August 16, 1993

August 16, 1993 | Executive Memorandum on International Organizations

A U.N. Army: Unwise, Unsafe, and Unnecessary

A campaign is underway in Congress to endorse the concept of a standing army controlled by the United Nations. Senator Joe Biden, the Democrat from Delaware, has introduced a resolution (S.J. Res. 112) to allow American troops to be part of such a force. He claims that the United States must abandon "the vainglorious dream of a Pax Americana and look instead for a means to regularize swift, multinational decision and response." Biden's assertion is curious given a U.N. operation gone awry in Somalia, a confused U.N. mission in Bosnia, and chronic U.N. mismanagement and fraud. This is not a time to expand the power and influence of the United Nations. If anything, this is a time to be skeptical about U.N. effectiveness in settling conflicts around the globe.

For this reason, the U.S. should not endorse the idea of a U.N. standing army. It could drag the U.S. into deadly and expensive conflicts having little to do with American vital interests around the world. Moreover, a standing army will only increase the U.N.'s appetite for precipitous involvement in conflicts for which it is poorly prepared. To be sure, a standing army would be more readily available for deployment, but that may mean an overly hasty involvement of U.S. forces in far-away conflicts in which no U.S. interests are at stake.

Advocates of arming the U.N. make a curious argument. They say that a U.N. army is necessary to keep America from becoming a global policeman. Senator David Boren, the Oklahoma Democrat, has noted that, "while Americans want something done, they do not want to do it alone." In other words, in a standing U.N. army the U.S. supposedly will share the burden of international peacekeeping with other nations.

Additional Burden for U.S. While a standing U.N. army may increase token international support for a peacekeeping force, it would also surely create a temptation for the U.S. to go along with questionable armed interventions by the U.N. With some seventy areas of conflict or potential conflict world-wide, a U.N. standing army certainly would see much action. There are today fourteen U.N. peacekeeping operations underway, involving some 80,000 troops from 75 countries. U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali two weeks ago suggested sending U.N. peacekeepers to hotspots in the former Soviet Union, which would nearly double the number of U.N. military operations around the world. Thus, while relieving the U.S. of the burden of going it alone, a standing U.N. army would create a new burden of participating in dubious and far-flung operations which the U.S. otherwise would avoid.

Once U.S. forces are thus deployed, the potential for escalation is high. American forces would hold the key to avoiding the military failure of the U.N. peacekeeping operation. Indeed, in Somalia, most of the firepower and command and control capability available to the U.N. force is American; without that support the operation would have eroded long before now. This would likely be the case in all U.N. operations involving U.S. forces. Once committed to a failing U.N. operation, the U.S. would have to choose between saving it by unilateral escalation or condemning the entire operation to failure by withdrawing.

The U.S. is already facing this dilemma in Somalia. The U.N. operation there is falling apart as the U.S. tries to decide whether to escalate or withdraw. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin L. Powell has spoken of "going after" those responsible for the recent deaths of four U.S. servicemen in Somalia. With the Clinton defense budget in a virtual free-fall, a prolonged military commitment to a country unimportant to America's vital interests would be the height of folly. It would deprive the country of resources possibly needed to defend America's interests elsewhere -- in Korea and the Persian Gulf, for example.

Supporters of the U.N. standing army point to the U.S. Security Council veto as a safeguard against ill-advised operations. However, the veto would not be very potent. Invariably, the U.S. would face pressure not to veto a U.N. standing army deployment to relieve the type of human suffering seen in Somalia last fall and in other countries today. Certainly the Clinton Administration would find it difficult to resist such pressure. Indeed, the Administration's policy of "assertive multilateralism," as outlined by U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Madeleine K. Albright, is based on a growing American reliance on the U.N. for humanitarian and peacekeeping operations.

Confused Command. Another problem with a standing U.N. army involves command structure. U.S. troops in a U.N. standing army eventually will find themselves at odds with a multinational command. Would resisting orders of a multinational command be insubordination, or merely consistent with the good order and discipline an American commander should display? To which flag would the American commanders owe allegiance? The Joint Chiefs of Staff recognize the potential for this confusion, and traditionally have resisted subordinating their services to international command.

Biden's Senate resolution would reduce congressional oversight of the use of American military force. The resolution states that "the President shall not be deemed to require the authorization of the Congress to make [American troops] available to the Security Council on its call." Having encumbered the President's ability to deploy forces as commander in chief with the War Powers Act, Congress now wishes to make the President accountable to unelected U.N. bureaucrats. Biden apparently believes that the President should be restricted in his ability to defend purely national interests, but free to commit forces in defense of more "noble" multinational interests.

To reject a U.N. standing army is not to reject U.N. peacekeeping. There is plenty for the U.S. to do to improve the financial, logistical, and professional aspects of the U.N.'s current peacekeeping activities. For example, officers in the U.N. "command center" in New York rely on CNN television news broadcasts for their information from the field. The Clinton Administration could help correct this problem by establishing an improved command, control, and communications structure for U.N. military operations.

A standing U.N. army encourages the misguided perception that a "good" commitment of U.S. force is one for which there is multilateral support, making future commanders in chief more reluctant to apply force unilaterally to defend American interests abroad. Moreover, it will embolden the U.N. into greater activism in conflicts to which the U.S. would otherwise not have committed American lives and resources.

The U.N. should concentrate on improving its traditional peacekeeping role following realistic and achievable objectives, while rejecting revolutionary efforts to create a standing U.N. army.

Thomas P. Sheehy is a former Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author