Presidential challenge: fix UN

Neither of the current presidential candidates have as yet given more than fleeting attention to international affairs.

That is too bad because, as the London Economist says, "foreign policy is one of the few things where being president matters."

The world yearns for peace, and whoever wins this year's presidential election has a remarkable opportunity to bring peace nearer reality. What an exciting challenge that is. What a legacy it would be for either President Bush or President Gore. The task must begin with articulating a 21st-century American vision for that most maligned and misunderstood institution, the United Nations.

The past few years haven't been kind to the battered UN. President Clinton's administration misused and abused it in the administration's generally inept and inconsistent application of foreign policy. For their part, the Republicans shamefully starved it of funds the US was legally obligated to pay. Peacekeeping on the cheap plunged the UN into a series of debacles - Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone - which have obscured other, earlier, peacekeeping successes, as well as the UN's enormous humanitarian achievements.

Imperfect and ponderously bureaucratic the UN may be. But it remains the most useful forum for peacemaking and peacekeeping. The US cannot run it autocratically. Its member-nations are far too fractious and sensitive for that. But renewed US commitment and skillful diplomacy could galvanize it into a constructive force for good, and an instrument that could serve American interests at a fraction of go-it-alone costs.

A conference organized by the International Peace Academy in April recommended a sharp shift at the UN from a culture of reaction to one of conflict prevention. The Security Council has a primary role to play here. It has a variety of tools at its disposal, including establishment of demilitarized zones, and imposition of economic sanctions.

But diplomacy is ineffective unless bolstered by the willingness to use force.

Over the years, various UN diplomats have floated the idea of a standby military force, adequately trained and armed, totally integrated, that could be dispatched swiftly to quell trouble in hot spots. The concept has never caught on. The reality is that when the Security Council authorizes a peacekeeping operation, the Secretary-General cobbles together a hybrid force from whichever countries are willing to provide troops. The troops may be of varying quality and experience. Different national contingents may speak different languages. Communications equipment may not mesh.

UN peacekeeping operations work best when warring factions have hammered out a peace accord, and are agreeable to the kind of monitoring effort the UN can provide to ensure nobody cheats on the agreement. UN peacekeeping operations are ineffective when warring factions have not agreed on a truce, remain busily killing each other, and see the UN force as an unwelcome imposition.

UN peacekeepers are lightly armed observers. They aren't combat forces that can engage substantial forces arrayed against them. The Bosnian "peacekeeping" operation was the classic example of the misuse of UN forces. While the Western world dithered in political debate over what to do, peacekeepers without armor and air support were sent into action against murderous factions with no interest in peacemaking. The peacekeepers were often ineffective and humiliated. Ultimately they were replaced by heavily armored NATO forces.

Nobody believes the UN should acquire its own army. But speedy insertion of small, highly trained rapid reaction forces may often forestall larger conflicts and widespread loss of life. The deployment of 800 such British troops in Sierra Leone recently was one successful example of this.

For a presidential candidate pondering how to lessen international conflict, and how to contain it when it erupts, the UN is an essential starting point.

*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served a one-year term as assistant secretary-general of the UN in 1995.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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