Peace (keeping) on Earth

IF not the UN, who?

United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has made it quite clear that, in the UN's current financial straits, peacekeeping costs need to be reduced.

That means curtailing the 16 UN peacekeeping operations scattered around the world. And that leaves a big question mark hanging over the world. How will ethnic collisions, border disputes, and civil wars be contained in future?

Few are likely to receive the kind of intervention reluctantly given to Bosnia - unless the conflict menaces oil routes, threatens to suck in major powers, or involves potential nuclear spread.

There is a historic irony to this shrinkage of UN peacekeeping. At the very time when transnational business, communications, mega-investment and currency transactions, and commercial law have spread around the earth, policing is in retreat in the fractious global village.

Obviously this makes no sense. So what's the answer? There are several:

*Standby forces. Ever since the founding of the UN 50 years ago, various world leaders have dreamed of a "fire brigade" system in which nations would earmark and train units of their own armed forces for rapid deployment to regional trouble spots. There are plenty of political pitfalls to such a scheme. But, learning from a half- century of UN successes and failures, several nations are proposing better-organized standby forces. Denmark, Canada, and Argentina have offered variants on the idea of training bases and headquarters for regional UN forces. Some 37 member nations have designated specific units for quick deployment on UN missions.

*Subcontracting. This technique offers a UN mantle to individual nations' troops or to regional groups. Haiti and Somalia provide case studies, good and bad. The US served as the subcontractor in each case, landing strong forces to settle an uneasy peace and then hand it over to multi-nation UN patrolling. Russia was the UN subcontractor in Georgia.

*Conflict prevention. Behind-scenes discussions have long sought to create a so-called "peacemaking" system. In the 1980s, the secretaries-general of the UN, the Organization of American States, the Organization of African Unity, and the (British) Commonwealth met in Atlanta. Jimmy Carter played host. The UN's longtime "Mr. Peacekeeping," Brian Urquhart, brought experience in the Mideast, Asia, and Africa to the table. Two ideas were discussed:

One was to establish for the secretaries-general (SGs) a list of experienced mediators with knowledge of potential flashpoints. In theory, a UN or regional SG could quietly dispatch such a specialist to try to explore sources of friction and recommend ways to remedy them before they explode into warfare.

The second idea was to create a more defined method for subcontracting out UN peacekeeping to regional organizations in cases that were not global in nature.

Neither of these concepts was formalized. But each has been used ad hoc. The UN secretary-general is likely to continue sending special representatives to try to mediate conflicts. Regrettably, this usually happens after hostilities begin, not before. Sometimes mediators operate in tandem with UN policing of cease-fires. Examples: Cyprus, Afghanistan, early Bosnian war. Unfortunately, regional-organization policing is generally less well organized than UN policing.

Which brings us to the bottom line. In terms of weapons, rapid-deployment capability, spy-satellite reconnaissance, and troop training, the US is in the best position to provide the core of any world policing system. But as Bosnia has shown, Washington is weary of, and wary about, carrying the burden of world policeman. Simultaneously, the US Congress is pressing to cut American funding of UN peacekeeping.

Realists feel this retrenchment will last only as long as US global trade and investment - underpinning Americans' standard of living - thrive without such policing. That means that genuine multinational efforts, using those designated forces from 37 nations, will be needed for hot spots in Africa and parts of Asia that don't directly threaten the trade interests of the United States.

That leaves Iran, Iraq, oil suppliers north of the Caspian, the two Koreas, South China Sea conflicts, and Central America as areas that focus US, European, Japanese, and Chinese interest.

For such strategic "choke points" there's much to be said for reviving the concept of having the Big Five veto powers of the UN Security Council - the US, Britain, France, Russia, China - meet regularly in the UN secretary-general's office. At least annually, that should become a quiet summit of the Big Five foreign ministers.

Peace, alas, requires policing. If the only remaining superpower wants to quit walking the beat alone, some flexible combination of the above plans ought to be argued out among major powers soon, not after a new Bosnia gets under way.

If the only remaining superpower wants to quit walking the beat alone, other plans are needed, soon.

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