JUST five years after winning the Nobel Prize for settling conflicts in Cambodia, Namibia, El Salvador, and elsewhere, United Nations peacekeeping is besieged and nearly bankrupt. While peacekeepers are being assigned to far more numerous, complex, and violent disputes than ever (20 in the past four years alone compared with 13 over the prior 40 years), they have been consistently denied the political support and financial and logistical resources necessary to fulfill their missions.
Instead, the perpetually over-strained and underfunded UN has become the disposal site for deadly quarrels that no individual nation has any interest in confronting.
In Rwanda's civil war, up to half a million people were slaughtered in just two months; but UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali pleaded in vain for an international response. Finally, France, largely on its own and with questionable neutrality, intervened at the margins of the conflict. At the same time, the French have warned that if a settlement is not soon reached in Bosnia, they may pull out their peacekeepers by year's end.
As the world's sole superpower and the UN's largest financial contributor, the United States is uniquely well situated to influence the policies of other nations on this issue. But the Clinton administration's actions in recent months have only further weakened international support for the beleaguered institution. Candidate Clinton made increased support for the UN a central tenet of his foreign-policy platform. He even proposed a standing rapid-deployment peacekeeping force. Once in office, however, his good intentions were soon thwarted.
Inheriting an unwise commitment made by President Bush just before leaving office, President Clinton endured an undignified exit from Somalia amid cries of derision from Somalis themselves. This political embarrassment gave opponents just the ammunition they needed to block future US commitments to UN forces.
In early May, Mr. Clinton issued a Presidential Decision Directive that effectively cedes the argument to his opponents. The document severely constrains the circumstances under which US personnel and financial resources will be committed to UN peacekeeping operations, setting conditions far more restrictive than those it generally imposes on its vastly larger, more hazardous, and more costly unilateral military interventions.
The directive puts the US on record firmly opposing any ``standing UN army.'' With the ostensible aim of making US participation ``selective and more effective,'' the administration now insists that all American involvement ``advance US interests'' (giving no acknowledgment to the larger human interest), that command of US forces never be transferred to UN control, and that the US share of peacekeeping expenses be reduced from its current 31.7 percent to 25 percent.
With a steadfastness that he sadly lacks on other issues, the president has refused to commit US forces to UN missions in Bosnia and Africa.
He also continues a shameful tradition, dating from the early Reagan era, that marks the US as the world's leading debtor for peacekeeping efforts. Barring the unforeseen, by the end of this year the US will be $1.1 billion in arrears in its peacekeeping dues; the yearly assessment amounts to only one-quarter of 1 percent of the annual defense budget.
Coming as it does from such a pivotal player, this policy will only further undermine the frail foundations of international support for the 17 UN peacekeeping missions currently under way worldwide. Smaller nations, such as Canada, Norway, and Tanzania, which long have contributed to UN peacekeeping efforts far beyond their proportional wealth and population, now suffer from ``donor fatigue.'' They rightly complain that the US is no longer pulling its weight, while it continues to reserve the right to throw that weight around when its narrowly defined national interests are at stake.
Domestic opponents of greater US involvement fear that participating in UN operations would abridge US ``national sovereignty.'' They prefer to act unilaterally whenever and wherever US national interests (by their definition) are threatened, gathering allies as needed and UN approval when useful - but always holding the reins firmly in their own hands.
Led by Senate minority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, congressional conservatives have proposed a ``Peace Powers Act'' that would severely inhibit future US involvement. Though relatively few politicians share their passionate antipathy to the UN and its embryonic system of cooperative security, most hesitate to challenge such political heavyweights on an issue that draws little constituent interest.
Yet recent surveys indicate that Americans are far more sympathetic to US participation in UN peacekeeping than many politicians realize. In a poll taken in February 1994 by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, 91 percent of the respondents support contributing US troops to at least some UN operations; a majority favors contributing more money that the US now spends. But the survey also indicates that Americans know little about US policy. Many imagine that the US contributes much more money and manpower than it actually does and oppose greater participation on that basis.
The Clinton administration's new peacekeeping policy may avoid a near-term conflict in Congress. But it only ensures greater violence in probable future conflicts all across Africa and the former Soviet Union.
This need not happen, but it becomes more probable each day that the US fails to build or support the machinery that would prepare for and prevent such occurrences. 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 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.