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Showtime at the U.N.


THE ISSUE at the United Nations is whether President Clinton or President Castro will more grossly violate the rule limiting speeches to five minutes.

That wishful regimentation is either an outrageous infringement on sovereignty or the only feasible traffic pattern for 150 visiting heads of government and state.

Just as the arrival of stars at an Academy Awards ceremony is more significant than any specific Oscar, so the three-day Millennium Summit is more important for its convening than for anything that may be said or done there.

For three days, no one can deny that New York is the capital of the world, which not everyone elsewhere concedes the rest of the time. This is Secretary-General Kofi Annan's bit of theater for ramming home the reality of globalization and the need for world institutions to keep pace with the problems it throws up.

All of these distinguished visitors may -- and many do -- visit New York every autumn to address the United Nations General Assembly. What's different this year is they're all there together. And even if they don't talk as long, they have the satisfaction that many of their peers will listen.

A meeting of the Security Council will accompany the other activities. A plan to institutionalize peacekeeping is proposed.

The General Assembly is preparing a grand declaration on the needs of the world, including peace, freedom, a decent standard of living and health. Many treaties and conventions will be signed, speeding the ratification process.

The amount of bilateral diplomacy and regional peace-probing scheduled out of school is prodigious, and the amount of national tub-thumping nearly infinite.

This meeting is not likely to be habit-forming. But the actual transportation is now so easy that the point is made. The world needs its institutions, especially those gathered under the rubric of the United Nations, to work better than they ever have before.

As for the inconvenience to New Yorkers trying to go about daily business, this is nothing compared to a Subway World Series, to which they would never object.

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