United Nations tries to put its house in order
United Nations, N.Y.
Like a noisy, disruptive household that suddenly realizes its excesses are upsetting the neighborhood, the United Nations is trying to put its house in order.Skip to next paragraph
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Some of the reforming zeal comes with a change at the head of the household. The new Secretary-General, Javier Perez de Cuellar, is acutely aware that the UN is in trouble and in need of repair. He has set the place buzzing by sounding alarm bells and trying to shake the world body out of its apathy and bureaucratic inertia.
At the same time, the rest of the United Nations family seems to be getting the message that unless it gets its act together, there will be even further erosion of the UN's credibility.
The days of what many Westerners viewed as wild-eyed radicalism may not yet have passed at the UN. But they could be waning if the last General Assembly session, which ended Dec. 21, is any guide.
Western diplomats who came braced for a bruising battle this session with the developing countries over such perennial tough issues as racism and economic inequities between the ''have'' and ''have not'' countries were pleasantly surprised.
The issues have not changed. But far fewer third-world countries have been breathing fire at the West, and at the United States in particular. Instead, to many diplomats' surprise, the third-world countries are showing what they welcome as signs of moderation and realism.
An important West European ambassador, as well as a top official in the UN Secretariat, both drew attention to the patience, statesmanship, and cooperation of the African bloc over efforts of the Western ''contact group'' to wrest Namibian independence from South Africa.
On East-West nuclear disarmament, the nonaligned received wide praise for refusing to take sides.
The new, more pragmatic and conciliatory mood is partly the result of a realization that, given the serious state of the world economy, it is unreasonable and pointless to push the recession-hit Western countries too far. Some once-poor nations have grown richer, too, and gained a stake in the Western economic system. Meanwhile, as the world's new nations have become accustomed to their independence, their revolutionary rhetoric has cooled somewhat - and many have become disenchanted both with Soviet actions in Afghanistan and Poland and with the shortcomings of radical socialist economics.
In the UN itself there is also a growing awareness that it is becoming counterproductive to push for resolutions that raise the UN temperature without resolving any problems. And the tougher stance taken by the Reagan administration, hitting back at the failings of its critics, has probably prompted some added caution.
To Jeane Kirkpatrick, the United States ambassador to the UN, who has been a sharp critic of radical third-world tactics at the UN, a ''silent majority'' is now emerging within the developing countries. This has led to more moderate third-world countries splitting away from the radicals.
The result has been a significant shift in voting patterns, which refutes a commonly held thesis in the American camp that the UN with its built-in third-world majority compulsively votes against Washington and therefore delivers propaganda victories to Moscow.
During this past session the General Assembly passed a number of key resolutions that could be interpreted as highly favorable to American foreign policy:
* Afghanistan. A resolution condemning the Soviet occupation and calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops triumphed by more than 100 votes. As many as 63 nonaligned countries sided with the majority.