LIKE pilgrims to a shrine, as many as 100 heads of state will converge upon UN headquarters this October to commemorate the world body's 40th anniversary. But hovering over the round of speeches and banquets like a Banquo's ghost will be a new US law effectively breaking the treaty between the UN and its most important member. Legislation passed last month and signed by a reluctant President Reagan advises the UN that, unless it drops the principle of one nation, one vote on budgetary matters, this country 's contribution will be lowered from its current 25 percent share to a maximum of 20 percent starting next October. Backers of the measure, sponsored by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, were motivated by an understandable desire to prod the UN toward budget and management reforms. But the means Congress has selected is classic overkill, likely to damage parts of the UN that are highly valuable to this country and to boomerang on US interests elsewhere.
In the area of budget and management the UN is far from blameless. Its regular budget -- unadjusted for inflation and currency movements -- has nearly tripled in the last 10 years. While this is comparable to growth in US government spending over the same period, the absence of ``sunset'' clauses at the world body -- or an effective means of oversight -- infuses most UN programs with virtually eternal life, often with scant regard for their success or failure. Also, the UN personnel system, with its pre ference for hiring at the more senior grades, has created a work force with too many chiefs and too few Indians.
But if improvement in the UN's fiscal and management performance is Congress's goal, it has picked a strange way to go about it.
Though touted as a means ``to bring the UN budget into line,'' it is difficult to see how the new law will contribute to that end. It asks for no reduction in spending, no program or administrative changes. Indeed, if the UN were to take such actions they would not satisfy the terms of the Kassebaum measure, which does not call for fiscal or management reform at all. The only way to meet the request of the US Congress is for the other 158 members of the world body to drop sovereign equality -- the chi ef distinguishing feature of the General Assembly -- with regard to money matters. Even if such a change were in this country's interest, it would have to be approved by the General Assembly, and it is not clear what would motivate the majority of UN members to disenfranchise themselves.
Despite a rather bumpy beginning, the Reagan administration's UN delegation has started to prove that working the system can pay real dividends. Joining with the Soviets and the other major donors, the US has begun to put the brakes on UN spending. The current budget, for example, is only 1.5 percent higher than the previous one. And there are promising signs of fiscal responsibility among smaller nations too. Last November an unprecedented decision by the UN's budget committee, which will reverse the
growth of UN salaries, carried on the strength of third-world votes.
Supporters of the Kassebaum amendment also fail to see how it could damage relations with US allies, which along with the Soviets are likely to get stuck with the bill when the cut in the US contribution takes effect. Also, adoption of weighted voting would mean amending the UN Charter, opening the door to any number of ``modernizations'' which Washington would just as soon avoid. One of the first targets is likely to be the Security Council, whose small size and great-power veto have long made it a tho rn in the side of many third-world countries.
Nor is it clear that weighted voting would be such a plus for the US. The UN is less important for the size of its financial carrots and sticks than for the fact that they are wielded in the name of the world community. By bearing the one-nation, one-vote label, UN programs have a credibility in third-world capitals few Western donors can match -- a fact which represents a major, if unused, opportunity for US influence at a time when market approaches to economic development are winning adherents throug hout Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
At year 40, there is no question that the UN's apparatus for choosing useful programs, paying for them, and overseeing their results, needs some radical midlife correction. In place of the Kassebaum amendment the US and other concerned members should take action on two fronts simultaneously.
They should push to strengthen the UN's decisionmaking base on money matters. Under the status quo, programs are authorized by a small-donor majority and paid for by a handful of large donors, causing resentment among the latter that has too often been met by complacency among the former. A greater measure of accountability and fairness is urgently needed. One option would be to require an extraordinary majority -- possibly 75 or 80 percent -- for all budgetary decisions. Another would be to beef up t he UN's budgetary watchdog -- the 16-member advisory committee on administrative and budgetary questions -- by making it the fiscal gatekeeper and requiring all budget proposals to first receive the committee's approval before they are submitted to the General Assembly.
The US and other would-be reformers should face squarely the only really important question in the whole heated debate about UN management improvement, namely: reform for what purpose? Although the necessity for multilateral action is greater today than in 1945, it has yet to be translated into a compelling, broadly supportable agenda for the UN that makes sense for the 1980s and beyond. If the controversy sparked by the Kassebaum amendment brings us closer to that goal, then it may turn out to be a b lessing in disguise.
Peter Fromuth is editorial director of the UN Association of the United States of America.