The United Nations is not and cannot be a political actor in a world of sovereign states. Despite the successful Persian Gulf War coalition, the humanitarian effort in Somalia and repeated calls for strengthening U.N. peacekeeping capability, the Security Council is no substitute for alliances, ad hoc Great Power coalitions or unilateral U.S. foreign policy initiatives. The United Nations on occasion may be a useful instrument to serve the parallel interests of the United States and other major powers in addressing specific crises. But this consequential difference between actor and instrument has been frequently confused, especially since the Cold War's end.

One should not be surprised if U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali considers the United Nations, indeed the position of secretary general itself, as an international actor with the power to make and maintain peace in troubled regions. Even critics of the United Nations often accept that U.N.-authorized troops may have an "international legitimacy" that allied or unilateral military actions do not. But both this modest claim and the more extravagant ones of the secretary general call for critical comment.

THE WRECKAGE OF WILSONIANISM

Both views must be seen against the backdrop of a persistent Wilsonian idealism that has been rejuvenated in the wake of the Security Council-blessed Gulf War. President Woodrow Wilson helped to usher in the idea of a League of Nations that sought to sanitize and order world politics. At the dawn of the United Nations in 1943, Secretary of State Cordell Hull predicted that "there will no longer be any need for spheres of influence, for alliances, for balance of power ... by which in the unhappy past the nations strove to safeguard their security or to promote their interests."

But the long weekend between Versailles and Pearl Harbor was quickly littered with the whitened bones of failed expectations. The World Court was powerless to resolve disputes, and the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact to outlaw war did no better. The League could not stop Mussolini or Hitler or prevent Japan from rearming. The symbols and machinery of international cooperation were tragically irrelevant as the world was racked by tyranny, aggression and civil conflict. The juggernaut of war rolled on.

The fateful decisions of war and peace, tyranny and freedom, were made by the governments of sovereign states--usually unilaterally, sometimes in alliance with other states, and very rarely with the assistance or sanction of any international body. This fact was true of both the enemies of freedom and its defenders.

The secretary general has claimed that the United Nations "invented peacekeeping." But more often peace has been created and maintained by the decisions of independent states taken to curb turbulence or to deter expansionist powers. The decisions of the United States to enter the world wars were unilateral and contributed mightily to world peace. In World War II the U.S. effort, alongside that of its allies, led to the defeat of Hitler's Germany and of Japan. Five years later, President Truman's move to counter North Korean aggression was also unilateral. But due to a fluke--the Soviet delegate was absent from the Security Council--Truman's initiative received a retroactive U.N. fig leaf. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy acted unilaterally to have Soviet missiles withdrawn from Cuba, though he kept America's European and Latin American allies informed.

Even today the most consequential decisions are still made by the major powers. Internal factors aside, the downfall of the Soviet empire can be attributed in part to President Ronald Reagan's unilateral decision to deploy medium-range Pershing II missiles in Europe to counter Soviet SS-20s, and to pursue a space-based missile defense system. Those actions resulted not only in the eventual elimination of all intermediate-range nuclear weapons but also helped convince Mikhail Gorbachev that the U.S.S.R. could no longer compete militarily with the United States. Along with other unilateral actions, such as military aid to anticommunist forces in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, those decisions helped alter the "correlation of forces" that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of Soviet power in Eastern Europe.

JUDGING WHAT IS JUST

Whatever one may think of the Gulf War, it must ultimately be judged by what it accomplished and failed to accomplish and at what human and political cost, not by the fact that it was a U.S.-led coalition sanctioned and constrained by the Security Council. All military action, indeed all foreign policies, should be subjected to the traditional just war criteria: Is the intention just? Are the means just and proportional? And, if the effort succeeds, will the chances for justice and peace be enhanced?

Notwithstanding reservations about how President Bush conducted the Gulf War, the U.S.-led coalition met these just war criteria. But this conclusion would have been equally valid if the United States had acted unilaterally or in concert with Britain, France and Saudi Arabia. To judge the morality of that military action by the number of allies or the imprimatur of the United Nations would be falling prey to the Orwellian slogan, "Two legs bad. Four legs good."

International action enjoys no special moral status over unilateral action. The twentieth century has seen many examples of destructive multinational behavior, from the League of Nations' flaccid and ineffectual effort to stop Mussolini's rape of Ethiopia in 1935, to the Warsaw Pact's crushing of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968. The number of actors is morally irrelevant. It is the intention and consequence of the action that counts.

Wilsonian idealists persist in attributing intrinsic merit to multinational action, an ideal rooted in the democratic concept of majority rule. That notion is quite appropriate for a democratic community that shares a common moral heritage and political culture. But a world of highly disparate states is neither democratic nor driven by common values. The actors are governments with different interests and expectations, and led by men with varying degrees of moral rectitude and political responsibility. Under a one-government one-vote scheme, Libya's Muammar Qadhafi and Zaïre's Mobutu Sese Seko would have an equal voice with the United States and Britain.

A unanimous Security Council vote authorizing measures to deal with a threat to or breach of the peace does not necessarily mean that these measures are right or just. Such a vote may reflect a temporary and fragile concurrence of interests, or far more serious, a least-common-denominator consensus that compromises or undercuts effective action.

The all but forgotten U.N. debacle in the Congo in 1960 is a good example of ineffectual multilateral policies and should stand as a timely warning to those calling for U.N. military intervention in the former Yugoslavia and other conflicts. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold had persuaded the Security Council to dispatch a peacekeeping force to quell the local mutiny of Congolese soldiers that occurred in the wake of independence from Belgium. But that conflict was no threat to neighboring states. The secretary general acted too hastily when Congolese politicians appealed to him and the United States for military assistance to frustrate alleged "colonialist machinations" by Belgium. As the Congo descended into chaos, there was no peace to keep, no line to be patrolled.

That four-year expeditionary force would soon become the largest U.N. peacekeeping operation in history, involving a total of 93,000 men and officers from 34 governments that provided 675,000 man-months of service. At its height the U.N. force numbered 20,000 troops, and the operation cost $411 million, of which the United States paid 42 percent. The U.N. intervention internationalized and prolonged a local conflict that could have been dealt with quickly by the prudent use of Belgian troops still in the country, with or without the political support of France, Britain or the United States--the very powers prohibited from sending troops by the Security Council.

The political and moral cost of the deeply flawed U.N. Congo mission stands in sharp contrast to the success and low cost of unilateral British intervention in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in 1964. The situations in both newly independent countries were strikingly similar. When two battalions of Tanganyikan soldiers mutinied against their British officers, President Julius Nyerere asked London for help. Five hundred Royal Marine commandos were sent in from Aden; order was quickly restored with the loss of only five men and a cost of a few thousand dollars. The British were invited, did their job and left promptly. Fortunately, the United Nations was not involved.

ACTING JUDICIOUSLY IN BOSNIA

How should the United States respond to those urging support for major U.N. peacekeeping operations? Certainly President Clinton should heed the lessons of the Congo and Tanganyika experiences, especially the risks of internationalizing a local crisis. Of course, each crisis is different and the extent of national interests will vary. In most cases the United States should act alone or with close allies. There may be a few crises where it is prudent for Washington to turn to the Security Council. It is no small matter for the United States to invest money, troops and prestige in an international effort in which it surrenders a measure of control. During the Gulf War, President Bush repeatedly invoked the constraints of Security Council resolutions to justify his military strategy.

Perhaps the greatest peril in relying on a U.N. sanction is the abdication of moral responsibility. There is no honorable way for the United States to turn over its foreign policy burdens to an international body, however appealing that may seem to those Americans who feel guilt over their power and wealth and think that somehow a U.N. fig leaf will sanctify the use of military force. But a sovereign state, like a free human being, is responsible for its actions.

When U.S. interests are clearly involved in a crisis--whether in the Middle East, Central Europe or Asia--and America has the necessary military assets and public support to act, it should act. On occasion, it may act in concert with allies who have parallel interests, but in rare instances, such as Iraq's aggression against Kuwait, the United States may seek support from other governments through the U.N. Security Council. America must recognize, however, that Saddam Hussein's attack was unique and had to be thrown back because it threatened vast oil reserves vital to this nation and its allies.

Looking over the turbulent global landscape, America, the only remaining superpower, faces agonizing choices. Americans are rightly concerned about starving people in Somalia, the Sudan and Ethiopia, and by the ethnic cleansing and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, to say nothing of a score of other conflicts where U.S. interests may be more directly threatened. Major economic problems at home cry out for attention. The nation is wealthy, powerful and influential, but not omnipotent. Consulting our conscience, our interests and our resources, we must use our power judiciously.

Taking into account all these factors and acknowledging the multitude of crises in a dangerous world, President Clinton faces difficult decisions in Bosnia. Americans cannot escape their moral heritage with its deep concern for freedom, justice and democracy here and abroad. External policies should seize every reasonable opportunity to nudge history in a humane direction. But, in the end, those urging America to launch a global crusade for democracy may well ponder the words of John Quincy Adams: "We are the friends of liberty everywhere, but the custodians only of our own."

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