With the insanity and inanity of the Cold War behind it, the United Nations more and more is coming to be an organization that critics may have a hard time laughing at, even at its worst.
The new secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali--though no clone of the dynamic Dag Hammarskjold of yore--has begun his first term in a mode of activism and optimism. That's to be applauded. He has also begun to cut the bloated U.N. bureaucracy. That's to be given a standing ovation.
And with the historical mind-numbing veto-itis of the U.N. Security Council in remission lately, serious international peacekeeping is no longer the fanciful preoccupation mainly of academics writing books.
A major peacekeeping operation may even come to fruition soon. Thirteen thousand U.N. troops from many countries are being readied for shipment to Yugoslavia. The largest such groundbreaking U.N. peacekeeping effort was in the former Belgian Congo. U.N. forces in the Congo numbered 20,000 at the height of that 1960 operation.
WINDS OF PEACE: No doubt the disappearance of the Soviet Union is a major cause of the warmer international winds wafting over the East River in New York City, the United Nations' headquarters. Tub-thumping, shoe-pounding veto-mongering is out; negotiation and collective action are in.
During the Iraq crisis of last year, the Chinese were persuaded not to exercise the veto they enjoy as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. And thus was born the great international effort that checked the Iraqi army's advance and chased Saddam Hussein's legions out of Kuwait.
That sort of colossal U.N. consensus is not likely to be replicated often, of course. For one thing, there are few dictators like Hussein with the unique capacity for forging near-unanimity out of an otherwise confused and conflicted world. For another, the veto system of the Security Council is a built-in circuit breaker that often stops collective action. And the number of veto-wielding members might in fact increase, not decrease, in the years ahead as other major members press their case for being given their own veto powers.
WINDS OF MARXISM: Another reason for a restrained optimism about the United Nations is the numerical dominance of Third World countries in the General Assembly. Many of these governments entertain strong anti-Western, anti-capitalistic, anti-free-market doctrines that shape their foreign policies--and their view of the world. That ideology throws a wet blanket on serious efforts at internal economic reform and national economic development. And it warps the perspective of U.N. bodies like the Economic and Social Council, the Conference on Trade and Development and the Industrial Development Organization.
That ideology still holds great sway at the United Nations despite the fall of the Marxist Soviet empire. It's not just that old Marxists die hard, but the fact that some Third World countries still distrust the West, particularly the old colonial powers. And it serves the purposes of entrenched bureaucracies--in non-market economies many decisions must be made, after all due consideration, of course, by government bureaucrats.
All that is very frustrating to the West. But it should in no way undermine its fundamental support. The U.N. system is better than anything else that might be put in its place and it is far better than nothing at all. If the United Nations didn't exist it would not only be necessary to invent it but, in starting over, would probably be necessary to repeat the same mistakes that occurred early in the evolution of the current organization.
WINDS OF SCORN: Indeed, the general overall improvement of the United Nations in the last year might just serve to forge stronger constituencies of support for the organization within member nations. Often as much the object of scorn as admiration in the United States, the United Nations has not exactly been at the center of American foreign policy these last few decades. And it has often been an easy target for politicians to rail at. All that has undermined public support here for the United Nations--and helps account for U.S. arrears as a dues-paying member. The United States should pay up, of course. There's no longer any excuse to be behind; in fact, the situation is embarrassing.
No doubt the United Nations' future is more in the economic than peacekeeping realm. The world economy is greatly troubled and the so-called "new economic order" could become the organization's central obsession. That wouldn't be so bad.
There is plenty of economic misery in the world. Helping reduce it is, more than anything else, the United Nations' most noble mission.