A U.N.

January 19, 1995|By ANDREW SCHMOOKLER

BROADWAY, VIRGINIA — Broadway, Virginia. -- Sometimes it's the way we pose a problem that makes a solution hard to find. Take the question of American intervention in the world's trouble spots.

The argument usually breaks down into two sides. In the recent Haitian case, there were those who said, ''It's a Haitian problem, let's stay out of it.'' While others said, ''Only the U.S. can set things right, we've got to go in.''

Neither side is persuaded by the other's case. To say, as some senators did, that this is a problem for the Haitian people to resolve (or the Somali people, or whoever) ignores the realities of oppressive power. Solutions are not in the hands of a people with a jackboot on its neck. To define the problem in purely local terms is to perpetuate the history of injustice, tyranny and torture.

But to say that only the U.S. can set things right is to make this country the world's policeman and to impose an unreasonable burden on America. For the American people, the gratifications of such power, in the post-Cold War world, are clearly outweighed by an understandable reluctance always to be the ones whose treasure and blood are sacrificed to make right all the wrongs on this troubled planet.

In trying to persuade Americans to make such sacrifices, the defenders of American intervention often make forced and contorted arguments about ''American interests,'' claiming for example that restoring democracy or stemming the flow of boat people is something we have to do for our own sakes. Most Americans realize that if the protection of our pure self-interest is all that concerns us, there are easier ways of doing it.

The first step toward a solution is to redefine the problem: not as a purely local problem, or as an American one, but as a problem for humankind. History shows that over the long term, such problems as civil wars, domestic tyrannies and foreign invaders beset every nation. But never before has it been within the grasp of the world's peoples to mount a collective response to set things right for some small part of humanity.

Considering the total costs and benefits for humankind as a whole, collective interventions -- in places like Somalia or Haiti -- are enormous bargains. (And, conversely, the world community's refusal to pay the cost of stopping aggression in the former Yugoslavia will prove, in the long run, to have been a false economy of disastrous proportions.)

But, we are told, there simply does not exist the kind of collective force that's needed. Only the American force is big enough, cohesive enough, well enough trained and equipped to get the job done. That may be true, but it needn't stay true.

We first heard this complaint four years ago at the time of Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia. We heard it again when it was the starving Somalis who needed rescuing. And again in Haiti.

The first time, it's a legitimate point. After that, one begins to wonder why we don't complain about it less and do more to remedy the problem. If we really want to have a solution to these recurrent crises that cry out for outside intervention, we need a force in place and ready to go -- coherent, well-equipped and with an effective structure of command -- one in which the American participation in manpower and funding does not exceed an appropriate fraction. Surely, in a world of 5.5 billion people, with a world product of $2 trillion, creating such an effective United Nations Legion should be eminently possible.

But, many observe, the United Nations has serious defects as an organization, not least in the areas of organizing and deploying peace-keeping or peace-making forces. Again, a valid point; but again, one whose recurrence over the years raises the question whether it is a reason or an excuse. One way of using our clout as the world's one remaining superpower -- a way that requires neither blood nor treasure -- is to provide American leadership for reforming the world body.

Why would the sole superpower want to create a force that it does not solely control? First, the U.N. Legion need not be so potent as to be a threat to us. A force, such as ours, that was prepared to deal with an all-out assault by another superpower need not worry about a force created to deal with fourth-rate powers like Serbia or with gangs of thugs such those who ruled the streets of Mogadishu or Port-au-Prince.

And those foes of multilateralism who worry about the erosion of America's sovereign authority should recall that the American veto power in the Security Council assures that such a force could go nowhere, could do nothing, without American approval. So, even in the worst case, having such a global force would be no worse for us than not having it.

And when, with our consent, the force was used? We wouldn't have to carry the burden of being the world's policeman. And we would not have to just stand by and watch local bullies and gangsters torment helpless people.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of ''The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution,'' the second edition of which will be published shortly by SUNY Press.

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