IN the messy aftermath of the cold war, the apocalyptic simplicities of a bipolar world have been replaced by a cacophony of lesser conflicts. The retreat of communism's enforced ideology of international solidarity has released a flood of political forces that threatens to undermine the stability of a still uncertain "new world order." Lacking the institutional tools to deal with these unfamiliar threats, the world community improvises hasty and often inadequate responses.It is time to begin designing and implementing a comprehensive approach to global peacekeeping. But who has the right, responsibility, and resources to play the world's policeman? For millennia the answer has been simply, "he who is strongest." That axiom largely held true even in the Gulf war, the first great crisis of the post-cold-war era. Yet despite the initial popularity of the Gulf war, it now appears that most Americans would prefer to hand over most future global law enforcement to the UN. A bipartisan survey by the Americans Talk Issues Foundation in July found that "80 percent want the UN to play the leading role in organizing future global responses to aggression" and 88 percent endorse a standby UN peacekeeping force. Though few people realize it, the UN already performs successful peacekeeping all over the world, for which it received the Nobel Peace Prize several years ago. But these are purely temporary, ad hoc operations mounted in response to specific crises. All personnel are on loan from national forces and most have received far more training for armed combat than for the dramatically different tasks of unarmed peacekeeping. The time has come to establish a permanent UN peacekeeping force capable of dealing with a wide range of less-than-apocalyptic conflicts both between and within nations. The peacekeeping forces now deployed in fiercely contested battlegrounds worldwide are remarkably small and lightly armed, comprising no more than a few thousand peacekeepers in each mission. Their tasks are not to launch attacks of their own but to prevent, repel, and report them. Peacekeepers are not soldiers but firefighters, dampenin g conflict and calming violence in order to make way for diplomacy and reconciliation. It would be wise to begin modestly. Thirty thousand individuals recruited from UN member nations and specially trained under UN auspices in the techniques of nonviolence and the minimal use of force would suffice for a start. A gradually growing force of former peacekeepers could be held in reserve for emergencies. Though under the general auspices of the UN, these units would come under the immediate jurisdiction of existing regional security organizations: the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Organization of American States, the Organization of African Unity, and perhaps a "Conference for Peace and Cooperation in the Middle East" as recently proposed by a committee of international diplomats. In a crisis, the standing forces in the affected region would be the first to be dispatched, but units worldwide could be called upon to assist. Besides their peacekeeping activities, these forces could be trained and made available for other urgent civilian tasks, ranging from natural and human disaster relief to monitoring disputed elections. But how can a 30,000-person peacekeeping force be expected to defend against a million-man army like Saddam Hussein's? The majority of future crises will not be conventional wars of territorial conquest but smoldering ethnic conflicts, civil wars, and terrorist acts. Even should another crisis of the magnitude of the Gulf war befall us, it can and should be handled differently. Peacekeeping forces should be introduced at the very first indication of heightened tensions to monitor events and signal the wo rld community's intention to enforce international law. Their role would be strictly defensive and would thus require a far less substantial force than an offensive army. But potential aggressors would also be made aware that national armed forces of member states could be called upon. Concurrently, a host of nonmilitary actions would come into play - economic and political sanctions, intensified efforts at mediation and diplomacy, and other peacemaking measures. Funding for these forces could be drawn from several sources, including assessment based on an "arms tax" levied on member nations on the basis of their military budgets as well as on the profits of corporate arms manufacturers and dealers. Despite broad public support in this country and abroad for a standing UN peacekeeping force, little is likely to happen until and unless the public insists upon it. We can greatly accelerate momentum in that direction by adopting several near-term strategies: assign a high priority to peacekeeping forces on the agendas of governments and citizens' groups worldwide; design the details of a practical plan for establishing these forces; and urge formation of a UN commission to study and establish an enhanc ed peacekeeping capability at the earliest possible date. If we don't soon begin this process, we will likely find ourselves again trapped in situations where the most powerful nation of the moment will unilaterally intervene on its own behalf and claim for itself the role that rightly belongs only to the entire world community. It's high time the world took responsibility for keeping its peace.