ONE of the many opportunities provided by the Soviet Union's new look is the chance to make the United Nations work as intended. When the UN was created in 1945, its founders intended that the leading role in peacekeeping would be played by the five permanent members of the Security Council - the United States, the USSR, Great Britain, France, and China. All UN members agreed to furnish armed forces to the Security Council to enforce its peacekeeping decisions. The council was also to have a Military Staff Committee which was to consist of the chiefs of staff of the permanent members.
This concept, of course, was dependent on the unanimity of the five permanent members, and that never existed. To the contrary, the principal source of international tension since 1945 has been the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union. The Military Staff Committee has been moribund.
In what was regarded at the time as an adroit maneuver engineered by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, the peacekeeping functions were effectively transferred from the Security Council to the General Assembly during the Korean war. That avoided the problem of the Soviet veto in the Security Council, but over time it lead to other problems.
The Security Council has the power, at least on paper, to enforce its decisions. The General Assembly is limited mainly to persuasion. Also, the increase of independent nations since World War II has meant that the UN has grown from 51 original members to 159 today, most of them poor and weak, and each with a vote in the assembly.
As the number of poor members of the UN has been growing, so - for different reasons - has the gap between rich nations and poor nations been widening. This gap is political as well as economic. The industrialized nations and the third world do not empathize with each other very well.
Thus, while the Security Council has been paralyzed by East-West differences, the General Assembly has been frustrated by North-South differences. The assembly has nonetheless managed to raise a number of peacekeeping forces (which won the Nobel peace prize in 1988) and has otherwise contributed to containing regional conflicts. In the circumstances, it is a remarkable record.
But now new circumstances, occasioned by changes in the USSR, offer the possibility of moving UN peacekeeping back to the Security Council. In a document presented to the UN last month, the USSR itself proposed that this be done. Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir F. Petrovsky called for the Security Council to become more active in peacekeeping and even for a revival of the Military Staff Committee. Soviet officials have talked about Soviet-American collaboration to increase the prestige and authority of the UN even to the point that the UN would replace nuclear weapons as the main deterrent to global war.
This is asking the US to move further and faster than the Bush administration may be willing to go. It also assumes that China, which has a veto as a permanent member of the Security Council, would be agreeable and cooperative. This assumption may prove unwarranted. Indeed, the new Chinese militancy at home may be one reason for Soviet interest in collaborating with the Americans.
But certainly Mr. Petrovsky and his colleagues have pointed the direction in which the UN, and US policy as well, should move. Some steps have already been taken outside the UN framework in the remarkable exchanges of visits between the Soviet defense minister and the American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze has suggested a joint US-Soviet role in Central America as a way of settling the Nicaraguan problem. This will no doubt be rebuffed as a Soviet effort to muscle in on what the US likes to think of as its sphere of influence, but there are other, less sensitive regional conflicts in which US-Soviet cooperation would have the potential for rich dividends. And if this were done through the Security Council, so much the better.
Restoring the Security Council to its original role would also increase Soviet ties with the West. The more ties of this kind there are, the more difficult it will be for some future Soviet government to revert to the status quo before Gorbachev. A cooperative relationship might also encourage responsible Soviet behavior in the UN, something devoutly to be wished after 40 years of screaming, yelling, and breaking the china.