International tensions throw sand into the gears of UN machinery

"while detente is eroding rapidly and the world is moving back to the cold war, the United Nations has been placed on a holding pattern," says a leading Western diplomat.

Quiet. Unexciting. Uneventful, but not uninteresting. This is how many delegates describe the 35th UN General Assembly which was expected to end Dec. 17.

Essentially, it has been stalled by prevailing uncertainties and tensions in the world at large. As one diplomat put it, "We were waitting for the outcome of the American elections; the outcome of the Iraq-Iran conflict; and the fate of Poland [to be resolved]."

Beyond these events, most delegations felt they were caught in the middle of a major shift in balance between the two superpowers, which, to a large extent, destabilizes the global political environment and leaves them with little room for maneuvering.

After a long period of relative stability, the United States and the Soviet Union have been pulled further and the Soviet Union have been pulled further apart because of Afghanistan, Poland, and uncertainty over SALT II.

"What we are watching are the two elephants getting up and, while not exactly knowing where they are going, preparing to trample about. The dust and the noise resulting from their motions send the lesser animals running for cover," says one analyst here.

Other ambassadors and several former prime ministers passing through New York have used different words, but basically echoed this viewpoint.

These were the among the themes that surfaced during the past session:

* The Soviet Union was confronted with a major crisis within the bounds of its own empire, and its direct or indirect repression of Polish aspirations may have profound and lasting effects on its relations with the West with the nonaligned world, and with communist parties outside its sphere of influence.

* China as a major power continued to complicate and destabilize the bilateral US-Soviet relationship.

* The US was unhappy not only with the political evolution in Central America that has brought armed revolution to its doorstep, but also with the new political independence of its allies, such as West Germany and France, based on their growing economic power.

* The continuing Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and Vietnamese occupation of cambodia on the one hand, and the Iraq-Iran war on the other, fragmented the traditional Arab, Islamic, and nonaligned coalitions and had a dampening effect on their diplomatic strategies. Never before have the Arabs been so sharply divided as now, with some backing Iran, others Iraq. This made it impossible for the Palestinians to break new diplomatic ground at this General Assembly.

* It seemed futile to many to pass resolutions on disarmament when the two superpowers seem ready to engage in a new and uncontrolled strategic arms race.

"This is not to say that the bird world does not understand what is happening. In fact, it has not hesitated to express its feelings about what it finds most inadmisible: the overwhelming majorities that voted against the Soviet Union on Afghanistan and Cambodia prove this," according to one senior foreign observer.

On the other hand, American unwillingness to abandon its rigid stance regarding the establishment of a New World Economic Order and to commit itself to allow the third world to have a greater say in monetary and trade matters did not go unnoticed.

The intensive and almost heroic efforts of Baron Rudi Von Wechmar, the president of the General Assembly, to bring about a compromise between the developing nations -- the Group of 77 (now numbering 120 nations) -- and the US regarding the mandate and competence of the Conference on Global Economic Negotiations failed in the end.

Some progress was made regarding the independence of Namibia.

An all-parties conference under UN auspices scheduled for Jan. 7 will attempt to set a time frame for the implementation of the UN plan for the independence of Namibia.

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