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NEWS ANALYSIS : In the Corridors of Power, Policy Rules : Diplomacy: Smaller nations are coming to dominate U.N. Security Council because of a lack of clear direction by the U.S. on the Bosnian crisis.


UNITED NATIONS — For years, reporters in the corridors here rushed toward the American ambassador to catch snippets of quotes that would shed light on the Security Council's doings.

But in the last week or so, they have, instead, surrounded Diego Arria, the cosmopolitan, cane-carrying Venezuelan ambassador. He suddenly has found himself the council's fulcrum, as well as its conscience.

This is a remarkable turnabout. The most influential players in the council for the last few weeks have not been the American or European ambassadors but representatives of a group of less powerful countries, such as Venezuela, that still call themselves the "nonaligned."

Beyond doubt, this is a temporary state. The powerful nations, especially the United States, will surely return to dominate. Meantime, this is a rare, somewhat troubling phenomenon.

The somersault of hierarchy in the council comes mainly from the intractable, enervating, churning Bosnian crisis. So long as the Clinton Administration wrestles with itself to produce a Bosnian policy, the United States cannot assume the natural role of Security Council leader.

"You cannot control the Security Council without policies," said a non-European ambassador on the Security Council. "To control, you must have bearings. You must know where you want to go. I don't think the problem is here. It is not Ambassador (Madeleine) Albright's fault. The problem is in Washington. They do not know what they want to do."

Albright takes a different view. She describes the council as a collegial body where the molding of a consensus counts far more as leadership than any attempt at dominance.

Various council ambassadors insist that the United States did dominate the world body when Thomas Pickering was American ambassador during the Persian Gulf crisis. He did so, they say, because of his persuasive argument and his patient building of a consensus around a coherent, determined policy from Washington.

But his prominence and independence irritated then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III. A new ambassador, Edward J. Perkins, replaced Pickering late in the George Bush Administration with orders to keep a low profile.

"The United States, for the last year or so, generally speaking, has not been the leader of the Security Council," said a second ambassador on the council.

"But the new Administration has not gotten its act together," he went on. "No country except the United States is able today to exercise leadership on the council. . . . The Europeans can provide at most a sort of ersatz leadership."

The rationale for American leadership is based on power. As the only superpower in the post-Cold War era, according to this theory, the United States must decide how to use its clout to maintain international peace and security. Then it must lead the other ambassadors where it wants to go.

The hectic events of last weekend illustrate the strange, new ways of leadership in the council. It was the nonaligned group that pushed through a resolution a week ago Friday that declared the Muslim town of Srebrenica a safe area and demanded the withdrawal of Serbian troops there.

The nonaligned nations take their name from a movement founded during the Cold War by a large number of countries who declared they were neither on the side of the United States nor the Soviet Union.

The movement never made much sense to outsiders since it included American allies--and so prominent a Soviet client as Fidel Castro's Cuba.

April is a propitious month for this group. Ambassador Jamsheed K. A. Marker of Pakistan is council president for the month; Venezuela's Arria, one of the council's most indignant denouncers of Serbian aggression, is this month's coordinator or chairman of the nonaligned.

After pushing through the Srebrenica resolution by unanimous vote near midnight last Friday, Arria and his nonaligned partners joined France the next day in pushing through a strong sanctions resolution against Serbia and Montenegro, the two republics left in the rump Yugoslavia.

The Americans and British evidently feared that Russia would veto the resolution. But Arria, in a series of meetings, called Russia's bluff; Russian Ambassador Yuli Vorontsov finally agreed to abstain, rather than veto the resolution, which passed, 13-0, with only Russia and China abstaining.

As if he were their conscience, Arria had persuaded the others, including the United States, to vote the way they wanted to; they had only tried to discourage him because of fear of a Russian veto and fear that the imposition of new sanctions against Serbia might embolden pro-Serb critics of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin as he neared the Sunday referendum that will determine his political future.

There has been some European sniping at Arria for trying to lead on Bosnia. "Arria can be as irate as he wants, but it's not going to be the Venezuelan army that will march up the hill in Bosnia," a senior European diplomat told reporters. "That army is only good for marching toward the presidential palace in Caracas."

But Arria dismissed the argument that the lack of Venezuelan military power ought to keep him quiet, saying: "The major powers, who have the privilege of serving as permanent members of the Security Council, also have the obligation to exercise their responsibilities under the U.N. Charter to preserve peace and security."

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