After years of what some United Nations officials refer to with acerbity as ``Washington's policy of benign neglect,'' the United States has made its presence felt at the UN. In quick succession over the last two months, the Reagan administration indicated it will reduce substantially its share of the UN budget and ordered the Soviet Union to trim its 275-person UN mission by nearly 40 percent. Both moves, according to UN officials, are violations of Washington's treaty obligations and run contrary to international law.
US officials deny the charge, saying that the budget cuts are dictated by Congress and that the Soviet mission reduction is needed for national security concerns.
It is the issue of funding that has most unsettled US friends and foes alike, and has precipitated the United Nations's greatest financial crisis in its 40 year history.
Whether the US can unilaterally reduce its annual UN contribution -- which is assessed on the basis of each member-country's gross national product -- could finally be decided by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. And, although the court's decisions are not binding, an adverse ruling could embarrass Washington, especially among its West European allies.
The allies were taken aback by Washington's unexpected announcement that it would cut its contribution to the UN by $70 million this year. The cut represents one-third of the US's $210 million annual assessment -- which makes up about 25 percent of the total UN budget. West European officials have informed US Secretary of State George Shultz that they consider Washington in clear violation of its treaty obligations.
The 12 members of the European Community -- which now pay 30 percent of the UN's budget -- have also said they will not increase their shares to absorb the shortfall caused by the cut in the US contribution.
They are less united on Washington's right to demand a reduction in the size of the Soviet UN mission from 275 to 170 by April 1988. The Soviet presence is more than double that of the US and China -- the second and third largest missions -- and Washington charges that many of the Soviet officials are involved in espionage.
``I bristle when I hear the State Department's argument,'' one West European ambassador says, ``that the United Nations must not only become more fiscally responsible, but also take US interests into account if the United States is expected to continue its present payments. There's much that can be corrected at the UN, but withholding money as pressure is not the answer. If all member-states approached the organization this way, the UN could simply collapse.''
The problem is compounded by the fact that there was little time to prepare for the US cuts. Instead of paying the $70 million installment due in January (the US contributes in three installments per year), Washington produced only $36 million, blaming the shortfall on the Gramm-Rudman budget-cutting act.
Further difficulty is expected this fall when a Senate amendment, known as the Kassebaum law, could come into force, that would cut 20 percent from the US contribution if the UN's largest contributors are not given more responsibility over financial matters by Oct. 1.
Washington is, in fact, doing what Moscow has been doing for years -- withholding contributions when it disagrees with the way in which UN funds are being spent. The Soviets, whose share of the UN budget -- along with the Ukraine and Byelorussia -- is $80 million a year, are now $315 million in arrears.
Moscow's objections are primarily over the presence of UN peacekeeping forces in the Middle East. The US complaint is more specific: ``Taxation without representation,'' according to the Secretary of State Shultz.
What bothers Washington officials most is that the US, while paying a quarter of the budget, has far less weight in determining how the UN spends money than do those nations from the developing world who, combined, pay only 9 to 10 percent of the budget but have a two-thirds majority in budget votes.
In April the UN will hold an emergency session to try dealing with the financial crisis.
UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cuellar, who visited President Reagan on March 21, has already announced cuts in UN travel, overtime, and consultants' fees, and asked various departments what they would do if their budgets were cut by 10 percent. The two moves could save $30 million this year.
Mr. P'erez de Cuellar had hoped, however, to persuade Reagan to restore the US funds which had been cut. And, according to those familiar with the discussions, a compromise could yet emerge, whereby the Kassebaum amendment could be deferred for a year if the UN agrees to give Washington -- and other major contributors -- a greater weight in budget votes.
But, while compromise is possible on the budget issue, there is little indication that it will be forthcoming on the Soviet staff reduction issue.
After scores of legal opinions, which were divided over the legality of the US move, P'erez de Cuellar advised the US to negotiate with the Soviet Union before enforcing the cuts.
``There is not going to be any negotiation on the substance of this decision,'' US spokesman Richard Hottelet said. ``It is US policy and it is legal.''
More anguish was apparent among UN bureaucrats over what comes next. The Secretary-General could refer the matter to a three-member UN tribunal, in accordance with a 1947 accord which determines the conditions under which the UN has its headquarters in New York.
But there is a growing feeling that the UN may not want to push the matter too far, to avoid appearing confrontational with Washington while there might still be a negotiated solution.
And even some Soviet allies reluctantly concede that if Moscow keeps the controversy brewing too long, someone (and that someone is clearly Washington) might begin questioning the wisdom of Moscow being permitted to cast three General Assembly votes -- a unique privilege dating back to 1945, when the Soviet Union's Ukrainian and Byelorussian republics were given separate status as UN members in their own right.
With 25 percent of the UN's budget at stake, it seems likely that 105 Soviet officials may find themselves back in Moscow, like it or not.