THE United Nations is entering a new era. The 12 resolutions against Iraq passed in the UN Security Council over the last four months underscore the new kind of international cooperation possible in the aftermath of the cold war. The latest resolution on Nov. 29, authorizing what amounts to the use of force against Iraq if it does not pull back from Kuwait by mid-January, marks a new step in UN collective security efforts that sends a clear message.
``It signals potential aggressors that we are now in a new world in which East and West and the permanent members of the Security Council are able to work together - whatever the strain may be - to take effective action,'' says John Norton Moore, director of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia.
``It's now possible for the UN to act as an instrument of the collective judgment of the leading states of the world,'' agrees Richard Falk, international law professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
In some ways this is back to the future for the UN. Its founders, hoping that the post-World War II alliance would live on, saw the UN's prime mission as one of keeping the peace and repelling aggression.
``Making use of the Security Council in the way we thought we would use it back in 1945 marks an extraordinary step forward,'' says Saul Mendlovitz, Dag Hammarskjold Professor of Peace and World Order Studies at Rutgers University.
The UN role in the Iraqi situation is unusual in that the UN is in the forefront of an international crisis, says Ilan Peleg, chairman of the department of government and law at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Over the years cold-war disagreements forced the UN into a minimal and largely reactive role after wars have ended, he says.
It was in 1950 when North Korea invaded the South that the Security Council first authorized the use of military force against aggression, acting on a United States proposal. The Soviet Union almost surely would have cast a veto, but it was boycotting the Council to protest its seating of Taiwan rather than Beijing as China's representative.
``The latest vote is not just the first time since Korea but the first legitimate situation where the use of force has been voted for,'' comments Basil Ince, a professor of international relations at Bucknell University.
Intensive US diplomatic efforts are largely credited with passage of the 12th resolution. Yet Harvard University Law Professor Abram Chayes says the Council dealt with the issue in a responsible way and was not just a ``rubber stamp'' for the US. In getting what it wanted, he says, the US also compromised, accepting limits on its own freedom of action such as the apparent promise to make one last diplomatic effort with Iraq. The US also originally wanted a general authorization of force with no timetable but settled for a Jan. 15 date.
``I think the Council can be seen as an active player in the operation and that has some significance for how the UN might work in the future in a situation in which US interests were not so significantly engaged,'' says Professor Chayes.
The new spirit of cooperation among the superpowers in the Security Council is not universally applauded. Some developing nations are concerned that the industrialized North may dominate the poorer nations of the South or that the Council may be selective in punishing aggressors.
Still, under a seating rule change in the 1960s, developing nations hold seven of the 15 Council seats. Two of them must approve any resolution for it to pass. Nine votes are needed. Similarly if developing nations feel their interests are threatened, two votes can also serve as a veto.
Similarly, there is as yet no provision for any unified UN command over military forces such as there was in the Korean War, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur commanded both US and UN forces. That structural gap, plus the fact that the US now supplies more than 80 percent of the troops from 27 nations posted in Saudi Arabia, concerns some longtime UN watchers.
``It's something people ought to begin worrying about, because it's not easy to run a multilateral force with every commander thinking he's the last word,'' Professor Chayes observes.
Many experts view the steady Security Council involvement in the Iraqi crisis - at least until the latest resolution authorizing use of force - as indispensable in everything from the effort to build and enforce broad sanctions to keeping tempers cool. Rutgers's Saul Mendlovitz says he thinks the Council's control of the situation has had a positive, inhibiting effect on US actions: ``Look, we haven't shot anybody and they haven't shot us.''
Although the next step in the Gulf crisis may occur outside the auspices of the UN, the world body could still play other key roles, particularly if diplomatic efforts are successful. Legal experts say that if Iraq does withdraw from Kuwait, UN peacekeeping forces could be useful in the transition, particularly in border areas. Some kind of arbitration or mediation of Iraq's claims in Kuwait is a possibility. And a number of experts say that in time a broad regional Middle East peace conference under UN auspices is likely.