Cocktail acronyms and blue helmets

Robert Fisk on a survey of the UN that sees the world as an office, not a battlefield FROM COLD WAR TO HOT PEACE Anthony Parsons Michael Joseph £16.99
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The 50th anniversary of the UN could be the bleakest year in its history. US Marines are preparing to extract the last peacekeepers from the UN's folly in Somalia. Franjo Tudjman has ordered the UN out of Krajina by the end of March in apparent readiness for Part Two of the Croatian- Serbian war. And if the national security bill passed by the US House of Representatives becomes law, Newt Gingrich and the boys will have closed down the whole shebang forever. Goodbye UNPROFOR, UNFICYP, UNIFIL, UNTSO, UNDOF, UNMOGIP, UNMOT, UNOMIG, and all the other cocktail acronyms that have done so much to absolve our consciences and prop up the local economies of food hoarders, militia-men and honkytonk girls across four continents. Drastic stuff, you may say, but how many people even know what the acronyms stand for?

And now along comes our erstwhile ambassador to Tehran - the man who honourably admitted he got the Shah's Iran wrong - to assure us that the old bag-lady on the banks of the Hudson River still has life in her, that she remains a touchstone of legitimacy in an unpredictable world, ever more courted by the elderly suitors who prostituted her and betrayed her so shabbily in the past. Joining Brian Urquhart in his call for a UN volunteer deterrent force, Anthony Parsons fears that President Clinton's caveat of UN deployment only in the event of a threat to "international" peace is going to let loose the monsters in every civil war. "Local warlords and potential aggressors," he writes, "would be justified in assuming that, if they can minimize television coverage of their atrocities; if they can steer clear of Great Power national interests; if they can promise the outside world an indefinite, uncomfortable stay with the certainty of casualties, they stand a reasonable chance of being left alone to get on with whatever horrors they may be contemplating. The risk of the cavalry suddenly appearing over the hill will be slight."

Having tramped around for days through desert, wadi and mountain with UN troops of at least 30 nationalities - with Jordanians on the banks of the Sava river, with Irish in southern Lebanon, with Canadians and French in Sarajevo, with Poles in Kuwait and Krajina, with Brits in Tuzla - I can only share the view that the UN is, in fact, an intrinsically honourable organisation, the nearest we've got to international morality and selflessness, a protector of the poor and the weak (Lebanon and parts of Bosnia and Croatia), a regenerator of freedom (Mozambique and Cambodia), and - when it gets its act together - a saviour from starvation.

So how come the act went wrong so often? Parsons' pet theory is that negotiations for the peaceful settlement of disputes succeed "only when all the parties, albeit each for a different reason, need a settlement simultaneously." Thus in 1979 Rhodesia reached a settlement - admittedly with precious little UN involvement - because the collapse of the Portuguese empire, the bloody struggle ahead and Tory unwillingness to rely on Opposition votes for sanctions meant that South Africa, Mozambique, the Smith-Muzorewa alliance, Mugabe and Mrs Thatcher all had an interest in closing shop at the same time. This theory, however, does not hold out much hope for the Balkans where Messrs Milosevic, Izetbegovic, Tudjman and Karadzic only want to settle when the others don't - or change their minds when the others do.

Parsons' book is a lofty, sometimes pompous and irritatingly clich- ridden overview, the kind of work which will be chewed over in seminars where the more boring a thesis, the more respectfully it will be regarded. Perhaps one of the problems is that, for much of his professional career, Sir Anthony appears to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was in Ankara when the British invaded Suez, in Bahrain at the outbreak of the 1967 Middle East war, in Tehran when the Turks invaded Cyprus and on the edge of Dartmoor when Saddam invaded Kuwait. Assurances that "I was observing events in Cyprus closely from Tehran at the time" don't quite make the grade, and I could only feel profound sympathy for the author's Bahraini dinner guests when Parsons responded to Nasser's 1967 closure of the Straits of Tiran by declaring "This means war" over the dinner table. "There was no dissent," he tells us. Well no Tony, there wouldn't be, would there.

Why, too, must we be treated to such a stream of tired clichs and mixed metaphors? Nasser, we are told, "crossed the Rubicon" when he ordered the UN out of Sinai. Seven pages later, the European Community "crossed the Rubicon" in recognising the Palestinian right to self- determination. By page 34, it is Mr Arafat who has "crossed a Rubicon" by recognising Israel. When mandatory sanctions are at last imposed on South Africa in 1977, "the crossing of this Rubicon" is ascribed to a combination of anti-apartheid leaderhips in Washington, London, Bonn and Ottawa. I half-expected to find "Rubicon" in the index, sandwiched between "Rose, Michael" and "Russian Federation".

Yet despite these insufferable lapses, the book should be on every diplomat's shelf, not least because of its eminent common sense. Of the Middle East - where Parsons is not afraid to refer to Israeli as well as Arab "terrorists" - he observes that "the Palestine problem . . . has been the cause of more Security Council resolutions, more vetoed drafts and more resolutions in the Assembly and other UN organs than any other item on the agenda." By the time the Cold War (and Western decolonisation) had ended, Yugoslavia was changing the very nature of UN bureaucracy; in the two-and-a-half years up to April 1994, the Security Council adopted nearly half as many resolutions as it did in the 45 years of Arab-Israeli dispute, which is more than twice as many as it did over 30 years of apartheid in South Africa.

It is impossible to argue with Parsons' conclusion that sanctions don't work - they failed in Iraq, Somalia, Liberia, Haiti, Angola and ex- Yugoslavia (even, he might have added, against civil war Spain in the Thirties). The West's failure to confront the Serbs with a serious military threat at the start of their wicked campaign of "ethnic cleansing" - whatever the cost in UN lives - demonstrated, Parsons says, how greatly governments underestimated the steadfastness of their own electorates. As for that most sorely tried of all UN members, Bosnia, he rightly insists that "the concept that acceptance into the international community carries with it a degree of security becomes meaningless if Great Powers are unwilling to lift a finger to protect a new member who has immediately come under attack."

There are some odd omissions. Sir Anthony's refusal to address the Korean War - because "it was in all but name an American operation" - ducks a rather important issue: the traducing of the UN by a super- power. The author happily includes the 1990-1991 Gulf crisis as a UN affair because Washington decided to shore up the legitimacy of its war with UN resolutions. But no-one believes the UN controlled that conflict - I spent months with Western and Arab troops in the Gulf but never once saw a UN flag. With the Soviet Union on its knees, I suppose they simply didn't need the fig- leaf of the blue banner.

It might be comforting to reflect, as Parsons does, that if the Cold War were still in progress, Ethiopia would still be in the throes of civil war, South Africa would not have abolished apartheid, Namibia would not be independent, there would no hope of peace in Cambodia and no "glimmer of hope" in the Arab-Israeli conflict. But without an end to the Cold War, there would probably have been no Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. And no war in Nagorny Karabakh, Georgia, Abkhazia, Tajikistan or ex-Yugoslavia - not to mention Chechenya. How soon, therefore, before the first UN peacekeeping force takes up position in the former Soviet Union, to look back nostalgically on what Parsons calls the "golden age" of "careful, risk-free engagement"? Stand by, then, for the hot peace.