WASHINGTON - The leaders of 175 countries, including President Bush, will gather at the United Nations this week for a world summit intended to reform and reinvigorate the world organization to meet the threats and challenges of the new century.
The occasion also should provide the leaders with the opportunity to address what has long been considered an Achilles heel of the international body, U.N. peacekeeping, which needs to be strengthened, not placed on the back burner.
The recent report of a congressionally mandated task force on the United Nations, chaired by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, states that peacekeeping is "arguably, the most important U.N. activity designed to prevent and end conflict and build stable societies."
The Security Council has initiated more than 40 peacekeeping operations since 1990. Today, 70,000 peacekeepers are serving in 17 missions around the world at a cost of over $4 billion. Never has the United Nations been in greater demand.
While there have been U.N. peacekeeping successes over the years (and a Nobel Prize awarded to peacekeeping forces in 1988), the failures often stand out - the humanitarian intervention gone wrong in Somalia, ethnic cleansing and massacres in Bosnia, genocide in Rwanda and, today, in the Darfur region of Sudan. The credibility of U.N. peacekeeping has been further damaged by instances of sexual abuse in Congo.
Despite the noblest of intentions - the United Nations was founded in 1945 "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" - member states have never provided the necessary political, financial and operational support to enable the United Nations to become a truly credible force for peace.
Strengthening peacekeeping capabilities is one of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's priorities for the world summit. Unfortunately, it is not considered one by the Bush administration.
The State Department, in a recent document entitled "U.S. Priorities for a Stronger, More Effective United Nations," lists several laudable reform initiatives that the administration will support at the summit. They include management and budget reform (a must given the oil-for-food scandal in Iraq), a proposed peace-building commission to help countries after fighting has stopped and a revamped Human Rights Council to replace the existing, discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights. But there is not a word about the need to make U.N. peacekeeping more effective.
That was certainly not the case when the first President Bush spoke at the General Assembly in September 1992. U.N. peacekeeping was the centerpiece of his address, much of which holds true today:
"The need for enhanced peacekeeping capabilities has never been greater. ... Peacekeepers are stretched to the limit while demands for their services increase by the day. ...We must develop our ability to coordinate peacekeeping efforts so that we can mobilize quickly when a threat to peace arises or when people in need look to the world for help."
Mr. Bush called for nations, including the United States, to develop and train military units for possible peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations and to have these forces available on short notice at the request of the Security Council and with the approval of the governments providing them. He also called for multinational units to train together and for member states to designate stockpiles of resources necessary to meet humanitarian emergencies.
Other specific proposals were put forward in 2000 by a high-level panel of experts chaired by then-U.N. Under Secretary-General Lakhdar Brahimi. While not recommending the creation of a standing U.N. army, which would be a non-starter for Washington, the panel argued for a "rapid and effective" U.N. capacity to deploy troops within 30 days for traditional peacekeeping missions and within 90 days for more complex, dangerous missions.
It also called for establishing revolving "on call" lists of military and police officers to be available from member states to help create new peacekeeping operations.
Five years later, the Gingrich-Mitchell task force echoed many of these recommendations: "The urgent task required of all United Nations member-states, which the United States should lead, is to determine available capabilities and coordinate them so they can be brought rapidly to the fore in a crisis."
The task force also called attention to the pledge written by the second President Bush on a document describing the horrors of the Rwandan genocide: "Not on my watch."
Subsequently the Darfur genocide has unfolded, and continues. Unless U.N. peacekeeping is strengthened and a rapid reaction capability created, that "not on my watch" pledge by American presidents - and by the international community - will ring hollow.
Karl F. Inderfurth was deputy U.S. ambassador to the Security Council (1993-97) and is a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.