BECAUSE there is no peace, conventional wisdom holds that the United Nations has failed in Bosnia as it failed in Somalia. Neither UN action, however, was designed to establish or maintain peace: The UN's mission in both places was to facilitate and protect the delivery of relief supplies to civilians caught up in the conflicts. But the successes in this humanitarian effort have been overshadowed by pictures of the victims, the humiliation of international protectors, and confusion over objectives.
Except in cases when the UN was the umbrella for a fighting force - as in Korea and the Gulf - the international organization has never sought, as a neutral entity, to force peace on warring parties. The UN role in previous post-World War II conflicts - in Kashmir, Cyprus, and areas adjoining Israel - has been to monitor the implementation of agreements, whether cease-fires or armistices. The presence of small numbers of lightly armed observers along agreed lines has been sufficient to maintain a status quo accepted by both protagonists.
In most crises of the last decade, however, the Security Council has decided to intervene before full agreements were reached among the protagonists. The international organization can claim a measure of success in two cases. In Cambodia, the task was to insure the fulfillment of an accord among the major parties against the efforts of one of the parties, the Khmer Rouge, to undermine it. Although the Khmer Rouge is far from being a spent force, peace has generally returned to the land and a tortuous political process to find more permanent stability is under way. In Haiti, the UN forces are facilitating political agreements already reached. The internal picture is far from benign, but a process toward internal reconciliation has begun.
In neither Bosnia nor Somalia, however, were agreements in place that could be supported. Peace negotiations failed in both cases. The lightly equipped UN forces sent primarily to protect relief activities found themselves in the midst of multisided conflicts. To carry out their mission, they were required to confront warring parties - the ''bandits'' representing opposing warlords in Somalia and ethnic rivals in the former Yugoslavia.
In the absence of a clear understanding of its mission - especially in the United States - the UN was denounced for its inability either to protect civilians or punish attackers. In the battle areas, the presence of armed UN troops led to expectations of support, especially by the Bosnian Muslims, and to disappointment and bitterness when it did not materialize.
For a while the UN aura held; the soldiers under the blue flag were respected. But as the fighting among the factions grew and UN forces stood in the way of military objectives, the contesting forces discovered the UN forces' weakness. The UN leadership in both Somalia and Yugoslavia resisted calls for strong retaliatory action. Not only did it recognize the danger that airstrikes or other military actions posed to its own troops, but it believed, further, that any armed reaction would impede the UN's relief task. In Bosnia, hostage-taking and fears for the troops' safety have prevented stronger outside action. Humiliation and world exasperation have followed.
The UN forces in these conflicts were attempting what had not been tried before - to provide, by force if necessary, assistance to the victims in a war without the consent of the parties and while the conflict still raged. In major wars of the past, relief was supplied to victims and refugees on the periphery of battle zones. The Red Cross, YMCA, or similar international agencies, using unarmed civilians, carried out the relief with the agreement of one or another of the combatants. Rarely, if ever, did such organizations seek to cross lines or to confront armies in the interest of providing relief. In the unclear circumstances of the post-cold-war era, the UN role in Bosnia and Somalia represents a new and untried departure. The difficulties encountered are not surprising.
The unfortunate lesson from the experience is that the noble desire of the world community to deliver and protect food and medicines by military forces in the midst of conflict is unrealistic. Perhaps relief in the future must be, as in the distant past, through the courageous work of civilian agencies that will, through negotiations with the warring parties, do what they can to mitigate the ravages of war.