DESPITE the best hopes of its founders, the United Nations has not yet managed in its four decades to stamp out ``the scourge of war.'' But to its credit, it keeps trying. There has been progress. It ranges, just within the past year, from the successful spring session on Africa's food crisis to last winter's resolution condemning all acts of terrorism as ``criminal,'' drawing for the first time the support of all Warsaw Pact nations.
The 41st session of the UN General Assembly, which began this week, will take up a mix of familiar topics ranging from disarmament to Afghanistan peace talks. South Africa's apartheid policies, censured by the world body as far back as 1960, are likely to be the focus of a new effort by the Assembly to get Security Council endorsement of a tougher, more comprehensive economic sanctions package. And debate has begun on the prospects for Namibia's independence under UN auspices.
At France's request, the Security Council has been looking anew at the status of the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, the target of several recent attacks by fundamentalist Shiite Muslims. Absence of an active negotiating process in the Middle East and continued Israeli occupation of Arab territory are also sure to come up.
But the No. 1 topic on the Assembly agenda this year is actually a housekeeping item that concerns both finances and management. Angered in part by anti-American rhetoric and votes from third-world countries, both the White House and Congress have grown increasingly critical in recent years of the size, efficiency, and appropriateness of many UN activities. In some instances they are holding United States dollars hostage to such reforms, threatening to cut more than half of Washington's annual October dues of $200 million-plus. The Kassebaum amendment, for instance, would cut the US contribution by 20 percent a year unless the US gained a larger voice in how the money was spent.
Other countries in years past have held back payments either because they disapproved of certain programs or ran into financial problems. As of two weeks ago 60 countries, including several Eastern European nations and South Africa, were in arrears by $83 million on payments owed last year. But the suddenness and size of the US threats -- Washington traditionally pays one-fourth of the UN's $800 million-plus budget -- have UN leaders particularly worried.
The Reagan administration, realizing its threats may have gone too far, has retreated from much of its earlier criticism and is urging Congress to live up to US treaty commitments. ``We don't have an attitude of `stop the world, we want to get off' -- that would be self-defeating,'' insists the deputy permanent US representative to the UN, Herbert S. Okun. Still, changing the tide on an issue on which Democrats are unlikely to take the lead may well require a personal lobbying effort by President Reagan. He could easily send a clear signal to Capitol Hill when he addresses the Assembly Monday.
Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, who has vowed not to begin another five-year term unless the UN is financially strong, persuaded the Assembly to approve $60 million worth of cuts earlier this year. The committee of 18, led by Norway's UN ambassador, has recommended major reforms, including a 15 percent slice in UN personnel over the next three years and major cuts in UN documents, conferences, and travel.
As the Assembly makes its show of good faith, the US should turn away from petulance to make a fitting gesture of full support for the organization it helped to found. It should stand ready to both pay and play by the rules it once wrote.