WHEN he ran New York, Mayor Ed Koch used to ask bystanders: "How'm I doin'?" No one expects some 140 world leaders - mayors of the global village - to leap out of limousines and ask such a question during the United Nations' 50th anniversary week in New York. But that's the best, simplest way to review the world organization's own successes and failures.
How's it doin'? (Which really means: How much are its big power members asking it to do and letting it do? And how well or poorly does it execute those tasks?)
Here's a report card:
The UN's bedrock job is to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." Fifty years after the Big One, World War III has been prevented. That was mostly due to the US-Soviet nuclear balance. Both powers used the UN as face-saver and referee to prevent lesser confrontations from getting out of hand - as in ending the Cuban missile crisis and Mideast wars. Like fingerprints, no two peacekeeping actions have been the same. UN (largely US) action in Korea warned Stalin and Mao against bold expansionism. In places like Cyprus, peacekeeping has frozen conflict but not yet solved it. Bosnia showed you can't expect lightly armed referees to stop a vicious war in progress. More than 100 conflicts have occurred during the past half century. The big powers, acting through the UN Security Council (sometimes the General Assembly) have halted, frozen, or resolved only the small percentage all could agree to tackle. That didn't include Vietnam. The Iran-Iraq and Afghan wars raged far too long.
Finishing School: A-
Today's attaches and ambassadors become tomorrow's foreign ministers, and sometimes prime ministers. Only at the UN do so many have a chance to get to know each other - and to inform themselves on world issues. Furthermore, each fall top leaders meet quietly, two at a time, to discuss priority issues. Summits, minus hoopla.
Making the world work: A, C-
Little-noticed UN stepchild bodies coordinate weather reporting, civil aviation, broadcast frequencies, sanitation and health programs. Yes, they are bureaucracies. But the work is professionally done (A). On the other hand, the well-intentioned agencies involved in trade and development aid have floundered (C-). As the world shifts from government aid programs to private-sector investment and development-bank loans, UN development and trade agencies may face redesign, merger, or phasing out.
Humanitarian missions: A
Over the decades officials of UNICEF and other humanitarian agencies have dispensed aid effectively and cooperated with dedicated private relief agencies.
Idea Spreader: B- and C-
Lots of globally relevant (and some irrelevant) ideas are hatched (B-). Doing something about them is often slow, muddled (C-). At 185 members, the UN's general membership body, the General Assembly, approaches Tower-of-Babel cacophony. UN single-focus conferences on subjects needing global attention (environment, shelter, women's rights, for example) often fail to develop much follow-through.
So much for the past 50 years. Now let's turn to upcoming questions:
Reform and Financial Crisis
It's no surprise that 50th anniversary talk centers on reform. Expanded Security Council membership, dues, the secretary-general's power, bureaucracy, peacekeeping limits, and headquarters location have long been subjects of controversy. We expect to analyze each at greater length in coming weeks. Here, just a brief tour:
With the cold war over, it makes sense to add a few big nations representing other continents and issues (population, development, environment) as permanent or regularly rotating members of the war-preventing Security Council. The US has proposed Germany and Japan. Others suggest India and Brazil. Quite logical. But no more veto powers, please. It will be hard enough to win agreement on any such candidates without giving them a power their neighbors fear.
The secretary-general (SG) has accrued power in unforeseen ways. The founders didn't intend a world prime minister. Nor should there be one. But what SG U Thant called a "glorified clerk" isn't the answer, either. Best system: frequent quiet sessions between the SG and the big powers of the Security Council on threats to peace and how to handle them. Also, more coordination between the SG and heads of regional bodies like NATO, OAS, etc.
Dues: Let's be blunt. It's inexcusable that the US, the power that gets its way most often, is the UN's biggest deadbeat dad. As Britain's ambassador noted wryly: That's representation without taxation. Further organizational reform of the UN is needed. The US share of dues should be lowered to reflect a changed global economic balance. But pay up.
Headquarters location: Avoid moving costs. Stay in New York. You've lived there - protests, traffic-ticket squabbles and all - for half a century. It's squarely up to the members to give you a more realistic, more efficient next 50 years.