United Nations, N.Y. — The Russians are smiling. As recently as four months ago they found themselves isolated and resented because of their occupation of Afghanistan and their threatening posture vis-a-vis Poland.
But today it is the United States that is being viewed here as both insensitive to, and contemptuous of, the world community.
This abrupt turnabout is attributed by senior diplomats here, representing a wide range of countries and ideologies, more to the personal style of US Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick than to the Reagan administration's United Nations or third-world policies.
They are also perturbed about her lack of knowledge of UN diplomacy, which has resulted in several important tactical setbacks for the United States. Her lack of knowledge of international organizations is "abysmal," says one Western ambassador.
When a senior official at the United States Mission to the UN was asked by this correspondent to comment on these criticisms, he declined to do so.
"Arrogant," "dismissive," "discourteous," "coarse," "snappy," "hostile" -- these are just a few of the words being used in UN corridors to describe Mrs. Kirkpatrick's behavior here. Such comments are highly unusual in the clubby atmosphere of the United Nations. Ambassadors usually are on a first-name basis and tend, if anything, to be overgenerous with one another.
An earlier occasion when strong personal feelings about an ambassador surfaced here was in the 1950s, when Soviet Ambassador Jacob A. Malik was nicknamed "Mr. Nyet" (Mr. No) because of his intransigence. It is indicative of today's climate of opinion that Mrs. Kirkpatrick is commonly dubbed by diplomats of all ranks as "Mrs. Nyet."
The complaints about her are voiced privately -- but frequently -- not by ambassadors from communist or radical countries but by the representatives of many moderate third-world countries and by senior diplomats of some of the closest and most faithful allies of the United States. These seasoned professionals admit to being dismayed by the demeanor of the new US ambassador.
"Sometimes she treats us as so many natives and acts like those American ladies who walk about foreign cities concerned that someone will steal their handbag," says a normally understated Latin American diplomat known to be fiercely pro-US.
"She addresses us as if she were in possession of the Holy Grail, the eternal truth," says one ambassador who has never before been known to make a personal comment on a colleague, no matter what policy clashes have occurred between his country and others.
Many are also upset by Mrs. Kirkpatrick's tendency to remind people that she is "a professor of political science." They point out that many professors and famous scholars have served and are serving at the UN -- "some of greater international reputation than Mrs. Kirkpatrick," adds one Western diplomat.And others point out that in any event the United Nations is not a teaching institution, but a negotiating forum -- "a place to talk, to listen, to seek out compromises."
Such critics say that the problem is not the fact that a US ambassador vigorously defends her country's interests, but, as one diplomat puts it, "that she adds insult to injury." As a result, Western diplomats as well as US sources claim that she has not been furthering the interests of her country or the West.
During the debate at the Security Council about UNIFIL (the United Nations force in southern Lebanon) she held out against any declaration by the president of the council that would be critical of Israel. But after rejecting a text in which Israel was criticized once for its behavior in Lebanon, she ended up subscribing to another text that included a Security Council resolution in which Israel was criticized four times in much sharper terms on the same grounds.
Similarly, when the African nations recently called for sanctions against South Africa at the Security Council, most diplomats here contend that the Africans hoped to be taken off the hook by a US statement reaffirming its commitment to the crucial 1978 resolution on Namibia.
Indeed, Mrs. Kirkpatrick had returned to the Security Council from Washington with a fall-back position -- "papers allowing for some movement," according to a well- informed source. But she did not use the flexibility that she had been granted, according to several participants in the council proceedings. Instead, one of them commented, "She seemed to thirst for a confrontation."
In another incident one week later, the United States failed to get elected to one of the three seats reserved for one of the Western nations on the Committee on Statistics -- for the first time in the history of the UN Economic and Social Council. It was a minor slap, but one that is seen here as indicative of the anger felt by many third-world diplomats at Mrs. Kirkpatrick's attitudes.
There is also growing concern, not only among developing countries, but also among Western diplomats that Mrs. Kirkpatrick's strategy is not aimed at strengthening the US bargaining position at the UN, but at discrediting and ultimately dismantling the organization itself.
The US decisions to pull out of the latest round of the Law of the Sea Conference and sidestep the North-South dialogue are interpreted by some analysts as paving the way for a more fundamental anti-UN move such as a US pullout of the world body itself.
The distinctly cool reception given by the White House to United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim -- when compared to the attention and the pomp lavished on him on a similar trip four years ago and on his predecessors -- is widely interpreted here not so much as an attempt to humiliate him personally as to signal the administration's low esteem for an organization described by one US official "as a nest of anti-Americanism."
All this greatly worries the representatives of other major industrial nations.
"While we have had our own reservations about the abundance of anti-resolutions coming out of the General Assembly and about the misuse of the Security Council in some instances, we do not subscribe to any attempt at weakening or discrediting the United Nations," says one highly respected Western diplomat.