PRESIDENT REAGAN has some good news for the United Nations, which opens its 43rd General Assembly next week: The check is in the mail. The White House announced Wednesday that the United States would pay $44 million in outstanding dues for this fiscal year, plus another $144 million that Congress will need to appropriate for fiscal 1989, which begins Oct. 1.
In addition, he has asked the State Department to come up with a repayment plan covering another $520 million the US owes the UN and its various specialty organizations. He will also ask Congress to back full payment of $600 million in dues for fiscal 1990, which begins Oct. 1 of 1989.
The US withheld the money while it pressed for budgeting and organizational reforms.
We applaud the administration's decision to free up the money. The UN faces a full agenda. It must sustain mediation or peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan, the Gulf, Cyprus, southern Africa, and the Western Sahara. Global environmental issues are becoming more pressing.
Mr. Reagan's turnabout, however, does not erase the disquieting precedent set by the administration and Congress in withholding funds to get their way with the UN.
Historically, nations such as the Soviet Union and France have held back on payments to peacekeeping forces because they disputed the legality of the specific operation. There was no quid pro quo.
The US, however, refused to honor its legal obligations so as to tinker with the organizational structure. Reforms were in order; some were carried out during the Carter years. The US's closed checkbook sped the process. But what if, at some later date, another major power wants to change the way the UN is run more to its liking?
Why the President's change of heart?
The President does not want to end his tenure as the national leader who sank the UN into bankruptcy. Reagan has worked hard his final two years to position himself as a peacemaker.
The UN is on the ascendant, its mediating or peacekeeping efforts under way in many world trouble spots. Several of those efforts have borne fruit within the last nine months; others hold bright promise. With the UN's stock rising, the US - the organization's principal free-world supporter - would appear increasingly out of touch unless it chose to reinvest in the organization.
Faced with this improving UN record, President Reagan would look hypocritical if his final speech to the General Assembly Sept. 26 praised the organization while the US refused to pay up.
The Soviet Union's willingness to settle its debts has also helped, as has its apparent willingness to rely more on the UN to help solve disputes. This has helped soften the UN's often polarized politics.
Reagan's decision to write the checks will help George Bush's bid for the presidency. Michael Dukakis has already said that as president he would make greater use of multinational organizations (read UN) to reduce global tensions. Mr. Bush has been less clear on his views about the UN. But as a former UN ambassador, he must surely realize the potential of the organization.
Face-saving is a UN specialty: It offers a forum for nations to solve disputes that they couldn't alone. It is now enabling the President to reverse a bad policy.