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Looking for the Sheriff

In serious cold war matters the UN was usually little more than a sideshow. Still, it could serve as an outlet for public indignation. When, as with the tragic 1956 Hungarian revolt or the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the United States found it inexpedient to intervene in the Soviet sphere of influence, a spirited protest in the UN—followed by castigation in the press of the pusillanimity and ineffectiveness of the world organization—sometimes created a useful diversion. It also made public much detailed information about Soviet repression in Eastern Europe. In the Cuban missile crisis the Security Council provided a platform for exposing the nuclear missiles that the Soviet Union had secretly installed in Cuba.

In peace and security matters during the cold war, the main value of the UN lay in containing regional conflicts and preventing them from setting off an East-West confrontation in combustible parts of the world. These efforts to contain conflicts by setting up peacekeeping operations, guaranteeing ceasefires, and providing buffer zones between conflicting parties were an important contribution to peace and stability in the Middle East, the subcontinent, Cyprus, and the Congo—all regions with a potential for worsening the tensions between East and West. The United States enthusiastically supported the new technique of “peacekeeping,” although, as a permanent member of the Security Council, it did not provide troops.

Meanwhile, another geopolitical development, decolonization, was having unanticipated repercussions on the relations between the UN and the United States. During the war, the US, to the indignation of the European colonial powers, had maintained that decolonization was a worthy aim and a logical outcome of an Allied victory and should be an objective of the Charter. After Indian independence in 1947, the process of decolonization was more rapid than anyone had foreseen, and by the late 1960s the flood of newly independent member states had radically changed the voting balance at the United Nations, as well as the organization’s priorities. By the early 1970s the so-called third world had an automatic voting majority in the General Assembly and was not shy about using it in radical, and often anti-Western, causes.

The rhetorical activism of the third world’s adolescent years was a major factor in the United States’ disillusionment with the United Nations. Often encouraged by the Soviet Union, third world advocacy of an anti-Western “new international economic order,” and particularly the equation of Zionism with racism and other anti-Israel measures, evoked increasing hostility in Washington and destroyed the bipartisan support in the US Congress that had been one of the mainstays of the UN. From being the adored creation of the world’s most powerful country, the UN had become, in the minds of many in Washington, an irresponsible, spendthrift gang of anti-American foreigners.


The cold war prevented the resurgence of isolationism which Roosevelt and Cordell Hull were convinced would follow the end of World War II. The perceived Soviet threat gave rise to a form of American internationalism that included not only alliances like NATO but also active support for at least some parts of the UN, especially its peacekeeping and other security measures. The sudden end of both the cold war and the Soviet Union had some unexpected consequences. One was a resurgence, in a new form, of American isolationism. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote a few years ago:

The United States will never—unless Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan has his way—return to the classical isolationism of no “entangling alliances.” It will continue to accept international political, economic, and military commitments unprecedented in its history. It will even enlarge some, as in the curious mania to expand NATO…. But such enlargement hinges on the assumption that other nations will do as we tell them. The isolationist impulse has risen from the grave, and it has taken the new form of unilateralism.3

Before this new mood set in, however, there was a brief and very different interlude. A burst of euphoria attended the end of the cold war and the apparent success of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq, which had demonstrated among other things that the UN Security Council could, at last, agree to take action on critical issues. There was heady talk of a “new world order” (George Bush) and, a little later, of “assertive multilateralism” (Madeleine Albright and others).

In the United Nations this mood of international activism had far-reaching and not always positive consequences. The Security Council, enthusiastically led by the United States, committed the UN to involvement in Angola, Somalia, Cambodia, Bosnia, Mozambique, Georgia, and elsewhere. In doing this, the Council took very little account of the fact that these interventions differed radically from the peacekeeping operations of the past, which were concerned with containing conflict between consenting states rather than with pacifying warlords, gangsters, and factional and ethnic leaders fighting within the boundaries of a single state.

The UN has virtually no infrastructure for emergency operations. During the operations I have mentioned it had no office for contingency planning. Nor did it have adequate military training programs, logistical facilities, rapid reaction capacity, military command and staff arrangements, or financial reserves. Most governments do not want the UN to have such standing capacities, which might give it elements of supranational sovereignty and would, in any case, be expensive. For its peacekeeping operations the UN must depend on the willingness of governments to commit their soldiers to serve under UN command in often violent situations having little or nothing to do with their own national security interests. The traditional mandates for peacekeeping voted by the Security Council during the cold war—mandates that did not allow the use of force—usually applied to governments which had already agreed to stop fighting. They were not workable in the violent anarchy of Bosnia or Somalia. Moreover, political consensus on action in controversial questions like Bosnia—and now Iraq—is often difficult to sustain in the Security Council. As a result the UN’s mandates are often weak or ambiguous.

In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the UN’s performance during the period of “assertive multilateralism” of the early 1990s was mixed and that three of its thirteen new operations—Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda—were seen as failures. Perhaps it is more remarkable that the others, in such troubled places as Cambodia or Angola, based on an extraordinary degree of improvisation, were relatively successful. In all the harsh judgments that have since been made, the Security Council and its leading members, who, after all, originated all of these operations, have so far escaped most of the recriminations. (An important exception is Mark Danner’s magisterial series on Bosnia in these pages, which makes clear the failures of US and European policy.4 ) Obviously, when things went wrong, it was easier to blame Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali or the military and civilian UN commanders in the field than to scrutinize the weak original mandates for action and the timid and often confused guidance provided by the Security Council.

There was little excuse for ignoring all previous experience and plunging a UN peacekeeping operation, with no authority to use effective force, into a full-scale war in Bosnia. But gruesome images on TV provoked a public demand for action. The leading European powers in NATO were unwilling to intervene forcefully, whether through NATO or otherwise, as long as the United States refused to allow its own troops to be deployed while the fighting was going on. The substitute for forceful NATO action was a UN “peacekeeping”—i.e., nonforceful—force. The Security Council never provided either the clear mandate or the size and type of UN force that were essential if such a difficult undertaking was to have any hope of succeeding. Later on, the Council compounded these errors by proclaiming six “safe areas” and then refusing to authorize either a strong mandate or the 35,000 troops which the Secretary-General considered necessary to defend them. The result was a great tragedy—Srebrenica—and an international scandal.

Somalia was another case of good intentions, muddled mandates, and dilatory execution. The basic problem was, as Adam Roberts has pointed out,5 that the operation there never had a clear overall purpose. The aim of feeding starving Somalis was soon confused with strategies to address the country’s political chaos. The Somalia intervention had far-reaching consequences, for it was the main reason for the 180-degree turn in US policy on UN operations, from “assertive multilateralism” to a virtual refusal to accept any new UN peacekeeping operations at all.

It is still seldom recognized that the ill-fated raid by US Rangers to capture General Mohammed Aidid in Mogadishu was conceived and commanded exclusively by the United States without the prior knowledge of the United Nations—or even of senior US officers in the UN headquarters in Mogadishu. This was a disaster for the United States—not to mention for many Somalis. And it was devastating for the UN. The searing televised footage of a dead American helicopter pilot being dragged through the streets created a major backlash in Washington—a backlash that often took the form of furious recriminations against the UN, although the organization had nothing to do with the ill-conceived raid. The UN command had to take emergency action to rescue the American soldiers. The episode could be said to have marked the end, as far as Washington was concerned, of “assertive multilateralism” through the United Nations.

The reaction to the Rangers debacle led directly to a third major UN failure—in Rwanda.6 When, on April 6, 1994, the aircraft carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down as it approached Kigali airport, this set off the violence that led to the genocide of some 800,000 people and the displacement of two and a half million more, in a population of some eight million. The UN already had a substantial peacekeeping force of 2500 in Rwanda. But its Belgian contingent withdrew in late April after ten of its members were tortured and killed by Hutu irregulars. (As one commentator wrote in these pages, “The Belgians were killed in such a monstrous way precisely to provoke the remaining foreigners into flight so that the génocidaires could get on with their killing.”7 )

By the early summer of 1994, the US policy of avoiding any risk in UN operations had taken hold, and the Security Council not only refused to strengthen the UN force in Rwanda, but cravenly reduced it. The commander of that force, General Romeo Dallaire of Canada, has maintained that even with one or two thousand trained troops he could have done much to reduce the widespread violence.8 Months later, public reaction to the horrific atrocities finally forced the governments on the Security Council into action—but it was far too late. Four years later, the calamitous repercussions of the Council’s failure to act in time continue to destabilize the African Great Lakes region. What is more, the credibility of the UN as a practical force for peace and human security has been further eroded.

  1. 3

    Back to the Womb?” p. 5.

  2. 4

    The most recent installment, “Slouching Toward Dayton,” appeared in the April 23, 1998, issue.

  3. 5

    Not a Prototype for World Government,” Times Literary Supplement, February 27, 1998, p. 27.

  4. 6

    See Barbara Crossette, “Why Washington and the World Largely Failed to Head Off the Bloodbath,” The New York Times, March 25, 1998.

  5. 7

    See “Rwanda: the Big Risk” by David Rieff, The New York Review, October 31, 1996, p. 74.

  6. 8

    In a recent report to the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict (Preventing Genocide—How the Early Use of Force Might Have Succeeded in Rwanda), Scott R. Feil concludes that a modern force of 5000 soldiers, deployed between April 7 and 21, 1994, could have significantly altered the outcome.

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