The idea had some basis in international legality, if not in the social and political realities of most of the world. The United Nations, with the elimination of the Soviet veto, was and is effectively at the disposition of the United States, for blessing or covering any course of action to which the United States is strongly committed. Thus American policy-makers were tempted to use the UN for the creation of a worldwide Pax Americana, and yielded to that temptation to a considerable extent.
This week it became clear that Americans are no longer in love with Pax Americana and the UN. The House of Representatives has just joined the Senate in endorsing a resolution that - in substance, though less than explicitly - calls for the withdrawal of US troops from Somalia by mid-November. Bill Clinton, in his address to the UN, indicated that his administration is preparing to bow to the will of Congress, and of the American people. In consequence, he is now dropping the crusade against General Mohamed Aideed, about which a great hullabaloo was being made in August.
General Aideed, with an estimated 800 militiamen at his disposal, has in effect defeated the US and the UN. He has been able to do so because his clansmen, in pursuit of their cause, are willing to sustain casualties on a scale unacceptable to the US and the UN, whose soldiers are risking their lives for an objective that does not stir their emotions or reconcile their families to their loss. It has taken only 15 US deaths in Somalia to turn US policy right round. We do not know how many of General Aideed's clan (and other Somalis) have died: the international media are not particularly investigative in the matter of Somali body counts. But there is no doubt that Somali casualties (including women and children) considerably outnumber American casualties. The point is that an African clan, on its own turf and operating within its own value system, is less easily daunted than an international force.
The manner in which the US-UN war against General Aideed has just been called off is symptomatic of the actual relationship between the US and the UN. There is a Security Council resolution, passed at the urging of the US, committing UN forces to apprehend General Aideed and bring him to justice. That resolution is still in force, technically, but President Clinton clearly implied that it is now null and void, since it is no longer in accord with US policy. This assumption seems normal to many Americans, but it is deeply frustrating to serious UN people, including the Secretary General, Boutros Boutros- Ghali, who indicated briefly that he remains bound by the Security Council resolution, and committed to General Aideed's capture.
The President, in his address to the General Assembly, coolly placed on the UN itself the blame for the US-
fuelled over-expansion of UN peace- keeping activities. As the President put it: 'The United Nations simply cannot become engaged in every one of the world's conflicts. If the American people are to say yes to UN peace-
keeping, the United Nations must know when to say no.'
To resist the tendency about which the President was complaining, the UN would have had to say 'No' to the United States, which has never been easy for the UN, and has been virtually impossible since 1990. Still, taking the blame for the mistakes of national leaders (especially US presidents) is one of the things the UN is about, and is a large part of its utility to national governments - and, indeed, in rather sad and ironic ways, to the cause of peace. To take the blame, and so save the face of a powerful statesman who is backing away from a warlike commitment, is a classic UN exercise, and perhaps the greatest justification for its continued existence.
The closest precedent for Mr Clinton's General Assembly speech, backing away from General Aideed and blaming the UN, is Eisenhower's use of the UN in the Hungary crisis of 1956. Eisenhower had encouraged the Hungarians to revolt and, when they did so, decided sensibly but ignominiously to let them down. So he used the UN to save his face. He was bound by the UN Charter, he claimed, and the UN had failed to live up to that. Mr Clinton's use of the UN this week was based on the same essential principle: the UN as scapegoat.
President Clinton also talked, quite incongruously, of possibly sending 25,000 American troops to Bosnia (under certain conditions). The troops are unlikely to get there, and if they do get there, they will not stay long. If the Americans are about to leave Somalia after 15 lethal casualties, the Serbs are hardly shaking in their shoes.
We may hope that the West as a whole is now emerging from a dangerous mood which has afflicted it over the past three years: a mood of euphoria, bordering on megalomania, in which all manner of fantasies seemed on the verge of realisation, including the end of history itself. The millenarian mood affected Europe for a time, perhaps even more than America. To European leaders, most of whom are still in place, it seemed quite a practicable notion to melt down historic nations into a federation on the lines of the United States, forged by a widely different history, and out of qualitatively different components. This hardly seemed to matter; after all, history had ended, hadn't it?
In this mood, it seemed a good idea, for example, to recognise Bosnia as a sovereign independent state: a likely candidate for membership in European federal union. To put faith in documents, and ignore human nature, human passions and the diversities of human culture was a feature of the period which may now, with luck, be closing.
The classic analysis of this particular syndrome is contained in Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). This complex of characteristics (combining with other forces) cost millions of European lives in the wars of the Revolution and the Empire. Our generation may perhaps escape from the consequences of similar follies at a much lower price. If so, some of the credit is due to the United Nations, in its unacknowledged role as scapegoat for the vanities and follies of statesmen. The UN's greatest successes are its failures.Reuse content