Sure, Somebody Ought to Do Something -- but . . .

February 04, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

VIENNA — Vienna. -- Too many voices overwhelm us with pessimistic noises about the state of the world: the ousting of the reformers in Moscow, the mayhem in Somalia, Angola, Azerbaijan and the former Yugoslavia.

For the most part these sirens of despondency are the disguised and dangerous yearnings of a peculiar kind of statist arrogance that believes events and personalities in far-off places can be controlled by a few powerful nations, either directly or, these days, through the medium of the United Nations.

The most vociferous of the exponents of command and control are in their economics, ironically, free marketers. But in their politics they are all for the use of the muscle of state power. Others are liberals who shied from the use or threat of force in the Cold War era, but now advocate intervention to set things right whenever and wherever blood is shed and the peace

disturbed.

As events fail to respond to cajoling and negotiation, frustration mounts and both groups up the ante. Henry Kissinger issues a call to firm up NATO's flabby political muscles so that a ''West'' expanded to include Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary can stand firm against imperial tendencies in Russia The liberals call for NATO air power to silence Serbian guns, and they support the dispatch of American troops to Somalia, first to distribute famine relief but then to suppress local factions disruptive of law and order.

Worse has been the misuse of the U.N. tradition of peace-keeping -- and it is a tradition; it was not part of the original U.N. Charter.

Peace-keeping was an improvisation, designed by Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold to circumvent the Cold War impasse that made it impossible to use the U.N. for ''enforcement'' operations, as military might had been used to roll back aggression in Korea in 1950 -- and was to be used again in Iraq three years ago.

In between those two ''enforcements,'' ''peace-keeping'' has been successful in the Congo in the 1960s, the Middle East and Cyprus in the 1970s and at the Iran-Iraq cease-fire in 1988.

With the Cold War logjam broken, the distinction between peace-keeping and enforcement has become blurred, if not lost. In Cambodia, a Japanese- and Australian-led peace-keeping operation managed, with barely an angry shot fired, to bring Cambodia to elections and a near peace after decades of murderous fratricide. But in both Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, this type of peace-keeping has been muddled by confusion with the enforcement doctrine.

In Somalia, the American U.N. contingent showed little awareness either of peace-keeping or the importance of working through a unified U.N. command.

In ex-Yugoslavia, the debate over the air strikes continues even though it is abundantly clear that it would earn only a brief respite before fighting on the ground became even more intense, and that it would jeopardize the whole peace-keeping and relief supply operations.

Most of the time, traditional peace-keeping is about as far as one can go, Cold War or no, and even that is best used with discrimination. The sense of panic, combined with an unholy arrogance that suggests we have a better solution at hand, is not only misleading, it can be dangerous.

Other peoples' squabbles -- whether civil war or the sacking of finance ministers -- are, for the most part, their business. Humanitarian and economic relief is one thing. So is diplomatic arbitration. But actual involvement is more likely to stir things up than quiet them down.

Of course, exceptions must be made when some critical principle of international law at stake, as it was with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Similarly, when the protagonists ask for intervention to police a settlement that has already been willingly negotiated, as in Cambodia.

Russia's turmoil is part of its solution. Only by banging wills against each other will the electorate learn what in the end is worth voting for. The West should leave Russia alone, except to honor its long-promised delivery of aid; its failure to do that before the election exacerbated the reformers' weak position. Reorganizing NATO would only be seen by a wide spectrum of Russian opinion, well beyond Vladimir Zhirinovsky's supporters, as threatening.

Negotiate. Mediate. Aid. For the most part, those who have the problems must find the answers. And who ever said that ''other people'' can't, in the end, work things out?

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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