As the 49th General Assembly cranks up in New York, preparing for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Charter next June, Americans are wondering what the U.N. is for.
Americans have been wondering that for 49 years. At first its promise was unfulfilled because of Soviet intransigence in wielding the veto at the Security Council. Then a movement grew among small countries of the underdeveloped world to use the U.N. to redistribute the world's wealth.
With the Cold War gone, both Russia and China have wished to be cooperative with the U.S. at the U.N. when their interests allow. The "Non-aligned Movement" has nothing to be non-aligned about. Most Third World nations are seeking good relations with the U.S. While the East Asian tigers of economic development and the Middle East oil states have joined the developed world, those less blessed find the former Communist countries as rivals in the queues of the deserving poor.
Where have these momentous changes left U.S. attitudes? The Reagan administration crusaded to rid the U.N. of anti-Western attitudes, corruption and waste. This was a good excuse to withhold payment of dues and peace-keeping assessments. It also helped to achieve its aim, as anti-Western rhetoric diminished and such agencies as UNESCO changed leaderships and pared budgets.
The Bush administration found surprising usefulness in the U.N. as it mobilized to expel Iraq from Kuwait, and needed such organizations as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to do their thing. In tackling its thorniest challenge, restoring legitimacy to Cambodia, the U.N. with Asian nations wrought wonders with minimum U.S. involvement.
The Clinton administration started out pro-U.N., only to be disillusioned quickly. The U.N. is frustrating because of the mounting costs of peace-keeping, the pretension of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to make policy here and his failure to take initiatives there. Waste has not vanished and, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
The U.N., in sad truth, can never be better than the collective will of its members. It is nothing but machinery until they fill it with life. Until the world is a better place, the U.N. won't be.
Several of its related agencies are invaluable implementers of U.S. policies. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank are the chief reason that Washington is the true capital of the world. Most Security Council actions are tools for U.S. policies.
The United Nations is the only world political forum we have. And at least one of its problems, the dithering of the Clinton administration's attitude toward it, is not the U.N.'s fault.