GATHERING at the end of January for a historic Security Council summit, world leaders came closer than ever before to establishing a permanent United Nations peacekeeping force. The UN is increasingly being assigned those tasks that the great powers have traditionally claimed as their sole prerogative. The shift results in part from the resolution of longstanding cold-war tensions that routinely hamstrung Security Council action, and in part from the realization among the great powers that none can affor d anymore to become involved on their own in intractable regional conflicts.
In many parts of the world, peacekeeping is beginning to supplant unilateral military action as the chief means of settling disputes between nations. Eight missions have been established in the past three years, while just 13 were mounted during the previous 43 years. Up to 10,000 UN peacekeepers and civilian personnel will soon be sent to Cambodia, and 10,000 more are slated to serve in Croatia.
But while world leaders have gratefully delegated these problematic tasks to the international body, they have failed to appropriate the funds essential to its work. Member nations currently owe the UN $377 million in back peacekeeping dues, and have committed the UN - but not their own budgets - to peacekeeping obligations totaling an additional $1 billion in the coming year.
The chief debtor is the United States, which (assessed according to its relative wealth) owes $141 million, while Russia, having assumed the debts of the former Soviet Union, owes $127 million, and Germany $17 million. In addition to unpaid peacekeeping dues, member nations owe the organization $439 million in general funds (with the US again the chief debtor), thus exacerbating the UN's deepening financial peril.
The world spends three times as much in a day preparing for war as it does in a year protecting the peace. The annual ratio is close to 1,000 to 1. For half the price of an aircraft carrier, the UN will patrol the peace for a year in Yugoslavia, Cambodia, El Salvador, and a dozen other hot spots that have themselves cost billions and have taken innumerable lives.
Few dilemmas demonstrate so well the stark contradiction between the professed aims and actual thrust of the great powers' policies. As long as peacekeeping operations depend on voluntary pledges that land at the bottom of every nation's list of budget priorities, the UN will continue to be shortchanged.
But perhaps there is a way to harness the arms trade to pull peacekeeping out of its financial dilemma. Just as polluters are increasingly taxed to pay for cleaning up the messes their activities create, arms dealers, manufacturers, and purchasers should be required to contribute to preventing and terminating the wars their weapons make possible.
World military expenditures currently total nearly $1 trillion a year. Of this figure, approximately one-third ($300 billion per year) is spent on the procurement of weapons and equipment. Even a tiny tax (say, 1 percent) imposed on every traceable purchase of military-grade weapons and materials - be it foreign or domestic, government-to-government international assistance or private [Bcommercial sales - could generate enough funds to finance all current peacekeeping operations ($1 billion a year), cont ribute substantially to the UN's general operating budget, and build a rigorous global verification and monitoring system to track the still largely invisible business of arms procurement.
A 2 percent tax would finance a conversion fund to help nations adapt their militaries to nonmilitary activities and their arms industries to civilian production. A 3 percent tax could underwrite a global Earth Corps for environmental rescue and repair and provide funds critically needed for sustainable development in the third world.
An arms-procurement levy could be used to reshape the capabilities of the world's arsenals in subtly positive ways. Lower taxes could be imposed on destructive "luxuries," attack weapons, and other destabilizing technologies. The tax could also be made progressive. Keyed to the percentage of GNP spent on arms procurement, it would discourage governments from overspending on military hardware in relation to other national priorities.
The politics of instituting a global arms tax would doubtless be formidable. Fierce resistance could be expected from defense ministries and arms industries worldwide, most of whom would see it as an undue burden on their autonomy and profitability. But the vast majority of people, including many who exercise power, can grasp the practicality and simple justice of the idea. Death and taxes are familiar to everyone, but an arms levy would use taxes to prevent death.
Like so-called "vice taxes" on cigarettes, alcohol, and other deleterious substances, the proceeds of which are used to educate and rehabilitate people damaged by the abuse of these habits, an arms tax would raise revenues from a destructive arms trade to repair the damage caused by the unconstrained availability of these weapons and by their diversion of funds from more constructive purposes. At the same time, it would serve as a mild restraint on the arms trade by making its commodities a little more e xpensive and its commerce a great deal more visible.