UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — CAN the United Nations survive the next half century without stronger support from the United States, the UN's chief founder and the world's only remaining superpower?
None of the more than 140 leaders scheduled to speak at the UN's 50th anniversary Oct. 22 to 24 is likely to raise that troublesome question directly.
Yet concern over a gradual crumbling of financial and moral support for the UN from a Republican-dominated Capitol Hill and among a number of outspoken US citizens is sure to underlie much of what world leaders say next week in praise and criticism of the UN.
The demise of the post-World War I League of Nations, which the US never joined, hovers as a vivid reminder of the importance of active US involvement. "We saw what happened with that organization when the US did not participate," UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali observed in a Monitor interview. "The US is the principal actor in international relations."
Yet the anniversary comes at an awkward, bittersweet moment. The post-cold-war euphoria of a UN suddenly able to act, in mediating conflicts and in the UN-sanctioned Gulf war effort, is evaporating in the aftermath of major peacekeeping setbacks in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
These tragedies, along with a new confidence in American power, are fueling the conviction in some quarters of the US that the UN is no longer needed. That feeling, along with a nearly universal call for UN reform on Capitol Hill, underlies much of Congress's reluctance to pay the $1.4 billion it owes to the UN.
In total, member nations owe the UN $3.24 billion. Mr. Boutros-Ghali says the UN is experiencing its worst financial crisis. "We are not able to do our work," he says. "We have to find a solution."
Though the US has a Security Council veto, some UN critics argue that continuous American efforts to work through the UN make it more and more difficult for the US to act alone or build its own coalition of allies in a crisis. Some American lawmakers even see in the UN the specter of a world government-in-waiting. UN officials and diplomats vigorously challenge that idea, pointing to the line of national flags flapping in the breeze along First Avenue outside UN headquarters as one small sign of how alive national sovereignty still is.
"The UN adds an additional layer that complicates international diplomacy - it's an unnecessary institution," says Ernest Lefever, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "I don't know of any good things the UN has done that could not have been done if the UN did not exist."
"The UN has been and will continue to be of only marginal relevance to international peace and security," agrees Thomas Sheehy, a UN expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Many UN diplomats say they are puzzled by the nature and vehemence of the anti-UN mood in the US. Though aware of the American budget crunch, they say the US is obliged as a UN member to pay up.
The Clinton administration hopes that moves to streamline the UN will prod American lawmakers to free up UN funds and tone down their criticism.
"Reform must be 'Job 1,' " insists US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright. "The UN needs to deliver programs instead of bureaucrats."
The most vocal US criticism of the UN is coming from GOP leaders. They have filed bills ranging from a ban on foreign command of American troops to a demand for advance notice of any UN vote on new peacekeeping missions. Congress has already cut the US share of peacekeeping costs from 31.7 to 25 percent.
President Clinton says the US does not want the job of world policeman. "Unilateralism is not a viable option," he warned in a recent major foreign policy address. He said US values and interests are in danger unless the US continues its strong diplomatic leadership role and works with the UN.
Yet some US lawmakers say the US, while often recruiting allies and seeking a UN blessing, is most successful when seizing the reins itself. They point to the American efforts to restore Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power and the latest US diplomatic and military initiative in Bosnia.
UN supporters say the world body bungles when states want to appear to help in a crisis but lack the political will and focus to follow through. "The UN can't do anything unless it has clear direction from the major powers," says Walter Cutler, president of the Meridian International Center in Washington.
"There's a dangerous tendency for Americans to say, 'Let the UN do it,' " says Innis Claude, a Virginia-based UN expert, "when in fact we're talking about, 'Are we willing to do it?' "
Boutros-Ghali says UN member states must decide "how to manage the new post-cold-war period, what the new rules of the game are, and what they want from the UN. Do they want the UN to play the role of world policeman? To tackle only humanitarian problems? They have not decided."
A lively debate on that subject within the US could be constructive, agrees John Bolton, president of the National Policy Forum, a GOP think tank in Washington. "I don't think the UN is a cure-all, and I don't think it's something to be ignored," he explains.
Sure to keep a steady place on the UN's agenda is traditional peacekeeping. Lightly armed, blue-helmeted UN troops, operating with the consent of warring parties, have monitored cease-fires and supervised elections with success everywhere from Mozambique and El Salvador to Cambodia and Namibia.
American concern over the rapid spurt in costly peacekeeping missions in recent years already has led to one key reform. As a condition of its Security Council consent, the US insists on tough, early questioning of the goals and cost of any mission.
"We've been almost literally haggling over [the expense of] sending five more - not 500 - UN military observers to Tajikistan to help monitor agreements," says Karel Kovanda, the Czech Republic's ambassador to the UN. He says it is the Americans who are asking the hard questions. "That's the degree of sobriety we have reached," he says.
No more large UN operations are expected. The UN has learned the hard way that any peace enforcement job must be contracted out to interested nations or regional groups, such as NATO in Bosnia. "We can neither impose nor coerce peace," concedes UN Under Secretary General Kofi Annan.
The UN's future agenda is likely to include a larger role for economic and social issues. The recent eruption of so many conflicts within states and the cross-border nature of such problems as human rights and the environment are fueling a new conviction here that the UN must focus on human rather than state security. Increasingly, development and political stability are viewed as closely linked.
More UN effort in development?
Some US lawmakers may wince at the prospect of a UN more involved in economic development and the price tag. Yet Boutros-Ghali says that more than 70 percent of all UN activities, including UN agency work with children and refugees, have long focused on social and economic issues. Also, diplomats say the UN development role is likely to hone in on setting standards rather than raising funds.
Australian Ambassador to the UN Richard Butler notes that all UN conferences during the past five years, such as the conference on women, have focused on the family rather than on states' security. "The UN can design the programs and set the priorities," he says. "What we do best here is forge political consensus ... and I detect ... the will growing daily in this house to give the UN this agenda."
One item on the UN agenda with broad support on Capitol Hill is the effort to get a trimmer, more efficient UN. The UN has received so many studies on how to reshape itself that the General Assembly, which already had four groups at work on reform, tapped a special review team.
UN members largely agree that the 15-member Security Council must be expanded, but few agree on precisely how to do it. That and other substantial reforms require amending the UN charter and the support of two-thirds of the members. Like any political organization, the UN has many members with a vested interest in the status quo.
Weeding out fraud and duplication could prove the easier chore. One hope is to build on reform efforts already begun. At US urging, the General Assembly last year created the post of inspector general to crack down on corruption and waste. Congress now wants to extend the post to other UN agencies. Another key job in making reforms is that of under secretary general for administration and management. Joseph Connor, an American who currently holds the post, is getting high marks for his efforts to trim costs and job overlap.
Strong US leadership at the UN is widely viewed as crucial to the success of reform and to future UN usefulness. A continuing US drift away from the UN may not lead directly to the UN's demise, but the effect could be similar, UN supporters say. "International organizations never die," observes Innis Claude. "They just stay there and keep withering."