Ending a five-year decline in peacekeeping operations, the United Nations is gearing up for new missions from the Balkans to sub-Saharan Africa and the fringes of Asia, heightening the organization's importance but straining its finances.

In addition to its mission in Kosovo, where it is setting up an interim government and police force, the organization is now preparing to help end three wars in Africa and to conduct a referendum on independence in East Timor, the first step in what could be a major role in nation-building there.

"These are tasks that no nation in the world would undertake and no other organization in the world would even try," said Carl Bildt, the United Nations's special envoy to the Balkans. "There will be failures along the way. But there will be even more of a guarantee of failure if no one does it."

If most or all of the anticipated new missions take place, they will represent the second big spurt in peacekeeping since the Cold War. At the previous peak in September 1994, the United Nations had 78,111 troops and civil servants deployed in peacekeeping operations, at an annual cost of $3.6 billion.

In 1994 and 1995, however, nearly 60,000 peacekeepers were gradually withdrawn from from Bosnia and Somalia. Largely because of the disastrous mission in Somalia, during which 44 Americans were killed, President Clinton signed a presidential directive in May 1994 that imposed strict conditions for American support for U.N. peacekeeping, slowing the creation of new missions, particularly in African countries such as Rwanda.

Today, the United Nations employs 12,360 peacekeepers, police officers and military observers in 16 operations around the world, at a cost of $870 million in the past year.

Bernard Miyet, a Frenchman who heads the U.N. department in charge of these far-flung missions, recalled that when he took up his post two years ago, fellow officials called him the "commissioner of liquidation" of U.N. peacekeeping. Earlier this year, Miyet did, indeed, reduce operations in Macedonia and Angola. But now, he said, his office is understaffed as it plans for new "nation-building" as well as traditional peacekeeping operations that could double the number of U.N. blue helmets deployed around the globe.

For the most part, U.N. officials said, the upturn in peacekeeping is a result of the outbreak of peace in various countries--not of an outbreak of activism at U.N. headquarters in New York.

"In the case of Kosovo, there was an active preference on the part of the U.S. government that the United Nations be in charge of the civilian administration," said Peter Burleigh, the acting U.S. representative to the United Nations. But in Africa and East Timor, the organization is responding to peace settlements that serendipitously "are coming into fruition in essentially the same time frame," he said.

The United States has encouraged the United Nations to assume these costly new tasks but is balking at paying more than $1 billion in back dues. Clinton administration officials said they will ask Congress to double the U.S. contribution for peacekeeping operations--currently $235 million--if all the new missions begin within the next year.

The support for new peacekeeping operations marks a shift for the administration, which had labored to scale back such missions since the troubled U.N. operations in Bosnia and Somalia. But some U.N. officials remain skeptical that the White House will be able to persuade Congress to pay for new operations--even though all the organization is asking, in Miyet's words, is: "Please give us the means to do what you wish."

Another obstacle, oddly enough, is the U.N. General Assembly, which harbors suspicions that peacekeeping operations in Africa will get short shrift while the Kosovo mission will be lavishly funded.

The United States and its European allies recently agreed to a request from the U.N. secretariat for $200 million in emergency funding for the Kosovo mission, but a coalition of developing nations led by China blocked it, agreeing to approve only $125 million.

In a July 13 address before the NAACP in New York, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright acknowledged the widespread perception of a double standard in the international response to crises in Europe and Africa.

She called for "restoring the U.N.'s rightful place in ending war in Africa's crisis zones" and urged support for peacekeeping plans.

"In the weeks ahead, Africans and the international community together face tests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone," Albright said. "If we can help alleviate the suffering caused by these conflicts," she added, "we should."

ANTICIPATED U.N. PEACEKEEPING OPERATIONS

KOSOVO

The largest U.N. operation since the Bosnian war, the U.N. Mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK, will run virtually every aspect of civilian life there. A NATO-led force is currently maintaining security in the Yugoslav province. But the Pentagon is keen to hand that job off to a U.N. police force that is scheduled to be fully deployed by the fall.

SIERRA LEONE

A July 7 peace deal between the elected government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and the rebel forces of Foday Sankoh ended eight years of war. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has recommended the deployment of 210 military observers, the vanguard of what could ultimately be a force of 3,000 U.N. troops.

CONGO

Probably the most risky peacekeeping operation under consideration, and the least popular in Congress. The United Nations and Britain would like to deploy 15,000 to 20,000 peacekeepers in the former Zaire to help cement a July 10 cease-fire agreement ending the country's civil war. That so-called Lusaka Accord has been signed by the government and five African countries involved in the Congo conflict, but by only one of Congo's two rebel factions.

HORN OF AFRICA

Erstwhile allies Ethiopia and Eritrea recently agreed in principle to end their 15-month border war. Contingency planning is underway to deploy blue-helmeted U.N. troops. No figures have been made public on the force's size, but a U.N. official said it would require thousands of peacekeepers to oversee the withdrawal of troops from the conflict zone.

EAST TIMOR

A team of about 450 U.N. volunteers and election specialists is registering voters for an Aug. 30 referendum on independence in East Timor. If the former Portugese colony votes to separate from Indonesia, the United Nations could assume an even larger role than in Kosovo, according to U.N. officials.