Few believe that any action by the United Nations per se will twist the Soviet arm in Afghanistan. But let us not underestimate the political and moral impact on the Russians of what is happening in the UN these days. The Security Council went into action at the urging of 51 nations. Its resolution calling for the speedy withdrawal of all "foreign" troops from Afghanistan was supported by 13 of the 15 members. Despite the predicted veto by the Soviet Union and the negative vote by its ally, East Germany, the resolution will be brought up in the General Assembly and will most likely be adopted by the required two- thirds majority. Moscow's prestige is thus very much on the line.
Soviet delegate Oleg Troyanovsky's characterization of the council resolution as "flagrant intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state" almost provides comic relief. In fact Soviet propaganda since the brazen intervention in Kabul is so riddled with inconsistencies and absurdities it must discomfit even the hardened men in the Kremlin who turn it out. Thus, the executed former President Amin of Afghanistan is dubbed a "CIA agent" yet it was the Amin regime which was supported for many months by Moscow and allegedly called in the Soviet troops. Troops which then, of course, proceeded to overthrow Amin.
Such transparent illogic dupes no one. At the UN the Russians now are bucking a shift of the nonaligned nations against them which may be one of the most significant developments there in recent years. The change comes as a result of Soviet support for Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia as well as the aggression in Afghanistan. Significantly, it is attended by a parallel third-world shift away from automatic alignment against the United States at the UN and a growing appreciation of American efforts on behalf of third-world nations -- a favorable development, it might be added, for which former envoy Andrew Young and his successor Donald McHenry deserve great credit. One practical outcome of these trends is the defeat of Cuba's candidacy for a nonpermanent seat on the Security Council; Mexico has won instead.
All of this may strike some as inconsequential. But, together with economic and other countermeasures taken by the US and its allies, the UN action can have decided impact. The Soviets do not relish being cast in the role of an international outlaw and suffering such political ambarrassment. They are extremely conscious of "image" and, although it may not always seem so, have worked hard at trying to gain respect. While the UN move may not reverse their course in Afghanistan, therefore, it is one factor which may make them think they have grossly miscalculated.
In light of the good will the US has been winning at the United Nations, it is especially important that Washington do nothing to upset the applecart. The issue of Iran has been temporarily set aside at the UN because of the Afghanistan crisis. When it is taken up again, the US would be wise to approach the matter of economic sanctions with utmost discretion and caution. There is little enthusiasm for such sanctions and indeed US Secretary General Kurt Waldheim warns, after his visit to Tehran, they would not likely do much good. It would be unfortunate if the US dissipated the political capital it has won at the UN by a premature drive for unpopular measures. Rather, it might better exploit the Afghan situation to try to break the stalemate on Iran -- by patiently waiting to see if the growing anti-Soviet mood makes an impression in Iran, alters Ayatollah Khomeini's calculations, and opens the way to an accommodation with the US over the hostages.
The UN has seemed an ineffective backwater of diplomacy in recent years. It may just turn out to be an effective tool in the current grave crises.