In a test of wills between NATO and the United Nations as to which organization has the power to authorize air strikes in Bosnia, the U.N. and its assertive secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is the clear winner. By attaining the right to veto the first proposed offensive operation in NATO history, he has set a precedent that could serve his expansive vision of a secretary-general's authority.
The Clinton administration must have swallowed hard in accepting this arrangement. For months, it has insisted that NATO on its own could initiate air strikes to protect U.N. peacekeeping forces and insure the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Muslim victims of Serb aggression. But Mr. Boutros-Ghali objected in line with his stated view that "regional organizations must be at the service of the United Nations and not the contrary." And since he had the quiet support of Britain, France and Canada, whose troops are on the ground and at risk in Bosnia, the secretary-general prevailed.
This is not to say he will actually cast a veto if the NATO Council gives final approval for military action. On the contrary, the course of events suggests that the United States backed down in this dispute because it has been assured Mr. Boutros-Ghali will support what actions NATO wants.
This kind of diplomatic fix, however, can have consequences. On July 29, the secretary-general said any NATO air strikes should be "limited to the place which has violated the rules of the United Nations." This sounds suspiciously like an attempt to control or have a voice in follow-on military actions after initial air strikes.
Somalia, too, is setting precedents because it is the first peace-enforcement action specifically in the control of the Security Council, acting through the secretary general. Last month, the U.N. showed enough muscle to send the commander of Italian troops packing for having violated orders and then faced down warnings by the Italian government that it would pull out all its troops. Though officially "enraged," it has not. No one doubts the present authority of any sovereign government to withdraw its forces from danger. But the U.N. secretariat has been pushing for the creation of a rapid-deployment volunteer force under its exclusive control.
When pushed, Mr. Boutros-Ghali concedes he is answerable to the Security Council where the United States, Britain and France, NATO members all, have veto power. But he has had little hesitation in going head-to-head with the Clinton administration in disputes concerning both Somalia and Bosnia. It is his view, not widely shared, that the secretary general enjoys equal status with the Security Council and the General Assembly in determining peace policy in the post-Cold War world.
Bosnia and Somalia thus raise profound questions that will have to be sorted out, perhaps never to be completely resolved, over a long period of time. In allowing precedents to be set to attain short-term objectives, Washington should take care not to jeopardize long-term national interests.