AMERICAN skepticism about the value of the United Nations has turned to praise following peacekeeping successes in southern Africa, the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere. With superpower tensions easing, the outlook for UN-brokered peace arrangements - as well as cooperation on humanitarian projects - is brighter than ever.
But the UN's new favor hasn't kept the United States from bullying the world organization when it veers from the US-approved path. The means of strong-arming is Washington's share of UN funding.
Over the past two weeks that fiscal club was raised in response to a move by Arab members to upgrade the observer status of the Palestine Liberation Organization to that of a nonmember state, on a par with Switzerland and the Koreas. If the General Assembly okayed that, Washington insisted, its dollars would vanish.
This week the Arabs backed down, agreeing to leave their proposal in the secretary general's hands for study. The bad taste left by American ``financial blackmail'' remains.
A US threat also hangs over the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), if that agency proceeds with plans to aid food production in the West Bank and Gaza ``in close cooperation with the PLO.''
In the case of PLO standing within the UN, US objections had some merit. From the standpoint of international law, it's hard to see how the PLO, lacking territory, could qualify for the upgraded status.
The Bush administration argues, too, that efforts to attain PLO goals through UN maneuvering undermine the fragile Mideast peace process. Resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has to come primarily through talks between the antagonists.
Even so, the US should find a better way of making its views felt than threatening the workings of the whole UN. Instead of throwing its financial weight around singly, the US should work harder at persuading other nations that its stand is the right one.
In the case of the FAO, the US objects that attempts to bring the PLO into the picture politicizes the agency and hampers its usefulness. But Washington's heavy-handed way of registering its objection just adds to the politicization.
Regarding politicization, what about the recent Bush veto of funds for the United Nations Population Fund? The veto came even after assurances that no US money would go for abortions.
In the background of all this contention rests an untidy little fact - the US owes $430 million in unpaid regular UN dues and $152 million for peacekeeping operations. In past years, the US took the Soviets to the World Court to try to force payment of similar unpaid debts.
The Soviets have paid most of their UN bills, but Congress regularly ducks the US responsibility to pay up. Washington's unpaid bills give its threats to cut off funding a heavy note of irony.