United Nations -- still a bargain

UNITED Nations Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar calls it the most serious financial crisis in UN history. More than half the 159 members of that body are in arrears on payments to it, while 18 flatly refuse to support specific projects with which they disagree. The United States is expected to slice its usual 25 percent dues contribution -- less than $1 per American -- by one-fifth this year. It has been 40 years since the UN was founded to keep the peace. It is sad that the world community in that time has failed to make of the organization something that it wants wholeheartedly to invest in.

Yet there are times when adversity can produce positive change -- even a recommitment to a shared and cherished purpose. It is to be hoped that UN members view this as that kind of opportunity to pursue fair-minded reform and set long-range UN goals.

The United Nations budget has tripled in the last 10 years. Its myriad subsidiary bodies and lavish conferences had begun to produce stories of waste which rivaled those from the Pentagon. In response to the current financial crunch, the Secretary-General has ordered -- and the members have approved -- some $60 million in cuts.

The funding problems have also prompted needed new discussion on budget and managerial reform. The US, particularly officials in the current administration, deems it unfair that those who pay the least have the dominant role, by dint of sheer numbers, in many of the program and budget decisions. ``The bottom line is balance,'' insists Alan Keyes, assistant secretary of state. An amendment sponsored by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, calling for a cut in the US share of the assessed budget to 20 percent unless the UN adopts weighted voting, reflects the Washington mood on this point.

An 18-member group headed by Norway's ambassador to the UN is looking at a variety of reform possibilities. It will recommend changes to the General Assembly in early September.

However the mechanics work out, it is unfortunate that some members feel the international organization must be held hostage financially to get needed change. Less than 6 percent of the UN budget goes for political activities. The largest portion goes for development and humanitarian aid. Reagan administration officials admit to having little concern about the UN's financial future. They say cuts made so far are minimal in terms of the streamlining that could be done.

In recent decades the US and a variety of other nations have been far more prone to spotlight the inadequacies of the UN than its potential. Washington has become so accustomed to describing itself as outvoted and out of influence in the world body that it seems scarcely to have noticed that the harsh third-world rhetoric of the '70s has begun to abate. ``The US begins with the assumption that it's all a losing game,'' says Edward Luck, president of the United Nations Association of the United States.

Rather than continue to snipe, the US would do well to step into a more constructive leadership role. Washington should sponsor resolutions it would like to see passed (it has sponsored very few) and suggest ways out of the current fiscal crisis.

It is true that as a keeper of the peace the United Nations has lost credibility in the eyes of most members in recent years. Few think it is doing a superb or even adequate job. But it is the only such global forum the world has, and a more positive view of its potential, with the practical moves to back that up, could go a long way toward increasing its effectiveness.

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