Time to give the UN a new start

Paris, Friday, December 31, 1999

The United States finally deigned to pay up enough of its debts to assure that it will not lose the right to vote in the United Nations in the coming year. It is hardly a sign of the world leadership, the global responsibility, the ''indispensability'' that American leaders like to assert.

In the last years of the century, ithas become increasingly evident how much everybody needs and would benefit from a sturdy, effective United Nations. The new year, the new millennium is a good time for Americans to pause and think again of what kindof United Nations they want and are willing to support.

When the organization was founded in 1945, the United States was the great advocate for a new world body, but European launching members did all they could to avoid repeating the mistakes that undid the League of Nations. There was a sense that this time a more realistic approach had been devised to avert collapse in disillusion.

Very quickly, the Cold War not only paralyzed the central peacekeeping capacity but distorted practically all UN activities through the filter of ideological and strategic confrontation. Nonetheless, the United Nations not only survived but expanded and enlarged its long list of activities. For all its faults, it was too useful and important to do without, and there is nothing that could replace it.

In that period, however, the emotions of East-West confrontation and of decolonization did favor an America-bashing climate which, naturally, led to sneers and resentment in the United States. But the suggestion by an American diplomat that he would be happy to wave good-bye to the world organization as it withdrew was taken as no more than a sour joke.

There was plenty to complain about, particularly in the ''new world order'' campaign, which a Finnish diplomat aptly called an attempt to turn the United Nations into the welfare service for the Third World. Still, the attempt was made to shape policy, push reform, renew personnel and make the organization as effective as possible.

At last came the happy day when the Cold War ended and big power hostility need no longer be taken for granted. However, the Russians seem to have been expecting some kind of condominium with the United States, which is simply out of the question, and the United States seems to have felt that the rest of the world owed it an unequivocal ''Yes, Sir.''

So there hasn't yet been the invigorating, determined new launch that ought to be available in what could amount to a second UN incarnation.

A powerful new impetus was provided with the two reports, issuedat the order of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, admitting grave failings inSrbrenica, Bosnia, and in Rwanda. The apologies not only provided a promise of candor but served as a way of saying that it is right to expect a much better level of performance by the United Nations, and a reminder that it is up to its members to enable it to do better, to avoid shaming themselves yet again.

With that as a goad, it is a time to review what the United Nations does and is expected to do, what methods exist to make a better match of missions and means, what credibility is about and how to establish it.

It is worse than a mistake to demand consistency from the Security Council, since it would lead to the conclusion that the United Nations cannot act anywhere because it cannot act everywhere - Kosovo and East Timor versus Chechnya, for example.

But there needs to be a lucid distinction between feel-good measures and for-the-record measures in cases where effective action is just not possible. It may have made U.S. critics feel good to bomb Iraq when it blocked UN monitors, but that shut down the inspection mission and achieved nothing. It is useful to take positions, on Iraq's behavior or Russia's in Chechnya, which make clear the dominant opinion of the international community and set standards which may still be beyond reach but are beyond doubt.

Particularly in the case of the United States, there needs to be a better separation of policies advanced for purposes of national interest and policies advanced for merely domestic political debate. Unfortunately, there is as yetno sign that the American role in the United Nations and what the United States should offer will be discussed, let alone debated, in the presidential campaign.

As the new calendar is begun, there needs to be an effort of reflection and a search for consensus so that the United Nations can fulfill its functions to greater general satisfaction. This isn't impossible. It's just that apparently America can't be bothered, and others are too busy bickering.


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