WHEN the fighting gets fierce and innocent victims appear on TV screens, the world increasingly looks to the United Nations for help. Often more by default than design, UN peacekeepers have been taking on the role of world cop.
The UN now operates 17 peacekeeping missions at an annual cost of more than $3.5 billion. Two new missions were launched in September. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali says as many as 100,000 troops may be involved in UN missions by the end of the year.
Yet the UN's most visible and, until recently, most widely praised activity faces major problems. The newer missions often take peacekeeping forces into uncharted territory, where more ambitious but ambiguous mandates increase expectations without always giving those on the ground the authority, resources, or training needed to carry them out.
Traditionally, peacekeepers were sent only after a cease-fire was signed and both sides accepted their presence. Their job was to monitor the accord with minimal personnel and weapons. Today, they often must intervene in civil wars, where they are expected to disarm combatants. It has become a risky job involving peacemaking, peace enforcement, and nation-building.
In some new operations, the traditionally neutral UN is accused of being partisan or of not being tough enough on recalcitrant parties. In Somalia, a maverick clan leader who initially agreed to arms and cease-fire accords now wages virtual war on UN troops. Dozens have been killed. The struggle to contain Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed has become one of the UN's most controversial actions.
As the conflict escalates, the US administration has urged the UN place more emphasis on restoring a political structure. Some in the US Congress have called for a reassessment of US involvement and for setting a deadline for troops to come home.
In another crucible, Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina criticize UN troops for not dealing more forcefully with Bosnian Serbs who block aid deliveries, and blame UN mediators for not helping wrest back at the peace table lands taken by ethnic cleansing.
The difficulties encountered in new operations are damaging UN credibility. Analysts warn that the UN is in danger if consensus decisions are not backed by deep commitment by member states.
Some analysts view the Council's efforts to protect Muslim safe havens, for example, as tough talk that was largely symbolic from the start. Without political will, they say, the Council becomes a convenient vehicle for nations to show heart without taking national action and with no real intent to follow through. The UN then becomes the scapegoat.
``The UN is being used as a repository for conflicts that can't be resolved in any other way and as a way of distancing [members] from difficult situations in which they don't want to get involved,'' says Hurst Hannum, a UN expert at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.
``You can't just cast a couple of votes, make some pious statements, throw a few troops in the field, and think it's done - this is a serious, difficult business,'' says Edward Luck, president of the United Nations Association of the US. ``The failures count a lot. They undermine financial and political support for the organization and bring into question its credibility.''
Many now agree the UN must decline some requests for help. In President Clinton's Sept. 27 speech to the General Assembly, he warned that UN money may depend on it: ``If the American people are to say `yes' to UN peacekeeping, the UN must learn how to say `no.' ''
UN members should think seriously about what kinds of interventions are in their national interest, analysts say. Lawmakers and the public should be involved in the debate. The Council can try to set some general guidelines.
Mr. Boutros-Ghali insists that the success of UN peacekeeping depends chiefly on the political will of the parties to the dispute. UN experience in El Salvador and Namibia are cited as examples. Yet in new peacekeeping efforts, consent has sometimes been given and later been withdrawn.
In Angola, rebel forces agreed to the UN role, but after the election returned to war to achieve their aims. Croatia now wants UN troops out by Nov. 30 unless firm deadlines are set for disarming Serb units in occupied territory.
Ending missions can be difficult, as the 29-year-old Cyprus operation illustrates. But Gareth Evans, Australia's foreign minister and author of ``Cooperating for Peace,'' says the UN should give thought to pulling out of some missions if local support wanes or goals cannot be fulfilled. The UN, he says, should clarify conditions for an exit early on.
Council mandates should be more specific, experts say. Vague and limited initial mandates, though easier for the Council to agree on, can lead to an incremental commitment of forces and an ineffective mission, according to a new US Institute of Peace report on peacekeeping.
The UN has been criticized, too, for bureaucratic delays. Improvements have recently been made in operational capacity: A 24-hour operations room to deal with Somalia and Bosnia missions is in place, and governments are lending military experts to the UN for short-term stints.
Yet, given the new peacemaking role, better coordination and planning are still needed, many experts say.
Military professionalism is far more crucial in current peacekeeping operations than in the past, says Maj. Gen. Indar Jit Rikhye, leader of five previous peacekeeping operations, military adviser to two former UN secretaries-general, and a co-author of the Institute study. The UN's ability to coordinate and conduct military operations in the field still falls far short, he says. ``There can be no military operation without teamwork.''
Boutros-Ghali has been pushing for a standby army of trained reserves that could be assembled quickly as needs arise.
Apart from problems of defining missions and providing resources to carry them out, the UN has learned that root causes of conflicts can never be ignored. The lesson is clear that it is often impossible to accomplish one objective in isolation - whether it is supervising elections in Angola and Cambodia or feeding the starving in Somalia.
In Cambodia, a successful election was carried out, but the Khmer Rouge remains armed and in control of one-fifth of the country. The Angolan civil war has reached new levels of intensity since the vote. And while the hungry have been successfully fed in Somalia, UN officials say they must also deal with the political and social collapse that caused the problem or history may repeat itself.
UN diplomats now point to the need for more vigorous efforts in preventative diplomacy to halt potential conflicts at an earlier stage. The peacekeeping mission in Macedonia, aimed at curbing the spread of the Balkan conflict, is the first deployment of troops for that purpose.
Much still depends on increasing UN military professionalism and on being sure that real political commitment lies behind each Council threat.
``If the UN is seen as a paper tiger, full of Council resolutions with no teeth, it's going to be in big trouble,'' says Mr. Luck. ``It's not going to be an effective instrument when we need it and want it most.''