PRESIDENT REAGAN has not been known as a big fan of the United Nations. That makes his farewell address to the UN General Assembly on Monday all the more notable. He hit familiar themes: support for his Strategic Defense Initiative, opposition to the Sandinista government, optimism that the United States and the Soviets could wrap up a treaty on strategic nuclear weapons within a year, and approval of the thaw in relations between the superpowers. During these parts of his speech, Mr. Reagan almost sounded as if he were campaigning for the GOP.
But he also praised Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, who has been at or near the center of efforts to mediate an end to several regional conflicts: Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, southern Africa, Cyprus, Cambodia, the Western Sahara. He noted approvingly a more evenhanded UN approach to condemning countries that violate human rights. After surveying changes in East-West relations, he concluded that the United Nations ``has the opportunity to live and breathe and work as never before.'' This from a man who once retorted that if UN members didn't like the way the US was acting as host, they could move to Moscow.
Why the change? The UN has changed.
Prompted by the Western powers and the Soviet Union, the UN has reduced its budget and bureaucracy. The Soviets and Eastern Europeans have agreed to allow their citizens working at the UN to become international civil servants, rather than replacing them every two years. Though some reforms have been under way for years, the US government's decision to withhold its contributions to the UN budget sped the pace. The US is now paying some of its past-due dues.
In addition, the tone at the UN has mellowed. The UN was formed with 50 countries. They defined the UN's role either as peacekeeping or in terms of its various agencies, such as the World Health Organization or the International Atomic Energy Agency. During the 1970s, 100 countries joined the UN. Newly independent and largely underdeveloped, these nations looked to the UN for economic aid. General Assembly debates echoed with the sounds of clashing views of the UN's role. But the 1980s brought what some have termed an era of ``creeping realism.'' Bashing the Western industrial powers, especially the US doesn't do much for feeding hungry people or attracting investment to ailing economies.
Many global problems, such as climate warming, hazardous waste, acid rain, human rights abuse, and the spread of chemical arms, defy bilateral solutions, the administration's preferred way of doing business; they require international cooperation.
Perhaps the biggest change has come from the Kremlin: The Soviets are more willing to take some of their global troubles to the UN - to treat the organization seriously. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has outlined ideas for strengthening the UN's hand in world affairs, although it's not clear whether any changes would outlast Mr. Gorbachev, who faces increasing resistance to his reform programs at home.
The US has yet to fully adapt to the changing UN scene; but Mr. Reagan's speech - coming from one who has historically had no love for the international body - should help clear the way.