THOUGH a more challenging test of its credibility may lie just ahead, the United Nations is widely seen as emerging from its Persian Gulf experience a stronger and more effective institution. Not everyone, of course, agrees. As UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar is quick to point out, some Islamic states see no upswing in UN ``prestige.'' He argues that the UN is only as strong as the political determination of its members.
The Security Council's firm stand against Iraq's move into Kuwait marked the first post-cold-war test of the UN's ability to take a united position against aggression. Whether that action signals the start of a new working system of collective security or stands as a rare example of great-power cooperation remains to be seen.
Sir David Hannay, Britain's ambassador to the UN, terms Iraq's move into Kuwait a ``black-and-white'' example of aggression unlikely to recur in such a clear cut way again: ``Challenges won't always come as easy as that.''
How the UN deals with another Middle East peace issue - resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict - may prove a more difficult test of the institution's credibility. Thomas Pickering, the United States ambassador to the UN, says the US will turn its attention ``intensively'' to that issue. As one sign, US Secretary of State James Baker III is meeting with Arab ministers in the Gulf followed by a stop in Israel today to further ``confidence-building measures.''
How well the UN functions in the future may depend in large part on the Soviet Union and the degree to which its domestic problems and other pressures change its course at the UN.
Many third-world nations, frustrated by their inability to push forward interim cease-fire proposals and other measures during the Gulf crisis, would be quick to seize on any US-Soviet fissures. Some of them view the stand against Iraq as a North-South issue. Some say the US hijacked the UN.
Still, all 12 Security Council resolutions directed against Iraq before the war were supported by an overwhelming majority.
``I think the credibility of the UN has been tremendously enhanced by this - it will be perceived as a significantly stronger institution,'' says Shoshana Tancer, a lawyer and professor of international studies at Arizona's American Graduate School of International Management.
``By so deliberately seeking UN Security Council approval, the US has set a very important precedent,'' comments Richard Harrison, a political scientist at Pomona College at Claremont, California. ``I think it will be very difficult for the US or any of the other permanent members to undertake unilateral action after this....It's quite possible, given good statesmanship, that there will be a new world order.''
Just how central a role the UN will play is not yet clear.
``Will this new world order be a pax Americana, where the US calls the shots or will it be a pax United Nations where we really try to use the UN and to strengthen it for collective security in the future?'' asks Jeswald Salacuse, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Cambridge, Mass. He adds that a natural system of checks and balances is always at work: ``The history of the world shows that the international system abhors a single dominant power....Other countries coalesce to advance their own interests.''
The evolution of Soviet policy is widely viewed as a key uncertainty in the UN's future. A return to the time when Moscow and Washington vetoed each other's resolutions is still a possibility, says Robert George, assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. While President Bush may feel impelled for moral and political reasons to criticize Moscow for repression of the Baltic states, Dr. George says the need for Soviet cooperation at the UN requires the president to act carefully. ``The US mi ght very well have to pay a price to gain Soviet acquiescence,'' he says.
``I think the lesson of the current situation is that we can no longer depend on the willingness of the Soviet Union ... because it shares our interests or our values, to acquiesce henceforth and forevermore in US-sponsored UN resolutions and activities,'' says George. China is a ``wild card,'' too, he adds.
Though the Soviet Union abandoned its effort to broker a peace with Iraq and returned to support the stronger US-coalition position, many analysts say Moscow may well insist on stronger UN control, particularly on military matters, in any future crises.
``The US and the Soviet Union are still basically competitive states, and there will be exchanges of rancor,'' says Mr. Harrison. ``But it's no longer going to be the cold war as usual and that makes for real change.''
Abdalla Saleh al-Ashtal, Yemen's ambassador to the UN, says the institution's credibility will remain high only if the Security Council moves promptly to implement other previously passed resolutions, such as those involving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Yet Washington's strong ties with Israel could result either in the US amending resolutions or vetoing them, an action the Council has made every effort to avoid.
Many analysts say that if the UN is to become a more effective peacemaker, changes in structure and practices may be needed.
David Caron, professor of international law at the University of California at Berkeley, says that missing for him in all the UN actions against Iraq was any clear sense of the involvement of the UN as an institution or its leadership. ``The UN facilitated a meeting of member governments,'' he says, ``but I haven't felt the UN was really a player.''
Some of the debate centers on whether fairness requires a change in the Council's composition or powers. Some point to the economic strength of Germany and Japan, which are paying a hefty percentage of the coalition's cost of waging war. Such nations may want more ``behind the scenes'' control next time, Professor Hastedt says.
Smaller nations continue to complain that the UN is a great power club. ``That's predictable,'' says Harrison. ``The fact is that the UN was never envisioned as a democracy. Great powers do have greater responsibilities and greater opportunities.''
``The UN will have only as much power as the most powerful countries are willing to give it,'' adds Professor Salacuse.