FORTY-EIGHT years ago, as a correspondent for an Army newspaper, I covered the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco.
In the pressroom in the basement of the Opera House, I met the great essayist E.B. White, who was there for the New Yorker.
One day he posed a riddle.
"Sergeant," he said, "what is the most important thing for a marriage?"
"Love?" I asked.
"No," he said. "The ring."
He meant the ring as symbol of commitment: If the 50 founding nations were committed to the new world body, it could survive the kinds of crises that had killed the League of Nations and brought on a world war. But now, as 183 member nations prepare to convene for the 48th regular session of the General Assembly on Sept. 21, the state of the marriage is alarmingly shaky.
Even as the agenda lists a mind-numbing array of problems -- from the fate of Bosnia to the control of The biggest deadbeat is Uncle Sam
Antarctica, from apartheid to the arms race in outer space -- the members seem unwilling to do the hard work needed to keep this union healthy.
As George Bush once said in another context, it's a matter of will and wallet. U.N. peacekeeping forces are engaged in no fewer than a dozen wars, civil and cross-border, around the world.
The cost of peacekeeping has risen tenfold in the last six years -- to $3.6 billion in the past fiscal year from $364 million in 1987.
But the United Nations is strapped for funds to carry out the tasks it has been given by member governments. Few countries pay their bills in full or on time; only 10 of the 183 have done so.
The worst offender is the United States. On Aug. 31, the United Nations was owed more than $2 billion, with the United States owing $786 million, followed by Russia ($505 million) and Japan ($108 million).
Much of the American debt dates to the Cold War, when the United States deliberately underfinanced the United Nations to show disapproval of its actions. These obligations are being wound down under a program approved by Congress in 1991, FTC but at the present rate they will take years to pay off. To make matters worse, the former Soviet republics have no money to pay their back dues.
The United Nations is not allowed to borrow money; it is constantly delaying payment of its own bills and juggling accounts, a demeaning business.
To withhold support at so crucial a time is unwise and self-defeating. The lack of resources is severely constricting the United Nation's ability to carry out its missions.
To deal with conflicts already on its agenda, the United Nations ++ has only 80,000 peacekeepers among the 12 wars. These forces are not large enough to enforce the peace.
Without the much larger national military forces of the United States and other nations involved, U.N. peacekeepers can only function as observers, mediators, aid dispensers, hostages or victims -- all roles they have played in Bosnia, Cambodia and Somalia. Neither the United States nor any other nation could take on the job of global policeman on its own.
Yet the member states, including the United States, are not ready to give the United Nations the control over military forces and the financing to head off conflicts.
With the end of the Cold War, the neglect and disparagement of the United Nations by the United States and other countries cannot safely continue.
The United Nations must be rebuilt as an organization capable of fulfilling its original purposes and dealing with the dangers that have grown up during its nearly half century of existence -- not just wars, but the economic stagnation and poverty that underlie so much of the world's conflicts.
"Forty years of neglect," as the American delegate to the United Nations, Madeleine K. Albright, has said, "have left this institution flabby and out of shape." Indeed.
But if it is to be strengthened, the U.S. must take the lead.
Leonard Silk, former economics columnist of the New York Times, is co-editor, with Uner Kirdar, of the forthcoming "A World Fit for People."