Today's date:
Summer 1995

At 50, Does the UN Resemble the League of Nations?

Boutros Boutros-Ghali is Secretary General of the United Nations. He was interviewed by NPQ editors Nathan Gardels and Leila Conners in his 38th-floor office at the UN. Excerpts of that interview appear below.

NPQ: The UN was once hostage to rivalry between the two superpowers. Now won't its effectiveness be undermined by the hostility toward multilateralism of the sole remaining superpower as the United States Congress seeks to withdraw from peacekeeping operations?

BOUTROS BOUTROS-GHALI: During the Cold War the US spent billions of dollars to fight communism. It intervened in many parts of the world on the basis of national interest in that fight: The logic was that if the US didn't intervene in some place like Somalia, the Soviets would. Now the logic is that since the big enemy no longer exists, there is no longer a national interest at stake.

At the same time, for the sake of stability, there needs to be a policeman. The UN can do this job; so it is in the US interest to mandate the UN to do so.

Then, there is the purely financial argument. If the US is compelled to intervene anywhere in its national interest, without the UN it must pay 100 percent of the costs. It would cost far, far less if done through the UN. I think this crisis over peacekeeping with the US Congress is a provisional one. Sooner or later I hope a bipartisan policy toward the UN will emerge. According to a poll by the Los Angeles Times, 70 percent of the American public supports the UN.

NPQ: Nonetheless, the view at the moment from Capitol Hill is that multilateral efforts sap and distract US power and that, in any event, the only successful UN efforts since the end of the Cold War-in Iraq, in Haiti-have been successful because they had full US backing.

BOUTROS-GHALI: I No, those have not been the only successes. We have had a successful operation in Cambodia, ending 17 years of war and bringing back hundreds of thousands of refugees. In Mozambique the UN has brought about elections after the civil war and two warring armies have been integrated. We have been successful in stabilizing the situation in Angola, in El Salvador, in Guatemala. Even in the former Yugoslavia we have been successful in taking care of two million refugees and containing the conflict within those borders, preventing its spread to the whole Balkans. Out presence, including with US troops, have prevented a problem in Macedonia. All these have been successes -and that is just in the area of peacekeeping.

The vast bulk of the UN's work is elsewhere in the area of international cooperation. We've been successful at the environment summit in Rio, 21 the population conference in Cairo, at the social summit in Copenhagen. The upcoming meeting in Beijing (on the role of women) will be a very important historic event. This is not to speak of the codification of international law or the tribunals we have set up to prosecute war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. And all these are successes.

NPQ: Doesn't the mindset of the US Congress, though, open the way for a kind of post-Cold War renationalization of foreign policies, where every state goes its own way in global affairs?

BOUTROS-GHALI: No, I don't think so. Look, these things are cyclical. After all, you will remember that the US refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles after World War I and join the League of Nations. So, there are ups and downs. It is very relative. Even in the midst of this debate, the Republican-dominated Congress agreed to send UN troops to Angola to keep the peace. Moreover, the US, like every other country, will be confronted by new global problems that will compel it to seek multilateral solutions.

Just take the case of the environment. If the Brazilian rainforest is destroyed, it will impact the quality of life in the US. The problem of transnational drug trade or crime cannot be solved bilaterally. There must be a global approach.

What about boat people that head for US shores, not only from Haiti but even Asia? The same is true for Europe: If they ignore the rest of Africa in favor of North Africa, millions will move from the sub-Saharan to the north first, then toward Europe. You cannot stop this without a multilateral approach.

NPQ: After last year's massacres in Rwanda, there was a lot of talk about "Preventive diplomacy" to avoid a repeat of that kind of horror. Yet, a little more than a year later, neighboring Burundi seems on the verge of becoming another Rwanda as the Tutsi and Hutu militias strike at each other. You have said recently that there "are usually abundant danger signs" before genocide begins. Do you see those signs in Burundi? And what can be done to prevent it?

BOUTROS-GHALI: Yes, certainly, the signs are there. After more than a year of hard work we have not been able to obtain any compromise. The radicals among the Hutu and the radicals among the Tutsi are growing" more powerful. I receive reports from Burundi every few days. The situation is very dangerous.

I therefore proposed the preventive deployment Of 500 paratroopers along the borders of Burundi, in Tanzania or Zaire, that could intervene if an explosion of killing begins. The leaders of Zaire accepted this proposal. But it was not accepted (in informal discussion by the Security Council). There is a fatigue among member states of the UN; the US Congress doesn't want to spend the money. The international community is still not yet ready to accept the expense of intervention when a war is going on, no less for preventive action. So, we are working on alternative approaches, perhaps looking to a group of states to prepare to help in a given situation.

In Burundi we have people on the ground 24 hours a day watching what is going on and providing information to the media. We already have stocks on the ground for humanitarian assistance.

One of the dangers even of talking about preventive action publicly is that it may weaken the moderates in Burundi or encourage the radicals. The specifics of preventive action must therefore involve quiet diplomacy. At the same time, if we are too quiet we will be unable to generate the necessary political support of the international community,

The basic problem is that the whole idea of preventive diplomacy is something new and thus not readily accepted.

It is like the introduction many years ago of insurance for your car. People were at first not ready to spend money on an accident that may never happen.

NPQ: Won't the UN, though, continue to be used as a scapegoat for the world's problems unless it is ceded more power by the member states?

BOUTROS-GHALI: It is a misconception that I have been arguing for a more powerful UN. The UN is nothing but an instrument in the hands of the member states. One cannot fail and the other succeed; they are the same. The success, or failure, of the UN is that of the member states. We have no army. We have no money. Everything comes from the member states. The point is that the member states should more fully utilize this instrument at their disposal.

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