PRESIDENT George Bush's first official dinner guest in the White House was United Nations Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar. With this welcome gesture, President Bush, the great fence mender, has expressed a degree of interest in the world body that the Great Communicator never managed until his final weeks in office. But the symbolism is still a lot stronger than the substance. The President and Secretary-General should have a lot in common. Not only did they serve together at the UN in the early 1970s, but their agendas - regional conflict, chemical weapons, drugs, AIDS, the environment, human rights, terrorism, and debt - converge in ways that could be mutually advantageous. They need each other, since neither has all the answers. Working with an unusually cooperative Kremlin and a largely moderate third world, they could accomplish a great deal.
According to the latest Gallup poll, the American people think more highly of the work of the UN than at any point over the past two decades. UN peacekeepers were awarded the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize, and more countries are turning to the UN to settle their disputes. President Reagan even pledged in September that the US would pay off its $500 million debt to the UN over an unspecified period.
So why are professional UN-watchers like myself so worried about how long this US-UN remarriage will last? Perhaps we are just punch-drunk from all the UN-bashing in recent years or too suspicious that perceptions that have shifted so rapidly in one direction could shift back just as readily. Four factors, however, convince me to temper any euphoria with a strong dose of caution.
First, while the UN has proven to be a skilled midwife in helping to deliver international accords in Afghanistan, Iran-Iraq, Namibia, and potentially in the Western Sahara, Cambodia, and perhaps even the Middle East, it cannot guarantee long-term peace.
In Afghanistan, the conflict is being turned from a superpower intervention to a civil war: a step forward but hardly an end to the bloodshed. The guns have been stilled on the Iran-Iraq front, but the enmity remains. Angola and Cambodia are still torn by civil war, and terrorists are doing their best to upset the trend toward peace wherever possible. As the UN takes center stage, especially for such thankless tasks as investigating chemical-weapons use, its actions will be in the spotlight as never before. Small mistakes will be magnified.
Second, Americans need to recognize that it is the world, not the UN, which is changing so dramatically. International conditions now permit the UN to carry out its mandate more effectively, but the organization's basic structure, capabilities, and limitations have changed little, particularly in the peace and security realm. The US and other major donors have largely gotten what they asked for in the way of administrative, personnel, and budgetary reforms, but they sought precious little in terms of restructuring, reallocating resources, or rethinking priorities and missions. Perceptions of the UN's capabilities have risen far more dramatically than the realities.
Third, as expectations have soared, so has the mismatch between the burdens being placed on the UN and its human and financial resources. Never before has the organization attempted so many important mediation, monitoring, and peacekeeping operations at the same time. After being on the sidelines for so many years, the UN's machinery may not be up to this task on top of its other continuing responsibilities.
The problem, of course, is exacerbated by the continuing refusal of the US to pay its full debt to the UN, however promising President Reagan's words sounded at the time.
Fourth, policymaker, media, and public attention in this country are fickle. International causes - whether arms control, Soviet-American relations, the environment, or the UN - have a way of rising and falling with the political tides. Today the UN is in vogue. Yesterday it was not, and tomorrow it's iffy. Yet international institutions need steady nourishment in good times and bad. And that requires something that has been sorely missing for many years: a bipartisan consensus on a sustainable strategy that reflects equally our national interests and our national responsibilities.
Happily, this objective is more attainable today than at any other time in the past two decades. President Bush has signaled his positive intent. The challenge now is to turn symbolism into substance.
Edward C. Luck is president of the United Nations Association of the USA, a nonpartisan membership and research organization devoted to strengthening the UN and the US role in it.