of global instability as north-south economic issues. The widening gap between rich and poor nations, he says, is "a fundamental issue which we will ignore at our peril."