Next month, the United Nations convenes its Millennium Summit. One of the key issues the world body must face in the next century is its role in peacekeeping operations. The magnitude of the challenges were made plain this week when a special commission released its final report. It makes for grim reading. Not only because of the growing need for such missions, but because there is little sign that governments have the political will to support the U.N. in these endeavors.

Currently, the U.N. has deployed 35,000 troops in 14 missions around the world. Total costs for peacekeeping operations between July 1999 and June 2000 reached $1.417 billion, while headquarters support added another $41.7 million to the bill.

The U.N.’s record is mixed. There have been successes, notably in the Golan Heights, Cyprus and Latin America. The Cambodia mission, which ended that country’s civil war and administered national elections in the early part of the 1990s, is also widely considered to have been a triumph. In Sierra Leone, Angola and Congo, its efforts have been futile. In Rwanda and in Srebrenica, in Bosnia, the U.N. was powerless to prevent massacres and genocide.

Those failures, which occurred when Secretary General Kofi Annan was head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, provided the impetus for the special commission. Its recommendations are bold. It calls for an overhaul of U.N. peacekeeping operations and the creation of a virtual Ministry of Defense within the world body. It would consist of databases of civilian and military mission leaders, civilians with specialized skills and military experts who can be detailed to a headquarters within a week’s notice. While it does not endorse a “standing army,” it encourages member states to form brigade-size forces that can be deployed within 30 to 90 days.

In another controversial recommendation, the report calls on peacekeepers to be more aggressive in the field. Here the organization walks a fine line. U.N. forces must be seen as impartial. Taking sides in a conflict is a recipe for failure. However, as the report rightly points out, impartiality is not the same as neutrality. Forces that violate peace agreements must be treated as violators. The panel is correct to argue that “peacekeepers may not only be operationally justified in using force but morally compelled to do so.”

In many, if not most, cases, it is easy to distinguish between victims and aggressors. The failure to do just that has cost the U.N. dearly in the last decade. It is still paying for its unwillingness to halt the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Even with new military forces, the U.N. will depend on moral authority for its legitimacy. Once it has committed itself, the surest way to undermine its authority and damage its credibility is to show reluctance to intervene or risk bloodying its hands.

The logic behind the report is impeccable. Its timing is perfect. Its recommendations are sure to be controversial, but they too make sense. Unfortunately, they cannot be implemented for free, and that is where the panel’s hard-nosed idealism and the bitter reality of international politics clash.

Quite simply, reforms will cost money — perhaps $100 million a year — and U.N. members are already $2.4 billion behind in payments for peacekeeping operations. The chief offender is the United States, which foots about one-third of the U.N.’s peacekeeping bill and is not paying up. The U.S. owes $1.7 billion, most of it for previous peacekeeping missions. The chief problem is Washington’s unwillingness to cede any of its freedom of maneuver to the U.N. The U.S. government has an instinctive distrust of the world body, and it is especially strong when it comes to peacekeeping. Some of that is an outgrowth of the Somalian tragedy in 1993, when U.S. troops were killed during a U.N. operation. The blame is misplaced, however: The casualties did not occur under U.N. command.

What is curious is that while Washington has little use for the U.N., the U.S. public has consistently voiced its support for the organization in public-opinion polls. Americans believe in the U.N. and the rules-based internationalism that it represents. The amount that the U.S. owes the world body is but a fraction of the money it earns from arm sales each year; it is less than 1 percent of the total U.S. defense budget. (The amount required to meet the new funding needs is but a fraction of that.) It is hard to imagine money better spent, or that would better protect U.S. national security. Or, for that matter, security for any nation.

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