THE first United Nations Security Council meeting at the level of heads of state tomorrow has been billed as everything from a mere "photo op" to a reelection boost for British Prime Minister John Major, who proposed the idea.
UN officials say the purpose is for the leaders to sort out new directions for the UN and offer a more solid commitment to it in a period of upheaval.
Whatever the mix of motives, the leaders of all 15 member nations accepted the invitation. That in itself, diplomats say, gives the UN and its new leader, Egyptian-born Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an important symbolic boost at a critical moment.
Mr. Boutros-Ghali has been in office as UN secretary general less than a month. The Security Council, charged with maintaining international peace, is tidying up unfinished business from the Gulf war even as it tries to work out its proper response to an increasing array of civil wars from Yugoslavia to Somalia.
The Council has launched eight new peacekeeping operations in the last three years. The price tag for UN peacekeeping ventures may soon become as large as the regular UN budget ($1.2 billion). Several nations, including the United States, are seriously in arrears on payments to both.
The summit format calls for speeches by each leader capped by the signing of a joint declaration. Bilateral talks are scheduled along with formal meetings, and heads of state will lunch with Boutros-Ghali.
"There's plenty for the leaders to talk about if they want to; it's a moment when many new opportunities lie ahead," says US Ambassador Elliot Richardson. "The rhetoric of the new world order has by no means been adequately addressed at the highest level."
One key concern of leaders is what, if any, armed forces other than peacekeeping troops need to be put at the Council's disposal in the event of an aggression such as Iraq's move into Kuwait.
"There's no reason to expect that next time the US will have on hand a fully equipped expeditionary force left over from the cold war," says Mr. Richardson. Under the UN Charter, he says, members can make armed forces available to the Security Council. Questions of whether these should take part in regular military exercises and what to do if members later decide they do not want to commit their troops must be answered, he says.
One way to supply troops might be for the UN to negotiate an agreement with NATO, suggests Alan Henrickson, an associate professor of diplomatic history at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Cambridge, Mass.
"The treaty is consistent with the charter but there never really has been any operational connection between them," he says. The UN Military Staff Committee, which is supposed to give strategic direction to forces put at the Council's disposal, could be renamed something like "the international security council," he says.
The joint declaration to be signed at the end of the summit is expected to urge Boutros-Ghali to suggest by May 1 ways to strengthen the UN role in preventative diplomacy and make better use of the secretary general's right under Article 99 of the UN charter to alert the Council earlier to potential crises.
"We have to find a way of preventing wars or, if they do break out, of managing them and winding them down," insists Sir David Hannay, Britain's UN ambassador.
Another key part of the summit declaration will commit all signatories to more vigorous efforts to control arms, including the spread of nuclear weapons technology.
US President Bush will meet with Russian President Boris Yeltsin at Camp David tomorrow to talk over a number of strategic arms cuts. The Russian Federation has moved into the former Soviet Union Council seat. Mr. Yeltsin's appearance at the summit is expected to convey reassurance that the positive momentum in UN action achieved under former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev will not be lost.
"I think the summit is going to reconsolidate Russia's commitment to the UN system," says Mr. Henrickson.
The most controversial leader attending the summit is Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng, who played a key role in the decision to crush 1989 prodemocracy protests. He is making his first trip to the US where he hopes to visit with President Bush.
It has been a dicey decision for the White House. China recently signed the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a move which pleased the US, but Bush's conservative critics likely will attack him for any move that appears too cordial.