UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar looks out on the world from his 38th-floor aerie and sees stalemate on all horizons. He believes only a thaw between Washington and Moscow can help mediators break at least some of the stalemates.
In a recent wide-ranging interview he analyzed impasses involving Israel-Arabs, Iran-Iraq, Cyprus, Afghanistan, Vietnam-Kampuchea, Namibia-Angola, Central America, medium- and long-range nuclear missiles, and the usefulness of the United Nations itself.
As the United Nations plans for its 38th annual assembly of nations next month, Mr. Perez de Cuellar and his aides have a stockpile of ideas on how to make progress on many of these problems. But most of the ideas involve, as a prerequisite, improvement in relations between the two superpowers.
So Mr. Perez de Cuellar, like many other world leaders, is a fan of proposals for a prompt, well-prepared summit between Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov. He has discussed world problems with each of them and feels there is no reason that the two would not get on well personally and make progress on arms control and a general thawing of relations.
Improved US-Soviet relations would make it easier to tackle the regional impasses, he indicates. (One of his senior aides refers to this phenomenon as the ''elephant equation,'' referring to an old African saying, ''When the elephants stop fighting, you can hear the other animals.'') When the superpowers are at loggerheads, smaller nations can stave off settlements they don't like, despite the desires of the general community of nations.
The Secretary-General is blunt as he chats from the opposite end of the sofa in his walnut-paneled office about the disuse into which the UN has fallen. Last September, in his annual report on the state of the world, the former Peruvian diplomat spoke starkly about the decline of the world organization's influence. His discussion of stalemates during our interview showed how little progress he felt had been made as a result of his bluntness last year.
Perez de Cuellar is a self-declared one-termer. He is determined to continue his attempts to break out of the UN doldrums during his remaining 31/2 years in office. He hopes to press the Security Council to take more steps to prevent crises before they break. He intends to pursue his own efforts - particularly on Namibia, Cyprus, and Afghanistan.
But he does not want to get into the bargaining over a second term that made his predecessor's final months so frantic. So he makes it clear that he will happily return to Lima after one term to listen to Bach and Schubert and read the French and Latin American literature he favors, and perhaps do further writing on international law.
The Secretary-General is a realist about the amount of leverage he has.
Stalin's sardonic question, ''The Pope! How many troops has he got?'' has always applied doubly to UN secretaries-general. They have neither troops nor a true revenue base of their own. (UN continuing operations are funded by member dues; initiatives such as peacekeeping must pass the veto hurdle in the UN Security Council.)
The public often mistakenly sees the UN as a political power that fails to live up to expectations. But in reality the reason for the failure is usually to be found in the reluctance of the great powers to give the world body or its chief elected official any real power, any real discretionary funding, or troops on loan for anything but the most circumscribed purposes (at least since the 1960 Congo operation).
The lesser powers often have a field day expressing their ideas in speeches that would gladden the firebrand orators of London's Hyde Park. But contrary to the public view, third-world diplomats (particularly the Africans) have become realistic and responsible in behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Beyond those handicaps, the UN suffers from two other flaws:
1. It has no built-in method for renewing itself or changing the guard. It is in many ways a very democratic institution beset with the same kind of stagnation that stultifies nondemocratic countries. Even the elections that bring it new leadership at the top are carefully controlled by the great-power veto. Talented secretaries-general are given little to work with and expected to produce a lot when a crisis arrives.
2. UN Secretariat staffing is hampered by geographic quotas under which member nations expect to get their share of civil service posts but are often understandably reluctant to send their best government servants to work in New York or Geneva rather than back home in Ouagadougou.
Despite these hazards, the organization has produced some remarkable executives in key posts - many of them longtime career civil servants. But most of them have felt a growing sense of frustration as the assembly of nations descended by gradual stages from its postwar political usefulness to its present fairly impotent state.
The UN's practical, nonpolitical efforts - on aviation, weather, trade, agricultural research, education, monument-preservation, etc. - help to make the planet work; but its efforts at war prevention and war-ending are stymied.
On most problems Perez de Cuellar discussed, talks have long been under way, were once thought to be making progress, but now appear frustrated.
In some of the conflicts he listed, the UN plays a direct but rather static role (Cyprus, Lebanon, Golan Heights, Namibia). In others the conflict exists in the backyard of one of the superpowers (Central America, Afghanistan). In those cases, outside ''fixers'' such as the UN, the Muslim neighbors of Afghanistan, or the Contadora neighbors of Nicaragua are tolerated only if they make allowance for the dominant interest of Moscow or Washington.
In Cyprus and the Mideast, the UN finds itself playing the role of the boy with his finger in the dike. It may be saving NATO from getting swamped in a collision between NATO members Turkey and Greece, for instance. Or it may be preventing a collision over the Golan Heights from drawing Washington and Moscow into a showdown between clients Israel and Syria. But the UN chief is not encouraged to go beyond this static role and initiate bold new peacekeeping efforts.
Even Namibia (South-West Africa), a UN responsibility inherited from the League of Nations, now has become so intertwined with the subject of Cuban troops in Angola that real bargaining has shifted largely out of UN hands and into US, Angolan, and South African hands. South African military commanders seem able to thwart American State Department designs for parallel withdrawals of Cubans from Angola and South Africans from Namibia. The UN Secretary-General has little leverage to do what US negotiator Chester Crocker already seems unable to accomplish.
Perez de Cuellar was himself a negotiator on the Afghan war before becoming secretary-general. And he still follows the almost forgotten peace bargaining closely. He reports that negotiation is ''proceeding very slowly.'' But the Soviets continue to show interest in keeping talks afloat. Elements of the bargaining include Soviettroop withdrawal and guarantees of nonintervention. Realistically, though, any such plan will go nowhere as long as there is (1) no timetable for withdrawal and (2) no agreement on how to guarantee nonintervention in the future. As a Peruvian, Perez de Cuellar is personally interested in the Central American conflict. But he sees only a limited UN role in any solution. He points out that Honduras, Costa Rica, and Guatemala would prefer not to have the UN Security Council involved because Nicaragua now sits on the Council. He feels that the chances of successful mediation by the Contadora group of neighbors (Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela) are ''very, very slight.'' He is prepared to become officially involved if the parties ask him to do so.
''I don't think my role is to disguise the truth,'' he states dispassionately. ''From a political point of view we have made no progress. Not because we are not trying hard. . . . Everything must now be considered in the context of East-West confrontation . . . (and) nothing can be built on an atmosphere of distrust there.''