IN December, Washington once again cast into doubt United Nations financing and multilateralism over its opposition to a possible upgrading of the Palestine Liberation Organization's UN status. Vice President Quayle immediately escalated the campaign with the politically mischievous suggestion that future American financing might be tied to a repeal of the meaningless 1975 General Assembly resolution condemning Zionism. From Canada, US fickleness toward the world body appears absolutely arcane. Canadians ask, ``Why this boundless ill will toward the UN?'' US citizens should reflect about why their fellow North Americans support multilateralism: middle-power instincts and hardheaded calculations about Western interests and values. Neither neutral nor woolly-headed, Canada is a bulwark of NATO and a crucial US ally. It will, for example, host the Open Skies Conference in February to follow up a Bush verification proposal.
If the UN is so clearly in Ottawa's interests, why does the same logic not apply in Washington? Prior to recent backsliding, the US had seemingly returned to the multilateral fold. Five new peacekeeping operations have been helpful to US foreign policy, in extracting the Red Army from Afghanistan and Cuban combat troops from Angola, stopping the carnage in Iran-Iraq, ensuring Namibian independence, and depoliticizing Central America.
Canada has supported ``peacekeeping'' since Lester Pearson coined the term for the troops under international control in the 1956 Suez crisis. There are 1,200 Canadian soldiers among the 14,000 UN troops worldwide. While the US is responsible for over half of the UN's nearly $1 billion debt and often resorts to financial intimidation, other nations are carrying large responsibilities.
With dramatic improvements in East-West relations, international security is at a critical juncture. The UN has become decidedly more activist in the management of regional conflicts. Possible operations are on the drawing boards in virtually every troubled region. Yet the support of countries like Canada and the 1988 Nobel Prize for the 500,000 soldiers who have worn the UN's blue berets and blue helmets is not enough.
There must be unquestioned support from the superpowers. Sir Brian Urquhart argues that past successes have required ``tiptoeing around the cold war.'' With that obstacle thawing, will the UN now realize its potential or slip back into debilitation from superpower infighting or foot-dragging?
After decades of indifference or antagonism, the Kremlin is embracing the UN as the most viable way to mitigate third-world conflicts. Soviet deeds are increasingly matching its rhetoric - acceptance of the UN in Afghanistan and Angola, pressure on the Vietnamese to withdraw from Cambodia, steps to repay UN hard-currency arrears, and a slowdown in arms shipments.
Washington reacted this autumn after months of coolness. Reversing previous policy, the US joined the Soviet Union, Canada, and other members of the Security Council in authorizing military observers for Central America, the first resort to the UN in America's ``backyard.'' The superpowers cosponsored a resolution aimed at reinforcing the work of the UN.
The UN is finally earning worldwide praise for mitigating violence, rather than being disparaged for its members' invective, posturing, and one-upmanship. With superpower cooperation, and continued support from middle-powers, the world body can more effectively help to resolve third-world disputes. At the turn of the century, a UN with ``more teeth'' could, for instance, help combat illicit drugs and terrorism, ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid in civil wars, and verify arms control and elections.
The Kremlin has begun to realize the limits of its power. An overextended empire as well as a sick economy have forced a reduction in Moscow's foreign military commitments and a greater reliance on multilateralism.
As bipolar confrontation breaks down and power becomes more diffuse, Washington too must understand the vital potential of international institutions. This opportunity is too important for American interests and effective leadership to be derailed by the dated prejudices of a few domestic lobbies.