IT should come as a shock to no one that United Nations peacekeeping operations are expensive. And it's no surprise, either, that the world's wealthiest and most militarily powerful country, the United States, should be taking on a major part of the financial burden.
But questions are being raised as bills for such large undertakings as the UN force in Yugoslavia and the comprehensive peace plan for Cambodia come due. Cambodia alone will cost at least $2 billion to support 22,000 blue-helmeted troops and set up an interim administration for the country. Can a US struggling to emerge from recession afford to pay its normal 30 percent of peacekeeping costs? Is it a good use of taxpayers' money?
President Bush has asked Congress for $810 million in peacekeeping funds for the next fiscal year. That's up from $107 million this year, and it reflects the mounting obligations. Some members of Congress point out that the political climate is hardly conducive to any large "foreign aid" expenses.
That line of thinking, however, seems to imply that a convincing case can't be made to the American public for UN peacekeeping operations. In fact, the arguments for active US participation in such operations, including substantial funding, are overwhelming: the avoidance of escalating conflict that could entangle the US, the pacifying of regions so that commerce and trade can revive, the lessening of refugee flows and human tragedy.
Americans can respond to these arguments, and politicians shouldn't hesitate to make them for fear of being attacked by nouveau "America Firsters."
Honest assessment of how much funding the US can provide - and how much more money should come from other wealthy nations such as Japan and Germany - has to take place. And it is. The UN is asking Japan to pay as much as $1 billion for the Cambodian peace plan.
A different debate is sparked by recent reports of the Pentagon's long-range strategy to assure that the US remains the sole superpower in years ahead, with the ability to patrol the whole globe. Can you spend $1.2 trillion on your own military over the next five years while taking on a growing share of the UN's collective peacekeeping?
The answer to that question should not be continued default on UN bills. Stronger means of collective security may be the best defense investment the US can make. In fact, that investment belongs in the defense budget - free from the vagaries of foreign-aid spending.