Redefining National Interest

In Somalia, the US is ushering in an era when peacekeeping, not victory, will be the goal. A TASK OF THE NEXT CENTURY

NEW world order, new world disorder, call it what you will. Astonishingly, even in its waning hours the Bush administration has grasped the nettle to deal with Somalia, a country of "no interest" to the United States. The fact is the globe is now rushing headlong into a completely new international environment calling for new vision and new policies to cope with the post-cold-war world. We'd better get used to it.

Hard-headed "realists" may fret all they want about whether the Kurds, the Somalis, or the Bosnians really have anything to do with "real" American national interests. That, indeed, is part of what the debate is all about - in the halls of Washington, as well as in Europe, Moscow, and all over the third world.

In earlier years the case could be made that if an international crisis did not have direct and dramatic impact on the US, then it was regrettable but was outside our sphere of responsibility. The cold war confused all of that, of course, because there was no corner of the globe which could not in some way be integrated into the grand strategic map of East-West confrontation.

The realist school is, however, absolutely right in one sense: The US can handily survive - indeed can probably prosper - by not sacrificing national blood and treasure in a vain effort to "fix the world" in this new era of chaos.

But we had better face facts. The world is going to continue to come apart, involving places and peoples that are only ill-defined to most Americans. The struggle of peoples for national self-fulfillment, the desire to get out from under harsh and discriminatory regimes and oppressive political structures, are the hallmarks of the new environment. What is new is that ideals of human rights, democracy, and self-determination are now trickling down to nearly all levels of population all over the globe.

If the ideas are not new, the chance to do something about them is. People are voting with their feet to get out from under unacceptable circumstances in the hope of finding something better.

The irony of Somalia, of course, is that it does not involve warring ethnic and religious groups, but people of the same nationality, language, religion, and ethnic background. They just can't run a state in this stage of their history. As old orders based on oppression break down, people are thrust into new situations where even reestablishment of old-fashioned authoritarian regimes is much harder because the world is beginning to perceive certain limits to what regimes should be allowed to do to their own or other people - especially on television.

Can the US be the police officer of the world? No, we have neither the desire nor the resources. But the fact remains at this juncture that the US is the only power that thinks globally, has remained functional, possesses major resources, and has the experience to conduct large-scale international operations. There is no reason why the US will maintain a monopoly on these conditions - indeed, we should encourage other major states to develop some of these same capabilities.

The key factor, however, is that we are often filling this role for the international community, in the name of the international community, and specifically the United Nations. Hopefully, over not too long a time, the UN and other nations will increasingly grow into this role and largely assume the burden.

How many Americans should die for Somalia? Or Bosnia and Kosovo? That's the wrong way to put the question. How many Americans might be willing to volunteer to take jobs - make careers - in UN peacekeeping operations? Probably many tens of thousands, as a kind of modern day nation-building corps - with teeth. Some will get killed. But it would not be an American (or French) president who sent them somewhere where they got killed. The domestic equation changes sharply.

Given the breakup of nations on a large scale, the world will need to develop a whole new range of international mechanisms to cope with the problem. Do people have to "divorce" to get out from under unpleasant circumstances? What other techniques are applicable under some new kind of "marriage counseling" type of program involving intervention by external peacekeepers? Trial separations, federal or confederal arrangements, international observation of human rights practices, new constitutions, new geogr aphical/administrative arrangements - anything that might keep nations viable.

If it doesn't work, then we will have a plethora of new nations - almost a certainty in the next century anyway. But after people acquire a flag, passport, and national anthem, they are still going to have to make a living in this world, and that requires close cooperation with others, including, perhaps, erstwhile oppressors or enemies. But this time it will be voluntary.

IN short, there will be many more Somalias and Yugoslavias in our common international future. The US will probably have to take the lead, for now, in trying to galvanize and organize opinion to help establish new international approaches.

The US military will have to recognize that peacekeeping, and not victory, may be the primary name of the game in most future military operations. In the end, most of these duties should be turned over to the UN. Indeed, if we were to turn over 25 percent of our military budget to the UN to do these things over the long run, it might be a bargain from any point of view.

But just as in our nation we cannot turn our backs on raging ghettoes - even if most of us can insulate ourselves in comfortable suburbs - so everyone's national interests will lie in at least starting to alleviate outrageous international situations. This task will go on for a long, long time.

We had better realize that Somalia is not the exception, but a hallmark of the times. The sooner we start thinking in these new categories, the better. Then we can jointly start developing these new mechanisms and institutions that will be a basic part of international life well into the next century, in which the whole concept of traditional national sovereignty will be up for grabs.

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