NEW YORK — PLENTY of tough challenges still lie ahead. Yet, the United Nations shows every sign, 45 years after its founding, of working better than ever. ``It's not that the UN is any different - it's just that all of a sudden people are realizing it's there and that it can help solve problems,'' says Edward Luck, president of the United Nations Association (UNA) of the USA, a citizen support group. He says many once preoccupied with UN limits are now looking at UN potential.
Though the crisis caused by Iraq's takeover of Kuwait and the ongoing civil war in Cambodia are still far from resolved, the UN has acted on both in recent weeks with rare unanimity, muscle, and speed.
The 15-member Security Council, so long immobilized by superpower vetoes, has been the key actor. The thaw in once-icy US-Soviet relations has helped. So has a change in the Soviets' attitude.
``They're now singing the same tune the US used to sing in the `50s and `60s about the importance of the UN and international law,'' says Abram Chayes, a professor at Harvard Law School.
Some of the recent UN action has set new precedents and tapped seldom-used UN machinery. On Aug. 25 the Security Council for the first time authorized military action to enforce its own sanctions. Sanctions had been ordered only twice before in the UN's history. An almost defunct Military Staff Committee, which represents the Council's five permanent members, will coordinate the activities of member navies in the Gulf.
But UN capabilities and staying power still face tough tests.
If the UN's peace proposal for Cambodia is accepted by the Phnom Penh government and its opponents, it would mark the UN's deepest involvement yet in a regional conflict. The world body would take on unprecedented tasks, from implementing a cease-fire and organizing elections to supervising key government ministries. The pricetag could total $5 billion. Helping Namibia make its transition to independence from South Africa cost the UN a comparatively small $750 million.
If the UN succeeds in resolving the conflict between Morocco and Algerian-backed Polisario insurgents over the Western Sahara, UN peacekeeping forces may be needed. Larger contingents could be required in places such as Kashmir and Afghanistan if conflicts intensify. UN troops may also yet be needed in the Gulf.
Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, says that although conditions for preserving collective security in the world are better than they have ever been, success requires more.
``It's not simply a question of whether the international community will stick it out in the case of Iraq by not rushing prematurely into some kind of military conflict or failing to cooperate after a certain point,'' says Mr. Maynes, former US assistant secretary of state for international organizations. ``It's also a question of being prepared to make the necessary financial sacrifices that collective security would require.'' He notes that the US still owes $675 million in dues.
Experts agree the UN is only as effective as its members allow.
Powerful nations often want the mantle of UN support but no UN restrictions on their own actions. US ambivalence on this point has been particularly evident during the Iraq crisis.
Early on President Bush insisted that the US had the right to stop ships bound for Iraq and Kuwait in the name of the Security Council embargo. Within a day or two the US moved to a stronger legal argument: Saudi Arabia and Kuwait's request for help under article 51 of the UN charter. Still, most Security Council members were critical of the US. The White House then went back to the Council to get the resolution that specifically authorized enforcement action.
``The US wants the UN stamp of approval, but it's reluctant to go through the process of getting it,'' says Donald McHenry, US ambassador to the UN under former President Carter. ``We were afraid we might get more supervision than we wanted.''
Ambassador McHenry, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University, says the Iraqi crisis is unlikely to be resolved quickly and may provide more tests for the US on whether it can differentiate between leadership and domination.
Yet he and other analysts agree that Mr. Bush, a former ambassador to the UN, has been far more supportive of the world body than President Reagan. Mr. Luck of the UNA says the administration's remarks about the UN have been more positive than any he's heard in 25 years: ``I've never seen the US engage in such active diplomacy at the UN, putting such a high priority on getting resolutions through and trying to build multilateral backing for our position there.'' He says he thinks the US is well aware that if the current situation were to be regarded as a US-Arab problem, the US would be the loser.
For the Soviets, long interested in a position of power in the Gulf, it is not easy to break a long habit of criticizing US actions there. Yet when some Soviet officials questioned the size and potential permanency of the US troop moves to Saudi Arabia, they were quickly corrected by senior Soviet officials. Luck says this suggests that the Soviets are having an internal debate on the subject but currently care more about closer ties with the US than with the Arabs.
That new US-Soviet relationship, due to be tested again at the summit Sunday, could become a predominant center of power in the world, says Allan Gerson, of the American Enterprise Institute, a former counsel to the US delegation to the UN. ``The UN is just a shell - the real question is who controls the power within it,'' insists Mr. Gerson.
Maynes, who says the cold war forced the UN to become ``a debating shop,'' says the world organization faces an unprecedented opportunity to make its original peace and security mission a serious one. ``The UN is still an evolving institution that was never as bad as people said it was, nor as good as some people now say it is,'' McHenry adds.