This newspaper's U.N. reporter, Colum Lynch, spots a new cycle of American involvement in peacekeeping operations launched by the United Nations. Representing an ethnically and geographically balanced ticket, the list includes a major nation-building engagement in Kosovo, diplomatic initiatives to help end three raw wars in sub-Saharan Africa and a difficult tentative peacekeeping intervention in exploding East Timor. These items give the Clinton administration a rare second chance to get it right -- to use the United Nations to serve some American global interests in the post-Cold War period.

The first time around, earlier in the '90s, the United States stumbled. By allowing its mission in Somalia to creep from peacekeeping to peacemaking, it found itself in unforgiving circumstances and lost 43 Americans -- some in a grisly way and on television. Fresh restrictions were promptly written to keep American soldiers out of unwanted combat. They remain in effect and ensure that American participation in continuing conflicts is not on the front lines.

I have always been troubled by this policy. It seems to me a forfeit of an important part of our leadership role for the United States to insist on not sharing the range of risks that its partners in these operations accept for themselves. Important as are our contributions in logistics, intelligence, diplomacy and, in some cases, air power, they do not fully balance out our withdrawal from exposure of our soldiers on the ground.

Add to this the continuing inability of the different American parties and branches to break the political deadlock (over abortion) that keeps the United States from paying its back dues to the world organization and from shedding its image as a deadbeat.

Still, that creature known as "the U.N." is struggling in its fashion to cope with the new world disorder that replaced the relative order imposed by the major players in their Cold War day. U.N. involvement is driven first by the desperation of small countries to draw international assistance to their otherwise neglected national crises. Then comes the interest of larger countries in piggybacking on the United Nations to reap what benefits U.N. participation can add to national policy.

Both the U.N. as an agency with an institutional life of its own and the member countries appear to have learned something from the bruising encounters of the secretariat and the principal powers earlier in the '90s. One lesson was not to push the system beyond its natural tolerances. Translation: no open and abrasive political combat between Washington and the secretary general.

A second lesson was to conduct military interventions in a forum, such as NATO, responsive to American political and policy concerns. This disturbs Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general, who would have the Security Council monopolize all interventions, but it is essential to ensuring an effective American role. Prospective vetoes made it evident there was no other way to protect the Kosovars.

And, of course, a third lesson learned in the early post-Cold War period was to make sure that participating countries, especially the United States, be satisfied by the arrangements made for the command and control of any of their military personnel dispatched to the scene. As we have seen, this is a neuralgic issue of international operations.

There is no doubt that the modest opening for the recent U.N. peacekeeping missions has been purchased at the cost of trimming the U.N.'s operational scope. A minimalist approach to problems of military and political intervention is evident. Often, Americans appear to see the United Nations -- the champing secretariat as well as the Security Council with its five permanent-member vetoes -- as much as a competitor as a partner.

I regret some of the asterisks on our internationalism. Not that the U.N. has a magic touch. Far from it: The U.N. is a bureaucracy as well as a cause and, for all its reforming, it remains in need of efficiency shots. But it is not the bureaucracy it was 10 years ago, and surely it would be truer to its mandate and more effective as an American policy venue if it were not starved of resources and member-country confidence.

For instance, nobody is talking anymore about setting up the United Nations as a quasi-independent military-political entity. But U.N. people are talking about a few steps -- a rapidly deployable mission headquarters, standby authority to mobilize forces -- that would allow the secretariat a quicker response to Security Council emergency instructions. We do not have such copious sureness and reach that we can afford to take less than full advantage of a hand that we could yet make more helpful to us.