All the troubles of the world on its shoulders: Stubborn regional conflicts are posing unfamiliar challenges for the UN, says Adam Roberts

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The Independent Online
'All empires die of indigestion.' Napoleon's remark applies not only to his own bitter experience of imperial overstretch, but also to our own times. It helps to explain the end of the Soviet empire, which manifestly bit off a great deal more than it could chew. And now a new nightmare looms in the tragedies of Somalia, Yugoslavia and at least a dozen other countries. Will the United Nations, like so many other empires before it, die of indigestion?

The feeling of overstretch is apparent in much that the UN does, and does not do, in the many crises of the post-Cold War world. The familiar statistic - that more UN peacekeeping operations have been set up in the past five years than in the preceding 42 years - probably understates the gravity of the crisis which the UN is trying to confront.

Despite the veneer of optimism in New York, conveyed strikingly in the UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's Agenda for Peace report last June, there is an underlying stratum of deep concern. The UN, and its members, simply cannot cope with the terrifying 'Agenda for War' that is emerging in the ruins of collapsing empires.

The concern within the UN about over stretch was evident in the letter of 30 November about Somalia with which Mr Boutros- Ghali stirred the Security Council into action. In that letter, the moral imperative of taking forceful action in Somalia was persuasively outlined. However, Mr Boutros-Ghali continued with this warning:

'The Secretariat, already overstretched in managing greatly enlarged peace-keeping commitments, does not at present have the capability to command and control an enforcement operation of the size and urgency required by the present crisis in Somalia.'

The UN's position is perhaps even grimmer than these words suggest. In Cambodia, it is engaged in a vast operation to put that country together again - an operation which has run into deep trouble because of the refusal of the Party of Democratic Kampuchea (ie, the Khmer Rouge) to participate in the implementation of the 1991 Paris agreements

by UNTAC (UN Transitional Authority in


In the former Yugoslavia, UNPROFOR (UN Protection Force) was set up less than a year ago 'to create the conditions of peace and security required for the negotiation of an overall settlement'. It now finds itself engaged in a far more limited task, humanitarian relief, and its efforts appear feeble when set beside the terrifying force of Yugoslavia's ethnic warfare. So serious is the sense of overstretch that, during the past year, the UN Secretariat has used procedural sleight-of-hand in the Security Council to avoid involvement in at least one of the conflicts of the former Soviet Union - that in Nagorno Karabakh.

The UN Secretariat and Security Council are simply not well suited to coping with deep and bitter internal conflicts. This is hardly surprising. Controlling apparently ungovernable regions is an ancient and difficult problem of international relations, and it is one that the UN is not necessarily better equipped to tackle - whether in legal, administrative or political terms - than were the old imperial states of previous eras.

The UN Charter is largely a document about inter-state conflicts - such wars having been, for many in the West, the central problem of world politics. But in large areas of the world, from Yugoslavia to China, from El Salvador to Somalia, communal violence and civil war have long been seen as a much more serious problem.

Now there is the bizarre spectacle of an international organisation which was set up to deal with international war having relatively little to do in that regard, but having to cope simultaneously with a dozen or more civil wars (albeit with international complications).

The UN has had some important successes. In Namibia and Nicaragua, it has helped monitor elections and end long-standing conflicts of a partly internal character. But when a country is riven by old and bitter animosities, whether or not classified as 'ethnic', the UN may have as much difficulty as any other outside power in ending the resulting conflict.

The UN's difficulty may actually be made worse by the contemporary rejection of most manifestations of imperial control. The crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, strongly suggests the need for some kind of trusteeship arrangement - for the simple reasons that Bosnia, whose ethnic mix is a microcosm of the old Yugoslavia, has never cohered as a state and will not do so in the foreseeable future. Yet such is our commitment to an anti-colonial ideology that we talk about military intervention in Bosnia without ever daring to specify what political or administrative arrangements the interveners might find themselves either protecting or imposing.

Can the United States succeed where the UN has failed? Twice in the past two years - first with resolution 678 of 29 November, 1990 (giving Iraq a deadline to get out of Kuwait), and then with resolution 794 of 3 December, 1992 (on Somalia) - the UN Security Council has authorised the United States and partners to do its military work for it. This may well set an enduring pattern for the manner in which the UN will operate in a world of sovereign states. Both operations, however, have provided plentiful evidence of a reluctance by the US to impose its own political order on a notionally sovereign state; and both have shown its anxiety to end an operation as quickly as possible.

In short, the US, with its deep sense of being a genuinely anti-colonial state, and its memories of long and painful involvement in Vietnam, seeks quick victories, not enduring control over fractured societies. It wants to return Somalia into the shaky hands of UNOSOM (UN Operation in Somalia) at the earliest possible moment.

Bill Clinton's victory in the US presidential election marked a triumph of domestic over foreign preoccupations: and even making full allowance for the paradoxical possibility that Mr Clinton may get heavily enmeshed abroad, there is no way that he will commit the US to the colonial administration of a Somalia or a Bosnia for as long as it takes.

There is little sign of recognition - whether in the UN, the US or, indeed, in Western Europe - that international involvement in contemporary civil wars may well be very long-term; may require imaginative and difficult administrative as well as military programmes; and may be best avoided if there is not the willingness to stay the course. Nor is there much recognition that the anti-imperial instincts of both the US and the UN may make a minority of problems harder, rather than easier, to tackle.

The deplorable failure of European countries (whether in a Nato, EC or CSCE context) to come to terms with these realities was partly the result of hubris: of a belief that somehow we had evolved out of history, that war in Europe was scarcely thinkable anymore, and that we were now armed with methods of conflict prevention which could be applied to whatever crisis might erupt. Any such illusions should now be shattered.

It is time there was a serious debate about how states, regional bodies and the UN itself can effectively intervene in civil wars. Unless something effective can be done, the day may yet come when the hard-pressed UN Secretariat, far from feeling liberated by the non-use of any veto in the Security Council since 31 May, 1990, and the UN's new-found capacity for action, hankers for a return to regular use of the veto to save it from involvement in seemingly necessary but possibly hopeless operations.

The writer is Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and a Fellow of Balliol College.

(Photograph omitted)