OVER the years, the United Nations has been a splendidly idealistic organization bedeviled by ineptness, waste, and often a mean, anti-Western streak.
But it is cleaning up its act, and after years of ineffective posturing it now has a chance to become a real force for the preservation of peace.
Some 22,000 blue-bereted UN soldiers are to be deployed in the sorrowful land of Cambodia, there to keep a motley array of factions from savaging each other.
More than 14,000 UN soldiers are due to go to Yugoslavia, another country that has seemed bent on fratricidal self-destruction. Some 6,000 are already in Lebanon, a "nation" in name only, but in reality a collection of bitterly warring private armies.
Another 8,500 are in place, or will be, in such hate-riven spots as Cyprus, El Salvador, the Golan Heights, and Angola.
Armed with little more than good intentions, these international mercenaries of peace are intended to monitor uneasy truces, to keep the flames of factional contention tamped down, and to act as a kind of forward tripwire to prevent regional tensions from exploding into large-scale warfare.
Though nobody can be sure how well these multinational forces will do in tackling peacekeeping on such a diverse and expanding scale, it is worthwhile giving them a chance. They are not getting much support in the United States, where the Bush administration is having a tough time scraping up $900 million to help pay for the UN's peacekeeping forces over the next two years.
Americans are mired in recession and not in much of a mood for spending abroad. The politicians who represent them are attuned to that mood.
George Bush has been a president strong in the practice of foreign policy. He hobbled Saddam Hussein if he has not yet overthrown him. He has presided over the end of the cold war and the dissolution of the former Soviet Union.
But with Pat "America First" Buchanan nipping at the president's heels in the midst of a daunting reelection campaign, the White House managers want to emphasize domestic affairs and downplay foreign entanglements.
There are some ironies in play.
While the administration is scrambling for $900 million for peacekeeping, the Pentagon is burnishing a $1.2 trillion plan for potential warmaking over the next five years. The New York Times got an advance look at a scenario that would make the US the world's unrivaled military superpower, ready to project military might anywhere in the world to protect American - and allied - interests.
It is right that the US should retain the kind of military force that may be necessary to deal with megalomanic regimes in countries like Iraq, North Korea, Cuba.
But in a world where the likelihood of nuclear superpower confrontation is much lessened, that force must be powerfully lean, and focused on short-term regional conflicts.
The problem with the Pentagon's mind-set is that it has spent half a century preparing for the big nuclear war it is unlikely to have to fight. What it should be focused on are the messy little wars like Grenada, Panama, the Gulf, that sadly are much more likely.
The history of the 20th century shows that the US is a powerful force for principle, committed to the freedom of man, and a tenacious foe of such pernicious isms as fascism and communism. That moral leadership must be backed up by military power that is appropriate to the task at hand.
But the US cannot afford a cold-war nuclear arsenal when superpower hostility is in a state of meltdown. It must look to friendly coalitions to help constrain the international renegades. The Gulf war was a brilliant example of President Bush's ability to marshal such a coalition under the respectable umbrella of the UN.
That is why it is important now to let the UN's peacekeepers see what they can do. If they fail, the real military power of the US may have to be used - as it had to be used a year ago in Kuwait and Iraq. But in the meantime, better to spend a little money on peacekeeping than a lot of money on warmaking.