The UN's Second Half-Century

ON the occasion of the UN's 50th anniversary, observed last month in New York, questions have been raised about its future. In the Oct. 30 edition of The New Republic, Michael Lind said the UN shouldn't be reformed, ''it should be abandoned.''

In some sense, the UN has outlived the tasks that preoccupied it. The transition from colonial empires to independence is virtually complete. The parties to Middle East peace have moved beyond Security Council Resolution 242 and are speaking directly and signing treaties. Apartheid in South Africa has been relegated to history. And although divisions of the cold war weren't resolved by the UN, contacts in and around the Security Council preserved a cold peace.

Even as the future role of the UN is being questioned, it faces serious problems. The US, its principal supporter in the first half-century, shows its lack of confidence in mounting arrearages - forcing upon the organization an almost desperate financial crisis. Washington and others demand reforms that strike at the cherished prerogatives of smaller nations. The question of how to expand the Security Council to meet not only the demands of Germany and Japan, but also those of the major regional powers of Latin America and Asia, defies easy solution.

The UN's inability to deal with crises in Somalia and Bosnia has destroyed respect for the blue berets. In the eyes of many in the US particularly, the forcing of peace in Bosnia by US mediator Richard Holbrooke has further demonstrated the UN's weakness.

Clearly, the UN has its limitations. It is what its member nations want to make it - and few have been prepared to yield the sovereignty or to provide the resources to give the secretary-general the power and authority needed to enforce resolutions. More has been expected than such a body can deliver. It is not surprising that, in cases such as Bosnia, diplomats may be able to accomplish what international civil servants cannot.

Some critics would depend entirely on the efforts of individual nations to resolve world issues. Mr. Lind proposes reliance on great power alliances ''against particular countries and the traditional forum for international discussion known as the embassy.''

But a return to power alliances hardly seems an answer in today's world. NATO has proved unable to resolve some problems between its own members. Even in the former Yugoslavia, NATO operated under a UN mandate. The US has been reluctant to risk its forces or spend its resources on problems far from its borders.

It is difficult to see how a single group of nations, however powerful, could create the sanctions that have been important international instruments in Rhodesia, South Africa, and Iraq. In many countries, compliance with such measures of force is only legal under a Security Council umbrella.

UN critics underestimate the value of a setting in which adversaries can meet without difficulty, in which smaller and poorer nations have a voice, and in which differences among greater powers can be aired and managed. Flash points continue to exist; a recognized forum in which dangerous confrontations can be faced and discussed is essential. No single nation or group of nations can control weapons of mass destruction without the authority of an international regime. The environment, population, health, use of the seas, and communications are transnational issues and can only be effectively resolved in a world forum.

The UN's second half-century will be a hard test. If it can't resolve internal administrative problems and balance the interests of newer members with older ones, the UN may not survive. The world wouldn't be a better place if the UN collapsed. The US would bear a major responsibility for the failure.

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