THE international political climate is such that members of the United Nations face a rare opportunity for forward motion. They could seize the moment to make significant progress this year in such areas as international law, arms control, human rights, and even in UN structural reform. So says Charles Luck, president of the United Nations Association of the USA, a citizen support group for the UN located a few blocks from the organization's headquarters.
``There is more agreement right now among the major powers than at any point since the signing of the UN Charter,'' he insists.
Both the Soviet Union and the nonaligned third world have eased up considerably on anti-Western rhetoric, Mr. Luck says. This comes at a time when the UN happens also to be headed by a particularly strong secretary-general, Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar. Moscow now has enthusiastically embraced a number of UN efforts and has been paying past debts.
Luck says he thinks Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, under strong pressure at home to ease commitments abroad, sees the UN as a way to fill a void that might otherwise by filled by the US. Luck warns that in time the Soviets may return to more hard-line leadership or adventurism while the third world may also decide its more moderate stance is not yielding the results it wants. ``We should take advantage of this special time,'' he says.
He would particularly like to see the United States take a more positive role in pressing for such UN structural reforms as getting more management help for the secretary-general and building in a more centralized decisionmaking process. Reforms made last year, he says, were made under negative threats of cuts in US aid and basically made the UN a little ``tamer, smaller, and less expensive.''
As things now stand, Luck forecasts a ``calm, sober, but not necessarily uneventful'' year for the UN. He says there may well be credential fights over the seats of Israel and Cambodia. Also the US faces a tough decision ahead if Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat seeks a US visa to address the UN. The UN's many peacekeeping efforts and its monitoring of elections this fall in Namibia and Nicaragua are sure to be controversial.
The US is still likely to be in the minority on most UN votes, Luck says. However, he says the splintering of past political blocs will probably keep strident rhetoric down and leave the US feeling less isolated. ``It's much less likely that the Assembly will lean to extremes,'' he says.
The majority of General Assembly votes are now taken by a formal but unrecorded consensus. Annual UN voting reports by the State Department, which have portrayed the US as increasingly isolated and have ignored such consensus votes in the past, will now include them at Congress's request.
``I think in a lot of areas like disarmament the US went out of its way to vote alone when it really didn't need to,'' Luck says. ``Things were made into major questions of principle which really weren't. We saw `consensus' as getting everything we wanted.''
Although the Reagan administration did an ``11th hour'' policy turnaround, pledging last fall to pay up $460 million in back UN dues, Luck says he is hopeful that President Bush, a former US ambassador to the UN, will begin on a more supportive note. ``I don't see with this administration the sort of ideological leanings we saw at the beginning of the Reagan administration,'' Luck says.
US public opinion has been shifting. For the first time in 20 years, pollsters report that Americans have at last given the UN a favorable job rating. Yet Luck appears almost more concerned than pleased by the news. He sees the new popularity of the UN as a ``sometime'' thing that could eclipse as quickly as it appeared. He points out that the string of UN successes last year from Afghanistan to the Gulf that led to the Nobel Peace Prize for UN peacekeeping forces were actually the culmination of years of quiet negotiations.
What particularly concerns Luck is what he views as the high public expectation now of UN capabilities. ``People somehow want the UN to be up on a pedestal where it always comes out with positive results, never gets its hands dirty, and everyone goes off into the sunset happy. It doesn't work that way in the real world. The UN is needed in a lot of areas that are going to be very sticky and messy.''
The problem, as he sees it, stems partly from the UN's very limited powers and partly from major changes in the nature of global conflicts. The UN is most needed in areas where no regional organization exists and where there is little precedent for cooperation, he says. Increasingly, UN peacekeeping forces are being asked to intercede, as in Afghanistan and Namibia, in fights within rather than between countries.
Solutions are usually much tougher to come by. In Namibia, for instance, UN forces, late in arriving, have been sharply criticized by both rebels and South African forces. As the UN tries to monitor but has no real control of the election process, such criticism is likely to increase.
``Someone's going to be very unhappy, even in a fair election,'' notes Luck. He contends that the UN should consider peacekeeping requests on a case-by-case basis, weighing risks and gains. He says, for instance, that it would make little sense at the moment to send UN troops into Cambodia when the major powers can neither agree on the right political solution or control their ``clients.'' Once those parties agree, an effort the UN cannot force, the UN can be central in carrying out the solution, he says.
In a Sept. 20 article on the United Nations Association of the USA, the president and chairman of the group were incorrectly identified. The president is Edward C. Luck. Chairman John C. Whitehead is former deputy US secretary of state.