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Foreign Policy's Shifting Sands

IT has been four years since the Berlin Wall came down and two years since the Soviet Union evaporated, marking the end of the cold war. But the United States still does not have a comprehensive foreign policy to replace the one that those events made obsolete.

At a comparable time after the end of World War II, the containment policy that eventually won the cold war was solidly established, the Marshall Plan was reviving Europe, and NATO was taking shape. The Soviet Union was a threat on which policy makers could focus. There is nothing like that now.

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In the post-cold-war environment, the Clinton administration is getting the big things right. It correctly perceives the importance of a stable Russia and of a Europe no longer divided between East and West, as well as the importance of a global economy nourished by free trade. However, it is not dealing with the breakup of the third world any better than its predecessors dealt with its emergence.

Whereas World War II's end brought the resurgence of nationalism, the end of the cold war has brought the breakup of nationalism into ethnic, tribal, and religious conflict. American policy was out of tune the first time and looks like it may miss again.

We cannot deal with these conflicts by ourselves any more than we could have conducted the cold war by ourselves. We need to persuade our friends to help us. The Clinton administration has tried to pass the buck to the United Nations, NATO, and the Organization of American States, but they are no more effective than their members make them.

The UN is close to losing its credibility as a peacekeeper. It has had some thousands of troops in Croatia and Bosnia, and none of the contending forces has paid the slightest attention. Cease-fire agreements are treated with contempt. The UN convenes a tribunal in The Hague to try those suspected of crimes against humanity in Bosnia, but there is no way they can be brought to court. NATO has at least as great an interest in these Balkan wars as the UN, but NATO has been equally ineffectual.

In Somalia, the UN and the US have worked at cross purposes. First they were going to arrest clan leader Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, and then they weren't. US troops were told to be active, then to lie low, then to get out on the streets again.

In Haiti, the local military has been evenhanded in its contempt for the UN, the US, and the OAS. A US/UN military and police mission was sent and then recalled before it even landed. A blockade was imposed, then lifted, and then imposed again.

THERE are other cases. In Burundi, the Hutus and Tutsis are killing each other. Many Hindus and Muslims are at each other's throats in India and Pakistan. Intractable civil war rages in Liberia and Sri Lanka. Armenians and Azerbaijanis, among others, are fighting in the former Soviet Union.

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An administration that makes a point of human rights in its foreign policy, as President Clinton's does, can hardly be blind to these multiple outrages. But the hard question of what to do about them remains. The US has neither the physical resources nor the political will to deal with them by itself. Saying ``Let the UN do it'' just ignores the problem.

The UN is overextended, underfunded, and unfocused. If we want it to do something, we - and the other members - have to tell it what to do and then pay for it.

Maybe when we have taken a hard look at the problem, we will decide that these third-world conflicts simply have to burn themselves out. But that ought to be a considered decision, not something that happens by default. The worst thing we can do is to continue changing our minds every week. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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