SECRETARY-GENERAL Boutros Boutros-Ghali has good reason to be disturbed about the extra peacekeeping responsibilities being piled on the United Nations. The world organization's chief executive and its Security Council already have far more tasks than resources.
Mr. Boutros-Ghali was particularly upset by a European Community-inspired plan to round up the heavy guns in Bosnia. It might be a good idea in theory, but in practice, the secretary-general argued, it's impractical. UN peacekeepers in Bosnia already have all they can handle to keep Sarajevo's airport open to a thin stream of airborne relief.
Boutros-Ghali also pointed out that Somalia's civil war threatens an even greater human tragedy, with millions on the verge of starvation. He wants thousands of peacekeepers mobilized for that country.
And what about the ongoing, multibillion-dollar effort to bring peace to Cambodia, the possibility of direct UN involvement in South Africa, the inspection duties in Iraq, the resolution of Cyprus, and the refugee crisis?
At the heart of the dilemma facing Boutros-Ghali and the Council is the gap between member nations' desire to use the UN to address world problems and their willingness to ante up. Over $900 million in back dues is owed the UN, some $500 million of it by the United States.
The persistence of this debt has a lot to do with the anti-UN feelings fostered in the Reagan White House during the '80s and with Congress's inclination to put UN funding near the bottom of its priorities.
The world, meanwhile, has changed. The UN is no longer a forum for superpower rivalry. Today's White House - and no doubt tomorrow's - will find the world body an indispensable bulwark of foreign policy. But it's a bulwark that will fail unless substantial new resources are devoted to peacekeeping - as Boutros-Ghali has urged.
The world's wealthiest nations had better start directing some of the money once poured into national defense toward a credible international force for peace. The alternative is an agonizing triage approach to peacekeeping, which could generate as much tension as it relieves.