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Who Can Police the World?

Cooperating for Peace: The Global Agenda for the 1990s and Beyond

by Gareth Evans
Allen and Unwin, 224 pp., Australian $17.95 (paper)

Seeking Peace from Chaos: Humanitarian Intervention in Somalia Publishers

by Samuel M. Makinda
International Peace Academy: Occasional Paper Series, Lynne Rienner, 92 pp., $8.95 (paper)

The UN in Cambodia: Lessons for Complex Peacekeeping International Peacekeeping

by Michael W. Doyle, by Nishkala Suntharalingam
International Peace Academy: an occasional essay forthcoming in, Vol. I, No. 2 pp.

Aftermath of the Gulf War: An Assessment of UN Action Publishers

by Ian Johnstone
International Peace Academy: Occasional Paper Series, Lynne Rienner, 84 pp., $7.95 (paper)


By now it should be clear that the United Nations has been held back not just by the cold war and the Soviet veto. The task of creating an effective world organization is in itself extremely difficult and frustrating whatever the political climate. During the post–cold war period, after two or three unexpectedly successful operations, the UN has found itself once again in a lamentable predicament. While its meager resources are strained to the limit by new responsibilities, it is being suffocated by criticism and doubt.

In early 1945, after Yalta, at which the future world organization was a main topic of discussion, Franklin Roosevelt told the US Congress that the creation of the United Nations “spells—and it ought to spell—the end of the system of unilateral action, exclusive alliances, and spheres of influence, and balances of power, and all the other expedients which have been tried for centuries and have always failed.” Roosevelt’s sweeping vision, and the idea behind the original Charter itself that the nations of the world should unite in the face of danger and in the pursuit of great common causes, appear now to have been more the product of the horror of World War II than of any lasting political intention or commitment.

During the cold war the UN did, it is true, serve as a useful forum of last resort in the face of nuclear danger. In the Suez Crisis of 1956, in Lebanon in 1958, in the Congo in 1960, in the Indian Subcontinent in 1965, and in the Middle East in 1973, UN intervention contained conflicts which showed ominous signs of setting off an American-Soviet confrontation. In the Cuban Missile Crisis the Security Council provided a stage for publicizing the danger posed by the missiles in Cuba, while the UN secretary-general, U Thant, served as an impartial broker who provided both sides with a formula for drawing back from the nuclear brink without losing face.

In the post–cold war world, however, with its unforeseen and widespread outbreaks of low-level violence, its increasing tendencies toward civil war and ethnic conflict, its formidable economic and social problems, the old idea of the solidarity of nations in the UN has lost much of its force. Instead, one hears much talk, especially in the United States, that the UN is over-reaching itself. It is said to be incompetent and to be spending far too much money. It is seen as a capricious foreign entity, acting independently of its member governments and often heedless of their concerns. Any show of independence by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali tends to provoke cries of nationalist outrage, especially from the right.

One consequence of the end of the cold war was the new ability of the UN Security Council to agree on most of the issues that came before it, and at first this seemed an enormous step forward. The Council, for example, could quickly agree on the need to condemn the invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990 and take urgent action. Later, however, it became clear that the Security Council had a different and debilitating problem. In most of the violent situations it addressed, it was unable to make its decisions effective.

It was one thing to set up peacekeeping operations without the use of force during the cold war, in order to show that conflicts between sovereign states had been suspended, whether between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights, or between India and Pakistan in the Subcontinent. It has proved far more difficult to inject UN peace-keeping forces into active civil wars in which no government has invited them, the fighting factions are unwilling to cooperate with the UN forces, and there is little possibility of bringing political or other pressure to bear on those factions. Thus the UN’s discouraging experiences, especially in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Angola, and most recently Rwanda, have precipitated a new crisis of confidence which has quite overshadowed the organization’s relative success in Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia, and other places. In former Yugoslavia, more than fifty Security Council resolutions have failed to end the killing or the savage treatment of civilians, in spite of large peace-keeping forces and an enormous humanitarian operation. Only very recently have there been even a few signs of limited progress toward peace in Bosnia.

The UN was set up in 1945 primarily to deal with threats to the peace, acts of aggression, and disputes and conflicts between states. It is now increasingly perceived by the press and the public to be, or to have the potential of being, the world’s police force and humanitarian rescue service—in fact, the embryonic public-service sector of a “world community” that does not yet exist. The future of the UN will depend, in large measure, upon the willingness of its member governments to endorse this new role and to support it with money, resources, and manpower.

It is often pointed out, with good reason, that the management and administration of the UN’s field operations need to be vastly improved. It is less often said that while these operations have multiplied ten-fold in the last three years, a zero growth budget and a hiring freeze have been in force for an even longer period. Budgetary constraints have also meant that the UN has none of the reserve funds or standing facilities for contingency planning, logistics, and training that would make it possible to launch new operations without delay. Thus each operation starts from scratch and with severely limited funds. While popular pressure impels governments to bring the UN into violent and complex situations, they remain reluctant to provide solid support for such operations.

There are also, of course, fundamental, if unstated, political obstacles to improving the UN’s effectiveness. Governments, not least those of developing countries, clearly do not want to give the Security Council and the secretary-general greater authority or more effective capacity to intervene. Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali’s proposals for volunteer “peace enforcement” units and for strengthening the UN’s peace-keeping capacity have been greeted with little enthusiasm. A “standby force” drawn from the armed forces of the members or, more suspect still, a standing UN volunteer force of the kind previously advocated in these pages,1 is widely seen, quite apart from considerations of expense, as a harbinger of interventionism and supranationalism.

Recent events in Bosnia have provoked one important advance in the UN’s approach to violent situations. When, in June 1993, I suggested in these pages that the UN needed an immediately available volunteer force, I noted that such a force would need the full support of member nations including, “if necessary, air, naval and other kinds of military action.” In February the credible threat, and limited use, of NATO air strikes called in by UN commanders on the ground was able, at least temporarily, to break the Serbian siege of Sarajevo after nearly two years of bloodshed and destruction, although other places are still blockaded or under attack, and communications with some towns are intermittently throttled. (Croat sieges of Muslim towns have been relaxed since the Croat-Muslim agreement in early March.) The outcome of the subsequent NATO air strikes on Gorazde on April 10 and 11 remains in doubt as I write. But the Security Council needs to consider whether a combined effort of the kind made recently in and near Sarajevo would not have been more effective at the very beginning of the Bosnian disaster, and if so what this could mean for the scope and conduct of future operations.

Can the UN realistically be expected to meet its present and future challenges without some built-in, immediately available, military capacity? The organization at present relies for its increasingly complex operations almost entirely on contingents and ad hoc logistical support from member governments. This means, among other things, that its initial reactions are often hesitant and slow, and its capacity to stay the course uncertain. Whether in Somalia or in Bosnia it is now also bedeviled by disputes over the command and control of the national units assigned to the UN, although in Sarajevo the current UN commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, has been giving a spirited demonstration of what a courageous, imaginative, and articulate leader can do to change the situation on the ground as well as the public perception of a UN operation. The questions of timely deployment and unity of command will be vital to the effectiveness and the credibility of future UN operations.


Most accounts of the activities of the United Nations have been critical—and rightly so. A great merit of the four works under review is their down-to-earth analysis of specific UN operations and of the lessons that can usefully be drawn from them.

It is unusual for a foreign minister to write a book while still in office, but Gareth Evans is no ordinary foreign minister. An Australian senator and a prolific writer on foreign affairs, he was one of the originators of the UN peace plan for Cambodia and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Cooperating for Peace addresses the question of how the UN should deal with the huge post–cold war expectations of it.

As Evans notes, preventive measures are obviously the most economical and effective way to tackle international problems. Yet such measures are rarely considered until conflict is more or less certain. He cites Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait as a glaring failure to use preventive diplomacy, pointing out that no real effort was made to address the specific issues in dispute—oil pricing, the ownership of the Rumalia oilfield, Iraq’s debt, and control of Warba Island and Bubiyan Island.

On the other hand, governments more often than not resent early warning, and Iraq would very probably have refused to cooperate in preventive efforts. We shall never know how much preventive intervention even the Kuwaiti government, in its pre-invasion state of mind, would have welcomed or even tolerated, or indeed how many governments would have been willing or ready to intervene at an earlier stage. The greatest obstacle to preventive diplomacy is the attitude of governments, especially those directly involved.

The preventive deployment of UN troops, suggested in Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s 1992 Agenda for Peace, is being tried out for the first time in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where some 1,050 troops have been stationed on the border with Serbia and Kosovo to prevent the new state of Macedonia, which has hardly any armed forces of its own, from being attacked by Serbia. So far this operation has not been challenged, although there are some ominous signs that it soon may be. The key question of preventive intervention remains what happens if someone activates the trip wire. Evans believes that a clear and specific mandate from the Security Council for the original preventive force may provide some answers to this question, but he is extremely cautious about what follow-up action would be possible if the preventive effort is challenged, and the wire is tripped. Recent NATO commitments to air strikes around Sarajevo indicate one possible form of follow-up action, provided, of course, that a regional military alliance is available and willing to act. However, neither the Security Council nor a military alliance such as NATO is likely to be willing to commit itself in advance to urgent forceful action. This, at present, is the vulnerable aspect of preventive deployment.

  1. 1

    See The New York Review, June 10, 1993.

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