THE most enthusiastic supporters and hard-core detractors of the United Nations share one view: that the UN is, by design and in fact, more than the sum of its nation-state parts; that it is an autonomous, sovereign organism - a superstate - headed by a chief executive officer of the world, the secretary-general.
The secretary-general and the UN bureaucracy want very much to be seen as independent actors transcending the states whose membership makes the UN.
But any productive debate about how the United States should relate to the UN, whether the debate is about peacekeeping operations, the payment of dues, or the role of the Security Council in the achievement of US foreign policy objectives, must first get back to basics. Unless we can achieve some consensus about what the UN is and what it is not, these debates will inevitably produce more heat than light.
There is a tendency among Americans, both friends and foes of the UN, to believe that the organization created 50 years ago was essentially a revamped League of Nations; that the product of World War II consensus between the Allies on the one hand and key Democrats and Republicans on the other was a renamed League of Nations that, unlike the original, would include the US.
I would maintain that President Roosevelt and the other founders had in mind something fundamentally different from the League of Nations. Although the UN's General Assembly captured the essence of the League's notion of a world parliament based on equality and universality, the UN founders clearly intended to establish a system of great-power governance through the mechanism of the Security Council.
Preventing World War III
There was, no doubt, a considerable amount of diplomatic nicety that went into the construction of the Security Council. At war's end there were only two great powers left standing: the US and the Soviet Union. Britain was burned out, France prostrate, and China on the verge of renewed civil war.
The driving force behind the creation of the UN was the desire to replace the League of Nations with a forum in which World War III could be prevented through the collective action of the great powers. It is instructive that Chapters 6 and 7 of the UN Charter - which together represent the heart of the organization's raison d'etre - do not even mention the secretary-general. It is very clear from the charter that the members of the Security Council were to organize themselves for collective deliberation and action.
The failure of the Security Council to function in the manner intended by the founders led to the elevation of the secretary- general. Although the wartime alliance had always been tense and was on very shaky ground indeed at war's end, the founders of the UN probably did not anticipate that one of the permanent members, the Soviet Union, would itself become the paramount threat to peace. The Soviet veto neutralized the Security Council and encouraged the West to focus on the General Assembly as the place to debate and adopt resolutions aimed at illuminating and condemning acts of aggression by the Soviet Union.
The General Assembly's lack of enforcement power led, in turn, to the elevation of the secretary-general from chief clerk to chief conscience of the world to chief trouble-shooter, a role played admirably and effectively by Dag Hammarskjold.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991 might, at least in theory, have led to the resurrection of the Security Council as the key element of the UN. What we witnessed, however, was a UN Secretariat led by an accomplished and ambitious secretary-general seeking to become the institutional embodiment of the ''new world order.'' The incoming Clinton administration, prior to being burned by Somalia, saw the UN as an institution that could moderate great-power ambition through the medium of multilateralism, an attitude stemming, perhaps, from the belief that the war in Vietnam had demonstrated the arrogance and unworthiness of all great powers. There were, however, two problems with this approach: The UN was established quite deliberately to facilitate great-power action, not dissipate it; and the US was, like it or not, the only great power left.
Although the Clinton administration seems now to understand the senselessness of allowing the UN to deploy lightly armed forces configured for peacekeeping missions into shooting wars, it continues tacitly to recognize the UN as something it must not be: an independent, supernational institution. The president complained some time back that ''the UN must learn how to say no,'' as if the Security Council's most powerful member is a helpless bystander. The US, not the secretary-general, must say no.
US won't pay up unless ...
In his Sept. 25 address to the UN General Assembly, our secretary of state said, ''We must maintain the effectiveness of the Security Council. Germany and Japan should become permanent members. We should ensure that all the world's regions are fairly represented, without making the Council unwieldy.'' Although Germany and Japan should indeed be accorded permanent membership, the Security Council needs more than simply the maintenance of its effectiveness. Unless the Security Council, led by the US, asserts its prerogatives under the Charter, I cannot, as a practical political matter, imagine Congress appropriating funds to cover our arrearages. Although I cannot speak to the motivations of individual members of Congress, it ill behooves the Clinton administration and foreign officials to point fingers and cry ''isolationism'' when they continue to permit the work of Franklin Roosevelt to be distorted.
To those who say that, notwithstanding the end of the cold war, 1995 is not the same as 1945, I would say ''fair enough.'' But the Charter is as it was 50 years ago. At the heart of that Charter is the Security Council, embodying the idea of great-power governance as the antidote to threats to the peace. Instead of accepting as permanent that which grew out of the peculiar conditions of the cold war, we should either bring the UN organization back to its roots or create a new organization reflecting the intent of the Charter and the vision of the founders.