NO longer angling for advantage in a worldwide contest of wills, the great powers have recently relegated a host of "little wars" to the United Nations. In Yugoslavia, El Salvador, Cambodia, and a dozen other places, blue-helmeted UN personnel now not only guard borders but supervise elections, monitor human rights and disarmament, and direct reconstruction of vital services. UN forces are being given broader responsibilities than ever before, not just to keep the peace but to build it from the ground up .
But the UN is being handed these responsibilities while being denied any means or mandate to deal effectively with them. In Bosnia, UN peacekeepers seeking to stem the massacre have no way of enforcing the Security Council's dictates, and the trade embargo on Serbia has proven largely ineffectual. In Somalia, the UN special envoy recently resigned in protest against the organization's failure to bring famine aid efficiently to victims - a situation finally being addressed by a United States-led military intervention.
Alarmed by the disparity between the UN's burgeoning responsibilities and its dwindling resources, the Security Council in January commissioned Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to present a set of recommendations for strengthening the UN's peacekeeping capabilities. His "Agenda for Peace," issued in June, is a modest document. It is written with an acute sense of the limits of the possible, for Mr. Boutros-Ghali faces a marked reluctance among leading member states to cede any significant powers t o the UN.
Where in the past UN forces could be introduced only when both sides to a conflict agreed, Boutros-Ghali proposes placing forces on the territory of any nation that feels threatened and so requests them, even if its enemy doesn't agree (as is often the case). To deal with the catastrophic shortfall in funding for peacekeeping operations, he suggests establishing a temporary Peacekeeping Reserve Fund of $50 million and a permanent Peace Endowment Fund of $1 billion. Frustrated by the great powers' consist ent failure to pay their allotted dues, he makes the extraordinary suggestion that the endowment solicit contributions from private foundations, corporations, and even individuals, to be treated as a charitable deduction on their income taxes.
If there is anything missing from these proposals, it is only that they are not nearly bold enough. UN peacekeeping has always suffered from being an ad hoc affair in which nations voluntarily contribute troops from their own armed forces (and withdraw them whenever they choose), with little training for the highly specialized tasks of peacekeeping. Only now, after 40 years, is the first UN-sponsored training program for peacekeepers being established. And in an organization that generates paper like con fetti at a Fifth Avenue parade, not a single in-depth study has ever been commissioned to consider the parameters of a permanent UN peacekeeping capability.
Given the widening range of responsibilities being assigned to it, the UN is bound to fail in its mission unless it is given, at a minimum, the following capabilities:
* A permanent peacekeeping force of 20,000 to 50,000 troops, with a well-trained reserve force of several times that number on call from member states. UN forces could also be supplemented by peacekeeping troops from regional security organizations like NATO, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Organization of American States, and the Organization of African Unity. The standing force should be individually recruited from many nations to assure that their loyalties will be to the glo bal rather than the national interest. And they should be specifically trained for the tasks of peacekeeping, peacemaking, and post-conflict peace-building, which differ as much from traditional warfare as firefighting does from soldiering.
* UN peacekeepers should be trained and equipped for effective peace "enforcement," capable of establishing airtight embargoes and decisively repelling aggression, but operationally incapable of launching their own offensive operations. This is a subtle but essential distinction. Over the years, some UN reformers have proposed giving the organization the warmaking capabilities of a great nation. Some have even suggested investing the organization with a monopoly on nuclear weapons.
But both proposals would fundamentally contradict the two greatest strengths of UN peacekeeping to date - its nonviolence and its impartiality. In place of the blitzkrieg strategy of the Gulf war assault on Iraq, a robust defense of threatened borders or an interposition of buffer forces between combatants, when combined with strengthened economic and diplomatic sanctions, could over time achieve the desired effect without wreaking such extreme violence.
At the same time, UN peacekeepers must be given the means to defend themselves as much as possible from personal harm, for increasingly they will be introduced into situations of open conflict. But they are better protected by the political armor of being impartially representative of the world community and symbolic of its determination to enforce world law than by the possession of superior firepower.
* When not employed in situations of armed conflict, peacekeepers should be utilized for the varied tasks of peacemaking (e.g. mediation, arbitration) and peace-building (e.g. disaster relief, environmental rescue, and civil reconstruction). A separate and larger organization of "unarmed forces" could also be established, an Earth Corps or Green Helmet brigade addressing emerging environmental threats to global security. Composed of young volunteers from every nation, its participants would be given equa l credit (and rewarded the same benefits) by their home governments as those serving in their nation's armed forces.
* To deal with the perpetual crisis in peacekeeping finances, a tax should be levied on all member states - perhaps a percentage of their national defense budgets, most appropriately drawn from that account rather than the far less popular foreign-aid budget. In addition, as former UN Undersecretary Gen. Brian Urquhart suggests, a tax could be levied on each nation's arms sales to other nations, institutions, or individuals; a strategy that could both raise significant revenue and reduce incentives to tr ade in lethal weapons.
Even these proposals, while almost revolutionary in the present context, are scarcely sufficient to give the UN the means necessary to deal successfully with the deepening chaos in the splintering Eastern bloc and ethnic explosions elsewhere.
"The UN has become indispensable before it has become effective," says Robert Johansen, a University of Notre Dame researcher.
If the UN is perceived to fail in its current missions, what then will fill the void? Who will control the ensuing chaos? And at what point will local brush-fire wars, left to burn unhindered, touch one another and become a conflagration?