THE United Nations emerged from the Kuwait crisis with its reputation considerably enhanced. Long faulted for impotence and indecision, on Iraq the organization demonstrated resolve and effectiveness. But the UN's seeming new relevance is showing some limits, as the General Assembly demonstrated this month in a frustrating session called to consider the governance of the UN's economic and social activities. The backdrop for the session was the uneven performance of UN social and humanitarian agencies - numerous but on shoestring budgets all - in coping with problems of environmental destruction, refugee relief, and economic devastation in the aftermath of the Gulf war. It was a bracing reminder that the UN has become a Janus-like system of two faces - the UN of peace and security, relatively purposeful and effective, to which influential governments pay active and growing attention; and the UN of economic a
nd social affairs, halting, hortatory, and often ignored by powers great and small.
The Security Council, at the center of the security system, has proved it can move with a dispatch and effectiveness that the US Congress might envy. On pressing political issues, it can draw foreign ministers from their capitals for top-level decisions. But on economic, humanitarian, and social issues, which account for some 80 percent of UN spending, the management and policy process is tortuously slow. The sprawling collection of agencies and governing bodies has no real central authority. UN meeting s
directly involving Cabinet-level ministers on a global economic or social policy agenda are virtually unknown.
Meetings do go on at such levels. They just don't go on in the UN. On the eve of the the resumed Assembly session, finance ministers of the Group of Seven major industrialized countries met to thrash out common policy on interest rates and related economic issues that will affect the entire global economy. Even though any decisions on these issues would have dramatic impacts on, say, the debt burdens of the third world, not a single developing country is involved in them.
It has not escaped the notice of developing countries that international economic policy is made without them. Their repeated passage of plaintive UN resolutions advocating debt relief has had no impact on events. Their representatives understand that the UN resolutions they painstakingly craft on economic and social problems get filed unread not only in Washington and Bonn, but their own capitals as well.
THE system's fragmentation has frustrated the the industrialized countries as well. Urgent threats to the world environment are a case in point. There is no place in the UN system where a common policy on environment can be established to guide the actions of the many UN agencies involved in agricultural and industrial development, trade, health, education, and science. Likewise, while the UN sometimes does a very credible job at delivering relief to refugees, it has been unable to set an agenda address i
ng the social problems that cause many refugee emergencies.
Yet the UN's crisis in relevance has not led to any agreement on its restructuring. Since ambitious designs for reform have foundered on political inertia in the past, hopes for the recent session were focused modestly on setting a new direction for a single oversight body, the Economic and Social Council. This was originally established as an 18-member counterpart to the Security Council, though with neither veto nor coercive power. Today it has 54 member states, meets at the level of junior diplomats w
ho have no political authority to commit anyone to anything, rarely draws even UN agency heads to its meetings, and rehearses speeches that will be recycled in the General Assembly. It is not a place where discussion of urgent issues involving many agencies and governments can be converted to serious commitments for action.
WHAT the far-flung UN system needs is a powerful nerve center, a role the Economic and Social Council clearly does not fill. In the absence of a nerve center, any other organism would be declared brain-dead. Yet some developing country representatives diagnose the source of the UN's marginalization as its not having enough poor, weak countries involved in the council.
Their prescription - adding more developing country governments to the council - has stalled progress on fundamental reform. By pushing a shopworn notion of governmentsequality" that is manifestly contradicted by world realities, these representatives display telling indifference to the structural causes contributing to the UN's sideline role.
There are, however, hopeful signs. Developing countries themselves are calling for UN meetings on major problem areas at the level of government ministers. They have also proposed joint top-level meetings between a few of their number and the Group of Seven - though most of them strangely resist institutionalizing such a group as a UN nerve center. For their part, the Nordic countries are proposing thoughtful and far-reaching reforms to establish a credible center of UN authority. The larger Western pow e
rs are at least amenable to substantive reform, even if some stand-patters whisper they are better off with a weak UN.
Ten days after the resumed session recessed, weary negotiators reached belated agreement on a package of modest procedural reforms, but left the system's fundamental weaknesses untouched. For the future, nations must press for a sharpening of this clouded vision of renewed UN relevance.