The UN's first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, called it ``the most impossible job on earth.'' The UN's current chief would hardly disagree. In fact, when Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar is congratulated on his recent reelection, he often suggests that perhaps condolences are more appropriate.
To him, his first five years as Secretary-General have seen largely thankless efforts to help resolve some of the most intractable conflicts of the day: the Iran-Iraq war, Afghanistan, Cyprus, Cambodia.
``If you don't have a very dramatic, spectacular success, people will say you have done nothing,'' Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar, a career diplomat from Peru, said in a Monitor interview. ``And if there is no political will, if the parties are not prepared to accept a formula, there's nothing I can do.''
He cites his successful arbitration in July of the dispute between France and New Zealand over the bombing of the Greenpeace ship ``Rainbow Warrior'' as a textbook example of how a conflict can be solved when the opponents want to find a solution.
Indeed, few UN diplomats or officials fault P'erez de Cu'ellar on his diplomatic skill. Some say he is too low key, though it is just that quality that made him acceptable to all for the secretary-generalship - a job he never sought in the first place. P'erez de Cu'ellar (and the UN's) failure to achieve a major diplomatic victory during his first term is seen by some UN observers as a sign of states' growing tendency to try to settle disputes through bilateral negotiation rather than at the UN - if they decide to settle them at all.
This decline of confidence in the UN lies at the root of its current financial crisis - the Secretary-General's greatest immediate challenge. He is making a highly public effort to cut back on expenses and bureaucracy. He recently eliminated several top positions, saying the UN had grown to look like an ``inverted pyramid.'' He shut the African-emergency office. And he has trimmed $60 million from the $830 million budget.
In the meantime, the United States has paid only $100 million of its $210 million dues - a withholding the Reagan administration says is necessary to spur reform in an organization it is committed to. P'erez de Cu'ellar sees things differently: ``It is a little sad to see that it is the same country which created the organization which appears [to be] forcing the United Nations to bankruptcy.'' He says the UN needs $70 million more to survive through 1987. Private discussions here of what caused ``UN bashing'' to become fashionable in the US often turn to Jeane Kirkpatrick. Some UN officials suggest that her tenure as US ambassador here, from 1981 to 1985, hurt morale at the UN and fostered anti-UN feeling in Congress. She often spoke of the UN with a certain distaste, calling it anti-Western.
P'erez de Cu'ellar says such criticism of Mrs. Kirkpatrick ``is a little unfair,'' but adds that ``Jeane Kirkpatrick was not very helpful. She has her own vision of the United Nations.... We disagree, but we are good friends. I think, thank God, we are not in agreement with all our friends, otherwise it would be so monotonous.
``I think we should blame much more the Heritage Foundation,'' he continues, referring to the conservative Washington think tank. ``There are some quarters in this country which have as a kind of goal to destroy the United Nations, because they consider that the United Nations is a nest of spies.'' Charles Lichenstein, Kirkpatrick's No. 2 when she was UN delegate, charged in a Heritage Foundation report last year that the UN was a ``sanctuary'' for Soviet-bloc spies.
Allegations that spies operate out of the UN have long been made. P'erez de Cu'ellar concedes that the Soviets probably do have spies at the UN, but adds that he has not been given evidence of anyone spying here. On the subject of charges that the UN is anti-US, the Secretary-General feels the press is partly to blame.
``American journalists are really masochists,'' he says. If a US-backed resolution on an issue loses in the UN General Assembly, ``it would be [on] the first page of all the papers.... But you won? There is not a single word. I cannot understand that. That is the way the senators and congressmen are misled. They are misled by the press.''
Looking ahead to his next five years at the helm, P'erez de Cu'ellar says he plans to ``keep all countries under constant pressure, whether it is political pressure or moral pressure'' to solve problems. Some areas of UN focus:
Afghanistan. P'erez de Cu'ellar has met privately here with both the Afghan and Pakistani foreign ministers. This week, P'erez de Cu'ellar will dispatch his envoy Diego Cordovez to the region for talks with the Afghans, the Iranians, and the Pakistanis. ``We have to keep the process alive,'' P'erez de Cu'ellar says.
Iran-Iraq. ``I am trying to concentrate my efforts on [this situation],'' he says, ``because it is the most dangerous international conflagration.'' As with Afghanistan, he is hopeful but not optimistic.
Africa. P'erez de Cu'ellar says that in visiting all the nations of the region, he has seen that they are ``very, very serious about putting their houses in order, to show the donor countries'' that Africa is a ``good investment.''
Africa is ``the most dangerous part of the world,'' he says, ``because of its terrible economic and social situation,'' which leaves it open to disorder and unrest.