Today in New York the nations of the world will gather in a "Millennium Summit" to ponder "The United Nations in the 21st Century." It is an opportunity, says U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "to reshape the United Nations."
But people have been trying to reshape the United Nations almost since it was founded in 1945. The scorecard is mixed, principally because of disagreements about what reform means.
Is it a matter of operational efficiency, or are structural changes needed? Or does the purpose of the United Nations need to change as the world has changed?
The most measurable changes have come in administrative reform. The Secretariat staff has been cut from about 10,000 to 8,700. (Total U.N. employment, including autonomous agencies such as Unicef, Unesco and the Food and Agricultural Organization, is about 52,200.)
New coordinating groups have consolidated programs and reduced overlap. A watchdog Office of Internal Oversight Services has uncovered and corrected numerous instances of fraud and carelessness in the way some U.N. agencies handle their money.
Annan has also asked for "sunset" provisions so that programs and directives will expire when their work is done instead of lingering on to provide pointless employment for global bureaucrats.
The secretary-general claims annual savings of $150 million from these efforts, out of an overall U.N. budget of $10 billion.
Political reforms have been slower in coming, partly because they require revision of the U.N. Charter - comparable to a U.S. constitutional amendment - but principally because they threaten long-entrenched prerogatives.
No one disputes, for example, that the Security Council, the 15-nation body with primary responsibility for maintaining the world's peace and security, gives disproportionate weight to its five permanent members - the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France. But would-be reformers can't settle on a better alignment.
Some plans call for adding new permanent members - with or without the veto enjoyed by the five existing powers. Japan and Germany have more economic weight than four of the five permanent members. Asia, Africa and Latin America are under-represented, relative both to their populations and to the number of security problems that show up on the council's agenda.
But proposals to award permanent seats to such regional powers as India, Brazil and Nigeria run into opposition from envious rivals such as Pakistan, Argentina, Egypt and South Africa.
James A. Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum, a pro-U.N. advocacy group, would just as soon do away with permanent seats altogether.
"It leads to a frozen system," he says. "It's like a country that declares a president-for-life." But of course the five countries holding the permanent seats are not likely to give them up.
Paul would not object to a small increase in Security Council membership to dilute the weight of the traditional powers and give more voice to the Third World. But any large expansion of the council in the name of broadening its representation would make it unwieldy, he says.
Any formal modification of the permanent powers' veto is also unlikely. Russia has said emphatically that it would veto abolition of the veto, and the others surely would, too.
Yet the veto is rarely used anymore - just four times since 1995 (twice each by the United States and China), compared with an average of five times a year during the United Nations' first 50 years. But simply the threat of a veto is often as effective in shaping Security Council action as casting one.
Still, Paul thinks the veto will gradually fade away as royal prerogative waned over time in European monarchies. "There was one restriction after another, some of them self-imposed," he says, until the prerogative became impossible to exercise.
Vetoes trace the shifting power balances of the Cold War. In the United Nations' first 20 years, the Soviet Union, often isolated in a Western-dominated organization, cast 105 vetoes and the United States none.
Then, as decolonization and the breakup of empires brought new and often anti-Western countries into the world body - it now has 189 members - the United States began using the veto five times as frequently as Moscow.
This Soviet-Third World alliance deepened American mistrust of the world body and touched off U.S. efforts to reform it. In recent years the United States has withheld a portion of its dues.
John Hulsman, senior European analyst for the Heritage Foundation, which has been criticizing the United Nations for years, disagrees with that strategy: "We are a member of the organization; we should pay our dues."
The United Nations "should do fewer things and do them better," he says.
He praises some U.N. programs, particularly the World Health Organization's vaccination campaign. And he finds great value in one feature of the United Nations that others deride - its status as a "talking shop" where nations scold and lecture each other.
"It's a place for the U.S. to gauge world opinion, face to face," Hulsman says. "I think the U.N. is undervalued as a place that makes us talk to each other, even when we don't want to."
But Hulsman is unimpressed with the secretary-general's claim to be saving $150 million a year. "It's like slimming down to 300 pounds," he scoffs.
The reductions haven't changed the fact that "U.N. jobs are sinecures, awarded noncompetitively, by continent or region or for political balance, not on merit."
By contrast, the Global Policy Forum's Paul thinks the United Nations needs more money, not less. The budget for its core functions - the Secretariat operations in New York, Geneva, Vienna, Nairobi and five regional commissions - is $1.25 billion. Annan's Millennium Summit report characterizes that as 4 percent of New York City's budget and less than the Tokyo fire department gets.
"It's a bargain for all that it does," Paul says.
But whether it is a bargain or an obese 300-pounder, the United Nations exists in a different world from that of its founding, as Annan's report acknowledges.
In that world nation-states were the primary international actors. In the global world of today nations are often bypassed by trans-national corporations or by nongovernmental groups such as the coalitions that organized the campaigns against land mines or the backlash against the World Trade Organization.
If globalization's benefits are obvious - "faster growth, higher living standards, new opportunities" - so are its dangers, Annan warns: "Crime, narcotics, terrorism, pollution, disease, weapons, refugees and migrants all move back and forth faster and in greater numbers than in the past."
The proper response, he says, is neither world government nor the eclipse of nation-states.
"The United Nations must increasingly serve as a catalyst for collective action both among its member states, and between them and the vibrant constellation of new non-state actors," he says. "We must continue to be the place where new standards of international conduct are hammered out, and broad consensus on them is established."
To Paul, this implies a broadening of U.N. responsibilities; to Hulsman it seems a welcome acknowledgment of limits, a recognition that the United Nations can't do everything by itself.