When superpowers are in right position, UN's star rises

This week is marked by an extraordinary coincidence of peacemaking, with the long neglected, belittled, and abused United Nations playing a major role. There is a revival of UN usefulness. Four of the world's most bloody and long festering and tenacious wars seem to be on the way to settlements, and three of the four emerging compromises are being managed by or through UN mediation.

In the Gulf, both Iraq and Iran have agreed to a peace process. UN officials are negotiating terms.

Negotiations for peace between South Africa and Angola have reached the point where Cubans were reportedly readying to welcome their soldiers home from a decade of fighting in southwest regions of Africa. A key part of the settlement includes a UN plan for independence of Namibia (South-West Africa).

In Afghanistan, Soviet troops continued their withdrawal, under a UN agreement hammered out earlier this year.

In South Asia, Cambodian political groups were trying to form a coalition government to take over the country when Vietnamese troops complete their promised withdrawal.

Two features of this four-part progression toward peace are particularly notable.

All four have matured since last December's Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Washington and its May sequel in Moscow. And three of the four have been arranged either through, or with the assistance of, the UN. The fourth, Cambodia, has had an indirect UN component.

The above does not mean that the UN is suddenly becoming an initiating force in the world. No one at the UN has caused any of these four situations to move suddenly toward solution.

But there is a revival of a UN role in the peacemaking process and renewed appreciation among the great powers for the ways in which the machinery of the UN can be used to achieve settlements whenever the superpowers agree to seek a compromise.

It is obvious that not one of these four situations would move toward settlement without an agreement between Moscow and Washington in the background. Where the two join in wishing an end to a regional war, the UN can provide both a neutral mediator and a face-saving device for the loser.

In the Gulf war Iran is the loser. It is ready to accept UN mediation because it has sustained serious military setbacks and stands to suffer more. There has apparently been a breakdown of morale on the Iranian side. The Iraqis this week staged what were called ``invasions'' by the Iranians. In fact, they were raids into Iran to bag prisoners.

It is impossible for the government of Iran to admit that it is losing. It is politically possible for Iran's leader, the Ayatollah, to defer to the wishes of the UN and accept the peacemaking process.

The current Secretary-General of the UN, Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, has proved to be wise and skillful as a neutral mediator. He has moved when and where he was wanted. He has been successful in finding common ground between the conflicting positions of the warring countries.

As a result of his quiet intervention, he has played a major role in Afghanistan and the Gulf. The UN was the primary channel through which the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was negotiated. Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar is at the center of this week's maneuverings over the details of a cease-fire for the Gulf.

The negotiations for an end to Angola's decade-long civil war have been conducted largely by the parties themselves, through US officials. But the linked issue of independence for neighboring Namibia is based on a UN initiative. And the UN is expected to play a key role in maintaining any peace accord in Cambodia.

In other words, we are seeing in operation the UN proving its usefulness and being what its wiser founders expected it to be: not a super-government, but a marketplace where nations can conveniently do their diplomatic business if and when they choose to do so.

The UN has gone through many phases in its brief history. In the beginning it was useful in helping to settle the world which emerged from the wreckage of World War II.

The organization became at one time an instrument of US diplomacy. During the Korean war the Soviets walked out of the UN. The US seized the opportunity to gain effective control of the organization. When US troops fought in Korea against North Korea and China, they fought under the UN flag. It was of great propaganda advantage to be fighting as the official agent of the world's nations.

The Soviets came back, regained the veto power they lost during the walkout, and never repeated that mistake.

After the Korean war, there followed a period of proliferation of new independent member nations from former colonial empires.

Many of the new countries are Muslim, and sympathize automatically with the Arabs against Israel. On any issue touching Israel the US has almost always had to use its veto to prevent an anti-Israel conclusion.

As a result of the pro-Arab majority, the US moved into an anti-UN posture. During the Kissinger era, the tendency in Washington was to resent the UN, treat it with contempt, and toy with the idea of withdrawing from it and pushing it out of the US entirely.

However, Henry Kissinger found UN peacekeeping forces useful when he wanted to stabilize Israel's frontiers.

The UN has been in a sort of twilight zone of general neglect from then until now when both the US and the USSR are finding it to be an instrument for settling such wars as they mutually consider ripe for settlement.

There is a decided revival of appreciation of the UN as a useful instrument for mitigating wars and danger of wars.

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