Rejuvenating the UN

Like all clichs, reinventing (the corporation, government, etc.) has pretty well worn out its welcome. Too bad. For that's exactly the word Americans ought to be thinking about as United Nations Day pops up on their calendars today.

A generation ago, former presidential candidate and UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson said pretty much that: "If the UN didn't exist, we would have to invent it." No doubt we would. It might get more attention from Americans by being reinvented.

But it does exist. And too many Americans now treat it with benign neglect. For decades the world body received overwhelming approval in US polls. It was much involved in the solution of big crises. It was used to roll back aggression in Korea, the Congo, the Mideast, or Kashmir. Or to send referees, observers, or patrol forces to keep the peace in a score of areas. Or to provide an escape hatch for the superpowers, when they needed convenient sky-blue decals to couch their deeds as done for the good of all mankind.

We've often observed that the practical agencies of the UN - involved in keeping tabs on global weather, aviation, children's welfare, health, refugees, etc. - go largely unnoticed, doing a relatively efficient job. The General Assembly has its faults. But at least it serves as a useful finishing school and crossroads for present and future foreign ministers, prime ministers, and presidents. UN agencies dedicated to development in the poorer nations find their tasks increasingly done by private investment flows, the IMF, World Bank, and regional banks.

Peacekeeping and conflict-prevention cannot all be done by Washington. In that respect the US needs to do more than continually badger the UN Secretariat about reform. It ought to be working with the other permanent members of the Security Council and Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the details of the reinventing (reform). And, of course, Congress ought to pay the US's back dues.

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