An outside view of the UN headquarters during the 63rd United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 2008. 
Eric Thayer / REUTERS


Physicians have a motto that peacemakers would do well to adopt: "First, do no harm." Neither the United States nor the United Nations have quite grasped this. Since the end of the Cold War unleashed them to intervene in civil conflicts around the world, they have done reasonably well in some cases, but in others they have unwittingly prolonged suffering where they meant to relieve it.

How does this happen? By following a principle that sounds like common sense: that intervention should be both limited and impartial, because weighing in on one side of a local struggle undermines the legitimacy and effectiveness of outside involvement. This Olympian presumption resonates with respect for law and international cooperation. It has the ring of prudence, fairness, and restraint. It makes sense in old-fashioned U.N. peacekeeping operations, where the outsiders' role is not to make peace, but to bless and monitor

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  • Richard K. Betts is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Security Policy Program at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. His latest book is Military Readiness, published by the Brookings Institution.
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