At the Imperial Court

IN theory, the vast pilgrimage from all over the world of the great and near-great to the west bank of the East River in New York City this week is in honor and celebration of the 40th birthday of an organization known as the United Nations. And in theory also, they will do something momentous by meeting together and passing resolutions.

But what is so special about a 40th anniversary? Usually people make something of a 50th anniversary, and more of a hundredth. But the mere fact that an organization has survived for 40 years would pass with routine notice.

And what are the resolutions they will pass going to mean in practical terms? Very little. There is no momentous issue before the General Assembly of the UN this year. Those who come all have concerns, but not concerns that can be abated by anything they can do or say in resolutions or by negotiations among themselves.

Why then do they come? The answer is simple, if not obvious. They come to get close to the one center where the great decisions that will shape their welfare over years to come are being made right now.

Nothing so testifies to the importance of the United States, and of its government, and of the man who sits at the head of that government, as the fact that from all over the world this week presidents and princes and even kings used the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the United Nations as an excuse for traveling to New York -- by way of Washington (provided they can manage an invitation to the White House or at least to the State Department).

Not every head of a delegation who comes to New York for the UN sessions this week and next will get to talk either to President Reagan or Secretary of State George Shultz. But everyone will get to talk to someone who has talked with either of those two men. And everyone who comes will join in exchanging what information they can glean about what Mr. Reagan and Mr. Shultz may be going to do about talking to the Russians, and about what Mr. Reagan is likely to do about the American economy.

The peace of the world depends not on what the delegations at the UN can do but on what President Reagan will do when he meets in November with Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev. And the equally important welfare of the world economy depends not on what the lesser nations can do or say, either individually or collectively, but on how Mr. Reagan ultimately resolves the American crisis of the trade deficit.

The politicians and statesmen and government leaders and princes are coming to the imperial center. They are coming to pick up the latest gossip, talk with and get as near to as possible to the thinking and planning of the men who help to shape the decisions Mr. Reagan will be making which are vital to the general welfare of the entire world.

Down through history there is usually some one center of power that is in such fashion vital to the welfare of the world. Rome was once the imperial center of the European and Mediterranean. China was once the center of Asia. In modern times Paris was once so much the imperial center that to this day French is still the alternative lingua franca of the diplomatic world and is only now beginning to be superseded by English. London had its day as the imperial center, but there is no doubt that today Washi ngton is the center and that what Washington decides is immensely more important to history than anything that can be said or done at the General Assembly of the UN.

The UN serves as the outer court of the imperial center. The ambassadors can gather there with more dignity than if they come formally to Washington. The UN serves the companion purpose of providing a place where the President's deputies can tap the thinking of the other nations. It is a clearinghouse for all, a forum, the meeting place of the nations.

The time of the gathering is propitious. Mr. Reagan has, so far as we can tell from the outside, yet to come to final decisions about how far he wants to go in his new dialogue with the Soviets.

Is he merely going to meet Mr. Gorbachev to get acquainted? Or is he hoping to use the November meeting as the beginning of a serious exploration down a road that might lead to new understandings and accommodations between Washington and Moscow?

And is America about to plunge the world into protectionist trade wars? Or will Mr. Reagan come to realize the connection between his own vast deficits and the trade imbalance and take such steps as can spare the economies of the whole world a descent into economic autarky?

The UN visitors will probably go home still asking questions but at least they will have been at the Imperial Court and gleaned what is to be gleaned. The UN has its uses.

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