Something is different about the session of the United Nations General Assembly that has just begun in New York. It takes place with an internal call for reform matching the intensity if not the rhetoric of the UN's harshest critics.
Almost any UN discussion this week at least touched on the Secretary-General's report that embodied the demand for reform. A doubter's question was what specific steps could come from it. What could satisfy, for example, the stated need for new ways to make Security Council resolutions stick?
The answer from one high official was swift. Citing a recent example - Israel's defiance of a Security Council resolution to withdraw from Lebanon - he suggested that UN members give such a violator perhaps a two-weeks warning. Then, if it did not comply, the members would cut off diplomatic relations, trade ties, and communications. Here, he felt, would be a decisive way for members to fulfill their reponsibility to support UN actions under the UN Charter.
This and other options would presumably be considered in the kind of special Security Council meeting on the UN's problems that was asked for by Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar. But in the meantime his initiative has already stimulated thought about how improvements might be made:
* Recall that the UN was started by nations that were in alliance in World War II. Their common interest was soon upset by the split between the two major ones - the United States and Soviet Union. The task now is to find new coincidences of interest, as in preventing nuclear war or preserving the peaceful uses of space, and to develop the political will to act on it.
* Acknowledge the difference between the UN roles of deliberative body and negotiating forum. Effective negotiation is undermined by the playing to the gallery - at home or among constituent groups - that can be encouraged by general debate. Perhaps smaller representative forums could be established for the nitty-gritty of negotiation. A climate could be established to attract negotiators combining both political stature in their countries and the kind of technical expertise needed for solving problems rather than pursuing confrontation. The Law of the Sea negotiations, though large and long, brought several figures of this kind to the fore.
* Understand the peacekeeping role as it has developed - away from the Charter's provision for UN military forces to enforce UN mandates.The UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, for example, was never given authority or means to prevent a full-scale invasion, nor can it be faulted for not doing so. It was there under the agreement of the parties in conflict. Such peacekeeping forces depend on trust among nations and the added support from UN members called for by Mr. Perez de Cuellar.
* Ensure that the bureaucratic workings of the UN are in carrying out the policies arrived at. Here the Secretary-General is committed to administrative reform on his own. His executive assistant has described the UN's most valuable resource as human and yet its career development program as ''a joke.'' Some countries are thought to send less than their best people to the world body. It is important to do as well as possible with the resources available.
The Secretary-General's call for reform should have another effect: a recognition of the enormous value of the United Nations even as it is.Behind the headlines of strife and failure, the UN continues to address the world's health, food, environment, and other needs through the 85 percent of its budget that is not devoted to political matters. Its efforts may often be hampered by its being nations' last resort, instead of first resort, when conflict looms. But its very accessibility has helped bring situations under control. Though discussions often seem painfully slow, it keeps whittling away at the Namibia-South Africa problem, for example, bringing it now within a couple of vexed points of agreement.
And consider next week's New York meeting between America's new Secretary of State Shultz and Russia's veteran Foreign Minister Gromyko. The UN session makes such a meeting easier, more of an accepted event, than if it were to be arranged in splendid isolation on its own.
The UN is not some separate entity imposing its will or falling on its face. It is really the sum of its members, a reflection of where they are now in the progress of humankind.
Movement toward reform could make the UN more effective in any future crises such as the Lebanon tragedy that hangs over this 37th session. Cynicism about reform must be replaced by awareness that the instincts for international self-preservation that brought the UN into being can be summoned again. Indeed, they ought to rise the more forcefully in the face of the present strains on peace and the nuclear annihilation that so many see as the ultimate price for failing to resolve them.