BY WALTER CRONKITE
One of the least-noticed developments at the G-8 summit of industrial nations at Sea Island, Ga., was the group's endorsement of an American plan -- called the Global Peace Operations Initiative -- to double the number of peacekeepers available for peacekeeping missions around the world. The United States, Canada and several European nations, which have been the primary sources of peacekeepers in the past, now have their hands full in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. In addition, the United Nations soon will be managing as many as 70,000 troops in almost 20 missions around the world. The system very nearly is running on empty.
Under the U.S. plan, an additional 75,000 troops from countries wishing to contribute to peace missions would receive training, equipment and logistical support from the United States or other G-8 members. These troops would be made available by their home countries for missions sponsored by the United Nations or by regional groups such as the Organization of African States or the European Union. The United States will put up at least the initial funds -- reportedly $660 million.
This plan is a very good thing, as far as it goes. Everyone at the Sea Island conference was well-aware of the increasing scarcity of available peacekeepers as crisis situations multiply around the world. What the plan will not do, however, is shorten the reaction time for intervention efforts, which is sometimes measured in months, not weeks.
The problem is that, in so many cases, while governments debate whether to join a particular rescue effort, people are being killed, maimed, starved, enslaved or otherwise devastated. It is to fill this gap that the nongovernmental group Citizens for Global Solutions proposed a United Nations Emergency Peace Service, which would be a small but highly trained and ready quick-reaction force -- an idea I discussed in a previous column.
A serious barrier to such a quick-reaction force -- and the reason President Bush's initiative is incomplete -- is a long-standing American policy against the creation of a "standing army" at the United Nations. The idea that a force of some 13,000 soldiers, police officers, secretaries and other support personnel could be considered a standing army is laughable, of course.
But opponents of the peacekeeping force see such a unit as the proverbial camel's nose in the tent. Don Kraus, Global Solution's executive vice president, says the same objection also is made by a number of Third World countries, which see the idea as a threat to their sovereignty and see themselves as likely targets of emergency intervention.
Bush's plan nevertheless fills a serious international need, as well as an American need. With U.S. forces stretched so dangerously thin, the increase in the number of international peacekeepers should reduce the number of American troops needed for peacekeeping efforts.
This is quite a turnaround from the days when "peacekeeping" and "nation-building" were so bitterly scorned in the Bush administration. Indeed, the whole Sea Island summit had a shape-shifting quality. Diplomats who were there described it as radically different from previous meetings. Germany's Gerhard Schroeder found "a remarkable change in American foreign policy."
Unilateralism was put away, at least for the occasion. The Bush administration, this time, was not the bully, but a needy supplicant. Among other things, it wanted NATO peacekeepers in Iraq who could take some of the load off American forces there. Unfortunately, Bush did not receive any encouragement at Sea Island on that score.
But isn't it amazing? George Bush recently made a 180-degree policy turn regarding the United Nations. That kind of navigation seems to be an administration trait these days. Maybe Bush is actually learning from his mistakes. Global Solution's Don Kraus might have put it best when he said, "Begin with the assumption that the Bush administration will do the right thing ... only after it has exhausted all the other options."
The Bush administration's past foreign policy has brought a terrible cost in lives, dollars and reputation for America. Americans and the world can rejoice if these new developments not only reflect temporary expediency, but represent a permanent reversal in White House doctrine.
Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite
Distributed by King Features Syndicate