UN: More harm than good?: Grim reality after an optimistic era; the UN's future

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MANY proposals are being made for strengthening the role of the United Nations, especially in the field of peace-keeping. Those proposals command attention because the present methods of operating peace-keeping forces are so bizarre: the UN is expected to solve the world's troubles without benefit of standing forces, standard systems of command and control, power to administer the areas in which it intervenes, or proper financial arrangements. No wonder it lurches from one expedient to the next.

The idea of a standing UN force, comprised of professionals recruited on a voluntary basis, was advanced last month by Sir Brian Urquhart in an article in the New York Review of Books. It is a very serious proposal: such a force would give the Secretary-General a capacity for fast and effective action in certain crises - for example, in sending troops to a state threatened by external attack.

Yet, as Urquhart concedes, states still seem resistant to seeing a UN with an independent military capacity, or at least to financing such a force; and this proposal is not very relevant to peace-keeping problems, as in Somalia and Bosnia, which have cast doubt on the capabilities of even large professional forces, including those of the US and various Nato countries.

Another much-favoured proposal is for the desperately overcommitted UN to devolve some of its peace-keeping tasks to regional organisations. Reasons for using regional organisations in handling disputes include participation by local powers, burden-sharing, relief of UN overload and avoidance of controversial involvement of extra-regional powers. The involvement of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) in Liberia is sometimes seen as an example of what regional forces can do.

However, there are many difficulties in relying on regional organisations. These include the fact that, unlike the UN Security Council, they lack effective procedures for reaching decisions in security matters; some regional bodies are seen as instruments of local hegemony; and in some areas there is a multiplicity of possible organisations with consequent problems of choice, rivalry, and confusion.

Regional organisations may well take on greater roles, as Boutros Boutros-Ghali has urged, but in most cases there is little prospect that they will supplant the role of the United Nations.

Improving the system of financing of peace-keeping operations is increasingly being proposed, including in a Ford Foundation report issued earlier this year. As Dick Thornburgh, the retiring undersecretary-general for administration and management, put it in March, UN peace-keeping funding is a 'financial bungee jump'. Harassed officials have to worry constantly about where the money is coming from, when their minds should be on longer-term issues.

While all these proposals have strength, the terrible circumstances of conflicts in Somalia and Bosnia suggest some other conclusions.

First, the world is in an imperial situation, but without imperialists. Some situations of chaos may require intervention in an administrative or trustee-type role, but neither the UN, the US nor other states are willing to go far in this direction. The absence of an administrative role restricts the UN to crude options: witness the gunship assaults on Mogadishu.

Second, UN peace-keeping is not well suited to situations where not only is there no peace, but there are no front lines, and where the weapons used are small and easily concealed.

Third, the UN needs to develop mechanisms for avoiding involvement in some situations. It must not become a dustbin for impossible problems.

Fourth, above all, the UN and its leading members, including Britain, need to develop much more effective means of thinking problems through, and of planning and controlling operations.

These are grim conclusions, but after the optimism of the immediate post-Cold War era it may be best to begin from a realistic recognition of the sheer difficulty of tackling the challenges of disunited nations.

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