Leading Article: Peace-keeping on a pittance

Click to follow
The United Nations faces a 'crisis of too much credibility', according to its Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Most institutions would be delighted to have that problem but it is not as welcome as it might seem. The world is piling tasks on to the UN while refusing to pay. In four years the organisation has done more peace-keeping than in the previous 40. It is now maintaining 12 peace-keeping operations, expected to cost nearly dollars 3bn this year. Yet it is owed dollars 1.8bn in unpaid dues. The United States is one of the worst offenders, followed closely by Russia and more distantly by Germany and France.

Paradoxically, these difficulties are mounting just when the UN's moment of destiny is supposed to have arrived. During the Cold War it was largely paralysed by the vetoes of the two rival superpowers. Many in the United States came to regard it as little more than an expensive talking shop in which uppity Third World countries could rant against 'imperialism' with impunity. Public support for its funding was almost non-existent.

The collapse of Communism initially raised hopes that co-operation between the Soviet Union and the United States would at last give the UN the global authority it was originally supposed to have. The Gulf war seemed to vindicate these hopes. President Bush proclaimed the advent of a new world order in which the United States would act as global policeman with the authority of the UN and the support of the Soviet Union.

Little is now left of that dream. The Soviet Union has collapsed. American voters are increasingly reluctant to shoulder any overseas responsibilities. Congress finds no incentive to abandon its habitual reluctance to fund the UN. Europe is entangled in its own problems. The Arab states are reverting to their old ways. The Gulf war, it seems, was not the defining moment of the post-Communist world, the model for dealing with future threats to peace, but a unique event, perhaps even an aberration.

Yet the burdens still pile on to the UN. They have little to do with a new world order and everything to do with the fact that more and more of the world's problems demand international responses. Peace is no longer threatened primarily by aggressors marching across the borders of sovereign states. The sources of danger have become more diffuse and complex. They can include ill-treatment of minorities, famine, migration, environmental damage, secret nuclear programmes and out-of-date nuclear power stations. Only international organisations can muster the resources to respond and the legitimacy to override sovereignty when necessary.

In these circumstances it may become necessary to consider radical changes in the UN, particularly to increase its capacity for preventive action before crises explode. In the meantime it is unforgivable that powerful nations professing concern for global security should not pay their dues. Members of the Security Council are particularly culpable. One small, logical reform would be to transfer responsibility for UN contributions from foreign ministries, which generally have little budgetary clout, to defence ministries. But the problem is larger than that. It demands concerted pressure by those who are paying on those who are not. For all its faults, the UN is still the only body with a hope of managing the problems its members create.