US involvement in UN peacekeeping missions is under attack. The Clinton administration is retreating in the face of a clumsy and costly attempt to sideline Somalia's Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. But if the United States abandons a multilateral effort to reduce violence in the world, many nonnuclear industrialized nations such as Japan, Germany, and Italy may strengthen their armed forces and even develop nuclear arsenals.
It is argued on Capitol Hill that regional and local conflicts have no impact on US security. But critics don't address the danger that if small wars are not met by regional and global systems of multilateral cooperation, many nonnuclear nations may acquire nuclear weapons for their own security. The end result would be a dangerously unstable international system with 20 or more heavily armed states jockeying to acquire more sophisticated conventional or nuclear weapons.
Rather than retreating in the face of criticism, the Clinton team must present its positive vision for future international security and spell out the serious consequences of standing on the sidelines. A reluctant Congress and skeptical public must be convinced that there are real security benefits, which can be achieved only through active engagement.
Unfortunately, the president has responded to criticism of his handling of Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia by formulating a stringent list of criteria for peacekeeping missions that is designed to show extreme caution. This sends a discouraging message to other countries that look for US leadership to strengthen the cooperative approach to security.
Instead, the president's policy should emphasize that nonproliferation and controlling regional violence are two sides of the same coin. First, nuclear proliferation will derive from the breakdown of international efforts to control regional conflict. Second, as a result, the US has significant national security interest in seeking to lessen the conflict.
The US should not take on this task alone. To the contrary, it should join with others. The US should bolster the network of regional security organizations - NATO, the Council on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Organization of American States, the Organization of African Unity, and others. It should help these organizations to identify potential conflicts and to head them off through mediation, arbitration, or preventive deployment. The UN should intervene only when regional organizations can't handle the job. As regional organizations strengthen, the US contribution will decrease.
What is at stake in the current debate over US peacekeeping is the nature of the security environment in which our country exists. That environment is best protected by strengthening cooperative regional organizations and operating them under the UN.
The alternative is a situation where multilateral organizations have failed to provide security and new nuclear-weapons states spring up and compete with each other in the ceaseless effort to improve their individual security positions. In a jungle like that, even a superpower like the US can be pulled down. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.