US Ambassador Sizes Up UN Goals

Edward Perkins reflects on the world body's gains, challenges - and financial crunch

`THERE was sporadic gunfire during the night, which didn't seem to upset anybody - except maybe me," recalls Edward J. Perkins, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. "Guns were everywhere."

The strikingly tall and reserved diplomat is sitting in his office across the street from the UN. He is talking about his recent trip to Angola to try to help ease tensions in the troubled aftermath of that nation's first multiparty elections. He and three other UN ambassadors went at the Security Council's request to support the efforts of Margaret Anstee, the UN Secretary General's special representative there, and to try to keep the electoral process on track. A runoff for the presidency is yet to be held.

Ambassador Perkins says he was surprised both by how used to fighting the Angolans had become after 16 years of civil war and by the extent of the country's devastation. "I saw so many people with no limbs," he says. Though he thinks the transition from war to peace is slowly taking place, he says he is not sure that either of the main parties to the conflict will ever be totally satisfied. UN has growing agenda

The UN slot that Perkins stepped into last May is, in his view, the top job for any career foreign service officer. "It's a great post," he says. Yet no items on the long agenda of the Security Council have been scratched off since he came, he says, and many more have been added. Some conflicts, like that in the former nation of Yugoslavia, have gotten worse rather than better, he says.

Is the Security Council now powerless to do much more in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the fighting seems to go on endlessly? No, Perkins insists. The council still can tap into an "infinite" range of possibilities. "I think it's quite clear the council wants to make a difference there," he says. He cites the threat of further action contained in the council's recent resolution to establish a military ban on flights over Bosnia (a "no fly" zone).

What about the argument made by some UN members that the council has taken on too much of the UN's business and that the US too often runs the show?

"I realize there is that perception - I don't believe it's true," he says. "Like any country, we have our own national interest.... We lobby our point of view. We often change our approach as a result of the give and take of debate."

In Perkins's view, the UN is now a major corporation facing tough choices. "The UN has a money-crunch problem - it can't do everything," he says. "There has to be a reduction of excess personnel.... Resources have to be used judiciously."

At the moment, the US is the UN's second-largest debtor (after the Russian federation), owing $390 million. Perkins stresses that the US is committed to paying off what it owes by 1995.

Despite the UN's need to trim down, Ambassador Perkins singles out peacekeeping, elections oversight, and work for the environment as major UN growth areas. He also says the world body should do more to encourage free markets and technology transfers.

Perkins was a foreign service officer in Ghana and, during the 1980s, a US ambassador, first to Liberia, and then to South Africa. He says he thinks the nations of the world need to take a more positive look at Africa's potential and to realize their stake in its progress and development. "The longer the delay, the more it affects all of us," he says.

Perkins credits UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali with turning a strong spotlight on Africa and its problems.

"The criticism has been that the UN jumps first for non-African states," he says. "Whether that's justified or not is irrelevant. The perception is there."

He says the UN, which sent former US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to South Africa in July and several dozen UN observers later, so far has done as much as it should to get the Pretoria government and the African National Congress to resume talks over the nation's future. "I've always felt that there probably had to be an outside midwife to help the process along," he says. Sanctions worked, he says

It can be argued that Perkins himself played such a role for the US when he became its first black ambassador to South Africa in 1986, a particularly dicey moment in American political history. The Reagan administration favored "constructive engagement," a policy of continuing dialogue, as a way to convey US displeasure with apartheid. Many in the US Congress thought economic sanctions sent a more direct message and voted to apply them over the President's veto.

During his three years in South Africa, Ambassador Perkins forged a number of contacts with black groups. He later termed the sanctions "an unmitigated success" in helping him do that and in sending a clear message to white South Africa.

"[Perkins] really built some relationships and got people to listen to the basic American message ... of `Negotiate - don't waste any more time,' " says Chester Crocker, former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and now a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

"I don't describe Ed Perkins as a fancy, stage-lights performer," adds Mr. Crocker. "He's a very low-key person. He speaks directly. He looks you in the eye. He gives you his best shot.... These are very special talents, skills that are parallel, in a different way of course, to what military professionals are required to do."

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