The UN Prepares for Its Next Half-Century

THIS is my first column of 1995 and my last until the year's end. I am taking a year's leave of absence to become director of communications at the United Nations in New York.

UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has asked me to help coordinate the UN's press and information activities and articulate the UN's role in a changing world.

1995 is the UN's 50th anniversary. It is a time of opportunity and challenge as the world organization confronts its next half-century.

The opportunity derives from the fact that the cold war is over. The danger of a nuclear clash between two superpowers has receded; freedom has come to millions. We can get on with the constructive task of making life better for those who have been impoverished and held captive.

The challenge, as The Economist states in its latest issue, is that ``after the relatively straightforward two-alliance confrontation of the Cold War, the world has turned back to the risky maneuverings of a multi-power system.'' There has been a proliferation of regional conflicts sparked by territorial greed, historic hatreds, misunderstanding, and miscalculation.

After the cold war there was hope for a new world order, but we are going through an era of disorder as we grope our way toward it.

The UN, after periods of quiescence, has become a key player but faces unique challenges. Founded on a simple idealistic premise - that it can help make the world safer and better - it nevertheless has limited resources and circumscribed authority. Although the bulk of its agenda is devoted to raising living standards (as it has done dramatically for children through UNICEF) and spreading democracy (as it has done in Cambodia and South Africa), it has become diverted by peacekeeping operations (Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti).

In such endeavors it has no military forces of its own but depends on the will, unity of purpose, and commitment of funds and troops by 180-odd disparate member nations. Bosnia is a grim example of the complexity of such operations.

Again, as The Economist puts it, ``the UN is the equivalent of a neighborhood-watch scheme. It can help the policemen keep the peace, but it is no substitute for the policemen themselves.''

As we face 1995, international problems abound, not the least of them terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. But as we review 1994, we should not short-change the achievements made. The most dramatic is South Africa's emergence from apartheid into democratic multi-racialism without the blood bath that many considered inevitable.

No less impressive is the movement toward peace in the Middle East, long a cauldron of hate and suspicion.

In Haiti, though poverty remains, the country has been freed of its oppressive military rule. Somalia, although bedeviled by political factionalism, sees its people fed and its children back in schools.

Among other important 1994 initiatives was the American one led by President Clinton toward liberalization of world trade.

Americans themselves offer one of the most interesting examples of a nation in flux as they reorder their society. Corporations streamline as they seek to become more competitive. Voters demand smaller and more effective government. There is national debate over the fine dividing line between compassion and maladministration in welfare. The press is engaged in anguished self-scrutiny over a drift toward trivialization and negativism. Attitudes toward personal habits, such as smoking and drinking, are undergoing change. And Time chooses as its man of the year Pope John Paul II, which has caused some commentators to speculate about a turn to religion.

Fascinating times. Let's see how they've changed when I return to this space 12 months from now.

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