The United Nations is on a roll. Its prestige is rising with each new peacemaking effort - Afghanistan, Iran-Iraq, Angola-Namibia, Western Sahara and others.
President Reagan acknowledged those achievements Monday before the UN General Assembly and Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar.
``Today, the United Nations has the opportunity to live and breathe as never before. Already you, Mr. Secretary-General, through your persistence, patience, and unyielding will, have shown ... how valuable the United Nations can be. We salute you for those accomplishments.''
Mr. Reagan's speech symbolized Washington's return to the UN fold after years of acrimonious relations. The President's warm praise of the international body follows closely on his decision to pay overdue UN dues and promise a full US payment next year.
Reagan no doubt wanted to give his last address to the international body a positive tone, and highlight progress in US-Soviet relations during his term. But his remarks reflect a reassessment of the UN's performance and the possibilities for international cooperation in an era of improved US-Soviet ties.
Until recent months, the Reagan administration, strongly supported by conservatives in Congress, lashed out at the UN's bureaucratic inefficiency and biases toward decisionmaking by small third-world nations, which tend to take positions opposed to Washington's on most international issues.
The United States eventually decided to withhold 60 percent of its dues until the UN reformed its practices. This had a crippling impact on the organization, because the US contributes 25 percent of the UN budget.
Also implicit in the US disregard for the UN was an assumption that bilateral or ad hoc approaches to sticky international issues would be more effective. Efforts to get the UN to act were frustratingly slow and ineffective. In the General Assembly, the US was usually outvoted by third-world nations, while in the Security Council, US efforts regularly ran into opposition from the Soviet Union, which, like the US, has a veto there.
Today, senior US officials say, the UN is showing a willingness to change its bureaucratic ways. The UN has cut its staff almost 15 percent and is committed to a new consensus approach to budgetmaking, which gives the US and other big donors a budget veto.
``It's time to shift tactics,'' says one ranking US official. ``We were right to use our dues as a lever last year. We've moved from vague promises of reform to concrete action. We are still committed to more reform, but now we can use a carrot for a while.''
Simultaneously, the UN is demonstrating its peacemaking value. The Reagan administration has come to appreciate how useful such a multilateral forum can be when bilateral actions or talks aren't enough.
In Afghanistan, the UN-sponsored talks provided the means for the Soviets to legitimize their pullout and to formalize the rules for that withdrawal. In the Gulf war, UN pressure also reinforced unilateral US actions to end the war. The Security Council set up a framework for the peace talks, added international pressure for a cease-fire, and provided a face-saving forum for both sides to sit down together.
Frankly, US officals add, Moscow's new attitude toward the UN also pushed them along.
``The Soviets are playing a more active role,'' says a key US policymaker. ``They are paying their dues. They are using the UN more constructively and are generally more serious about what they say and do there. This means we, too, have to be more serious, and it opens up new possibilities for using the UN well.''
More broadly, the new constructive tone in US-Soviet relations parallels and reinforces the growing usefulness of the UN. President Reagan devoted a large part of his speech to the palpable progress in superpower relations. He argued that this evolution has opened the door for solutions to a number of pressing international problems.
The new love affair with the UN doesn't mean the US thinks it will work for everything, officials stress. It can still be painfully difficult to build consensus for action. That was certainly true when the US was trying to win a UN arms embargo on Iran. China and the Soviet Union refused to go along.
But to the degree that the big powers are reining in their rivalries and can find consensus on resolving international conflicts, US officials say, the UN may well be a growth industry.
The area where US diplomats would like to see more UN action at present is control of chemical weapons. Washington is worried that Iraq's apparent use of chemical weapons against Iran and then against Kurdish rebels has severely undermined the international barriers to using these horrific weapons.
On Monday, Reagan called for an international conference to look for ways to reverse the erosion in the international treaty against the use of chemical weapons. Several weeks ago, the US also asked the UN to investigate Iraq's alleged use of chemical weapons against its Kurdish minority.
In this case, US officials say, they are not realistically expecting the UN to crack down on Iraq. But they think the UN can add significantly to pressure on Iraq and others not to use chemical weapons and to build momentum for progress on stalled UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva aimed at banning those weapons.