FIERCE winds swirled about the United Nations tower, commanding New York's East River, during the visitation of hurricane Gloria. Windows rattled, rain sleeted, operations came to a standstill. Airports were closed, travel plans of some delegations were disrupted, and the fancy hotels in the vicinity of the UN did a brisk business with diplomats grounded by the weather. Even without the dramatic weather, the arrival of a slew of kings and presidents and prime ministers and foreign ministers had earlier brought New York's traffic to a virtual standstill.
But although some New Yorkers might find the UN a bore, and though one previous American delegate suggested the whole UN operation might just want to sail off into the sunset, the UN on its 40th anniversary is surviving the buffetings of the weather and international politics. The arrival of such an extraordinary array of leaders for this celebration indicates the importance they attach to it.
The UN, like the world it mirrors, is far from perfect. Yet it reflects the yearning of the world's peoples for a world free from fear and war. It has made some progress to that end.
Insofar as the overriding issue is concerned -- nuclear confrontation among the world's great powers -- the UN is sidestepped. It is not at the UN that the superpowers present their plans for nuclear arms reduction. That is going on in direct talks between Soviet and American leaders and is being formally presented at the arms control talks between the United States and Soviet Union in Geneva.
Nonetheless, as President Reagan has said, the UN ``has been and can be a force for great good. While it hasn't solved every problem or prevented every conflict, there have been shining accomplishments. More than a few are alive and live decently because of this institution.''
What the UN is not, and was never intended to be, is a world parliament. It is a place where problems are aired, where nations let off steam, where moral suasion is sometimes effective. It is not a substitute for bilateral diplomacy between governments.
The UN also operates a number of specialized agencies serving humanitarian and developmental goals. And it provides noncombatant peacekeeping forces in a number of critical areas.
Some UN operations have gotten out of hand and caused grave problems. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) is an example. So disenchanted did the US become with the management and policies of UNESCO that it withdrew American participation. Some other countries share the American view.
Washington complains of a pro-Soviet bias at UNESCO and, like many journalists, is troubled by talk of a ``new world information and communication order'' which would hobble press and publishing. The US has faulted UNESCO's management practices, contending that inordinate amounts are being spent on the upkeep of UNESCO bureaucrats in Paris, rather than on third world programs.
While the US has left a substantial observer mission to keep an eye on developments at UNESCO, there is no indication that reforms have taken place that would cause the US to resume its support.
Reagan's attitude toward UNESCO is an illustration of how the White House looks at the UN overall. It sees it as an institution that has not fulfilled all its promises, but it is useful and to be nurtured. As with UNESCO, it will be tough when it thinks the UN is going off the track. The US will remember the voting record of those countries which, as the US ambassador to the UN, Vernon A. Walters, puts it, vote ``capriciously'' against the United States.
But having said all this, the United States looks upon the UN as something to be supported, preserved, and, if possible, improved.
John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.