President Clinton apparently believes otherwise. In his recent
New Hampshire discussion with House Speaker Newt Gingrich,
President Clinton suggested that the U.N. had been instrumental in
keeping the peace during the Cold War. The President soon after
corrected himself by noting "that the United Nations didn't keep
all the peace in the last 50 years."
While in San Francisco the President should be careful not to
exaggerate the U.N.'s importance. The U.N. has been, and will
continue to be, of only marginal relevance to international peace
and security. Suggesting otherwise only sets the stage for future
policy debacles involving the U.S. military. The President also
should resist committing U.S. support to anything other than
traditional U.N. peacekeeping operations, such as in Cyprus, where
peacekeepers act as buffers between parties who have ceased
Flawed Premise. U.N. peacekeeping turns disastrous when it takes
the form of "peacemaking." Many factors have contributed to U.N.
peacekeeping failures in Somalia, Bosnia, and elsewhere, including
poor U.N. organization and inevitable disagreements over objectives
among nations contributing troops. These shortcomings have led many
to suggest such reforms as upgrading U.N. peacekeeping facilities
in New York and establishing a standing U.N. army. The problem with
peacemaking, however, is more fundamental.
When trying to deter one or more combatants from achieving their
goals through the force of arms, the essence of "peacemaking," U.N.
forces quickly become just another group of combatants. In Bosnia,
for example, U.N. peacekeepers essentially are warring with the
Bosnian Serbs. U.N. forces playing this role are unlikely to
succeed in coercing combatants into peace. The constrained mandates
which the U.N. typically issues, moreover, do not allow for the
complete destruction of the military capabilities of combatants,
which often is a prerequisite to political settlements.
More important, the countries providing peacekeepers have
considerably less interest in the conflicts than do the forces
their troops are fighting. As casualties are incurred, pressure
mounts to bring the troops home. The Bosnian Serbs understand this
very well. The result is often a half-hearted and ultimately futile
operation that suffers casualties in vain, as the U.S. did in
When major states, particularly the U.S., are unwilling to
suffer casualties in conflicts of little direct interest to them,
they often are derided for a lack of "leadership." Many critics of
Washington's policy on Bosnia have suggested that the U.S. is
shirking its international responsibility as a leader by shying
away from the inevitable casualties that would result from
forcefully intervening in that centuries-old conflict. Some
commentators even have suggested that the U.S. hesitancy to
intervene in Bosnia and elsewhere, including Somalia before
President Bush committed troops there, is immoral. The "immoral"
policy, however, is to suffer casualties in a conflict with no
bearing to American national security and soon after to abandon the
U.S. commitment, as was done in Somalia.
Calculations of the national interest undermine the notion of
global collective security upon which the entire U.N. approach to
security is based. The fact is that nations never have, nor will
they ever, consider a threat to peace anywhere as a threat to peace
everywhere. Members of the League of Nations were unwilling to
defend Ethiopia against Italian aggression in 1935; the Europeans
and Americans are unwilling to mount a vigorous defense of Bosnia
U.N. Way or No Way? Recognizing global collective security as a
myth is not tantamount to saying that no collective action is
possible or even necessary. Collective action on a regional basis,
such as in NATO and during the Persian Gulf War, whether or not it
is sanctioned by the U.N., undoubtedly is the best way to maintain
international peace and stability.
It is a red herring to suggest, as the Clinton Administration
does, that without the U.N. the U.S. will be forced "to act alone
or not at all." This represents an odd reading of history. The U.S.
has acted in concert with allies in most of its international
conflicts. NATO, perhaps the most successful security pact in
history, is a multilateral, not international, organization. The
real fear of many who raise the "all or nothing" canard is not for
American security, but for the prestige of the U.N., which suffers
considerably without active American participation.
The Next 50 Years. Some analysts and politicians argue that the
U.S. should use the U.N. only to serve its interests. The archetype
is President Bush's securing U.N. approval for the Persian Gulf
War. Proponents of this modus operandi must recognize, however,
that using the U.N. in this way establishes a precedent for future
U.S. action. As a result, bypassing the Security Council has become
more politically difficult.
This trend is particularly troubling because U.S. influence
within the Security Council is likely to diminish. The Security
Council may be expanded beyond its current five permanent and ten
rotating members. Brazil, India, Nigeria, Japan, and Germany have
been discussed as possible members to possess veto power. The
Clinton Administration has expressed support for granting permanent
Security Council seats to developing countries. Any Security
Council expansion, of course, will diminish U.S. influence, making
the achievement of approval for U.S. actions to defend its national
interest more difficult, particularly as many of the states
represented in the U.N. today share none of the values enshrined in
the U.N. Charter.
It is wrong to blame the U.N. for foolish American policies. The
U.N. cannot force America to act against its security interests. It
did not drive President Bush to send U.S. troops to Somalia or
order Washington's European allies into their Bosnia quagmire. U.N.
influence is more subtle. It is exercised mainly through U.S.
policymakers who want either to hide behind the U.N. to avoid
action or, conversely, to use it to drag the U.S. into conflicts
which it should otherwise avoid.
While in San Francisco, the President should remember an
unassailable fact about international politics: The U.N. does not
transcend "mere" national interests. Rhetoric which belittles the
American national interest, however indirectly, only encourages
debacles like Somalia. The loss of 30 lives in that failed U.N.
operation is a high price to pay for an empty dream.
President Bill Clinton will be in San Francisco on June 26 to
participate in the 50th anniversary celebration of the signing of
the United Nations Charter. It was in June of 1945 that war-weary
America took the lead in founding the U.N., harboring high hopes
that it would become a major force in advancing world peace. But
the U.N. has failed to live up to these expectations. After 50
years it has become clear that the U.N. is only a marginal player
in establishing international peace.