A new role for the UN in the era of `multipolarity'

MAY 31: All eyes will be focused on Moscow, where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev will be midway through their fourth summit. In New York that day, the United Nations General Assembly will convene a special session devoted to disarmament. But hardly anyone will notice. The priorities are understandable. The bilateral effort to prevent nuclear Armageddon is of transcendent importance. But it is only half the story, and we neglect our own security, as well as that of other nations, if we fail to pay equal attention to the global arms race.

Nuclear proliferation, chemical weapons, the trade in advanced conventional arms, terrorism, regional conflict: The daily violence of contemporary life cannot be controlled by two national leaders, no matter how powerful or farsighted, negotiating over a table in Moscow or Washington. These are multilateral issues, whose complexities demand the cooperation of a variety of countries, large and small. Soviet-American cooperation is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Unconsciously, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev are negotiating the end of the bilateral era. They are seeking to halve their enormous arsenals of unusable strategic nuclear weapons - once the symbol of ``superpower'' status - at a time when their relative positions in the world in terms of usable political, economic, and military power are on the decline. Should they succeed, all the major remaining arms control issues, including further nuclear reductions, will be essentially multilateral.

The world has entered an age of multipolarity, of many autonomous power centers, not all content with the regional or global status quo. As we enter the 1990s, our notions of security and arms control had better reflect this reality. Neither truculent unilateralism nor dreams of a bilateral condominium can address adequately the threats to regional and global stability: the export of Chinese missiles to Iran and Saudi Arabia; Iraq's use of chemical weapons; attacks on Gulf shipping; and the acquisition of nuclear and advanced conventional arms by many developing countries.

Neither the United Nations community nor United States policymakers have fully appreciated the new realities. But the UN special session might be a good place to start to get the message out.

After years of blaming the Soviet-American nuclear competition for most of the world's ills, most developing countries have come to recognize the need to address conventional arms and regional issues. And the so-called nonaligned bloc is now divided on security issues and losing its anti-American bias, as many countries have come to recognize that their neighbors may pose more of a security threat than do the ``once super'' powers.

Despite these encouraging trends, US policymakers continue to be suspicious of global deliberations. Ironically, the initially anti-Soviet Reagan administration has come to prefer bilateral talks with its chief adversary to dealing with the broader international community. The contrast is striking. The US has stubbornly resisted efforts by the 40-nation Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to seek multilateral understandings on nuclear testing and outer space, while acceding to Soviet demands for bilateral negotiations on the same topics. In the UN General Assembly, the US repeatedly casts the lone negative vote against compromise resolutions supported by its closest allies.

Last year, the US stood alone in boycotting the UN conference on disarmament, development, and security, which should have been an ideal forum in which to compare American deeds favorably with Soviet words.

The US will attend the special session next week, but has sought to restrict its agenda and preparatory sessions. It is unclear why the administration acts as if it fears this purely deliberative forum. What is clear is that a golden opportunity to make a strong case for multilateral efforts to advance common security interests is about to be lost in a spasm of naysaying.

In contrast, the Soviet Union has voiced uncharacteristic support for UN peacekeeping, peacemaking, and disarmament efforts. At the UN, Washington should test the sincerity of Gorbachev's new global posture. Has the Kremlin, not known as a hotbed of idealism, made a hard-nosed calculation that declining Soviet global power calls for the building of international coalitions on individual issues when there is sufficient common interest? Even as the Reagan administration has learned to do business with Moscow, the Kremlin has apparently adopted a two-track bilateral and global strategy.

Now that President Reagan has revived the Soviet-American relationship, he can leave a second strategic legacy to his successor: the enunciation of a global security strategy. And for that purpose, what better pulpit than the UN special session?

Edward C. Luck is president of the United Nations Association of the USA, a national membership and research organization devoted to strengthening the UN and US participation in it.

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