UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — FIFTY years ago today at the San Francisco Opera House, the US led a war-wracked world into signing the United Nations Charter.
The past, however, is hardly like the present.
United States leadership in the UN is being challenged both within the US and by other countries.
US clout at the 185-member body is being eroded by a new uncertainty in Washington about US vital interests abroad and criticism of the UN from conservatives in the GOP-run Congress. Its role is also in jeopardy because of a long-standing reluctance to pay dues to the UN.
The most recent example of a declining US interest came with the June 16 decision by the UN Security Council to delay the question of how to pay for a new "rapid reaction force" in Bosnia. The Council's delay was largely due to a reluctance by Congress to fund the peacekeeping operation.
"I think the US is adopting a more realistic view of what the UN can and cannot accomplish," says Ted Galin Carpenter, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, who says the US is turning away from its previous UN leadership role.
"Unfortunately the UN has become almost the wastebasket for dealing with problems the great powers don't want to handle on their own. The UN has been asked to do a number of things which it is not well designed to do, such as nation-rebuilding in Somalia and management of a civil war in Bosnia," Mr. Carpenter says.
The US retreat from UN leadership comes at a moment when the 15-member European Union is showing new unity on foreign policy issues in line with the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. Other nations, too, want a stronger UN role.
"If you won't risk your troops and you won't risk your money, in today's world you're not going to be a leader," says John Washburn, a one-time US diplomat and former senior UN official, in describing the current US position. "There are plenty of nations anxious to pick up the torch."
Yet some analysts say the shift away from US leadership is likely to lead to a weaker UN and a more dangerous world in which more conflicts go unchecked.
"My concern is that there will be no leadership at the UN if the US does not exercise it," says James Sutterlin, a global security expert at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "The UN cannot be very effective without the leadership of its strongest member."
The US, which owes almost half of the UN's outstanding $2.75 billion budget and peacekeeping bill, is the UN's top debtor. Disregarding the assessment formula set by the UN General Assembly, the House has voted to whittle the US share of UN peacekeeping dues from 32 percent to a maximum of 25 percent in the next fiscal year and to deduct the costs of US-run military actions tied to UN business, such as the US intervention in Haiti.
IN a recent speech in New York, House International Relations Committee chairman Benjamin Gilman (R) of New York defended Congress' moves as efforts at prudence and fairness that could spur needed bureaucratic and fiscal UN reform.
Analysts say a Europe more independent of the US was inevitable in the absence of the common Soviet cold war threat. But that Congress' wariness of the UN is also speeding the trend.
"The increasing American surliness toward the UN [in Congress] is leading the Europeans to fill the [leadership] vacuum," says Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior official of the New York-based United Nations Association of the USA, a private research group. "Europe is increasingly going to be a dominant player - it will not be second fiddle to Washington in the 21st century," he says.
"There's a new willingness by the Europeans to accept some distance and to challenge US leadership within the UN and elsewhere that didn't exist in the past," agrees Simon Serfaty, an expert on Europe with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
So far the new European unity is more visible in the UN General Assembly with its focus on economic and social issues than in the Security Council which handles the dicier security issues. Britain and France, which hold two of the five permanent Council seats, now largely agree with each other on Bosnia policy but still disagree on when to lift UN sanctions on Iraq.
Jean-Bernard Merimee, France's ambassador to the UN, notes that all EU ambassadors to the UN meet weekly to coordinate policy.
He notes that EU nations pay a hefty 36 percent share of the UN budget in full and on time (in contrast to the US). EU nations also provide almost one-third of the UN's 61,000 peacekeeping troops.
"I think the EU members are becoming more and more conscious of their strength and of the fact that they form a body which has to be reckoned with," Ambassador Merimee says.
Yet Hans Peter Manz, an Austrian diplomat at the UN, cautions that the Europeans have no intention of replacing America and its interests at the UN.
Many analysts agree that the key issue is not leadership rivalry but UN effectiveness. "My sense is that the US will be very active in dragging its feet, and there will be fewer UN operations," says Thomas Weiss, a UN expert at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
"Sometimes intervention is not the answer," says Thomas Sheehy of the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "As sad as it is, sometimes these conflicts just have to play out."
"The world is going to be a rather disorderly place, regardless of what the US does and the UN attempts to do," agrees Cato's Ted Carpenter.
In his view, strengthening regional organizations could help bridge the gap between global anarchy and what he sees as the overly ambitious goal of trying to build an effective global security system.