THE United Nations has become a political pawn in the American presidential-election debate. Some Republican presidential candidates - notably Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan - are offering dark rhetoric about the UN, much of it misleading, some of it nonsensical.
Senator Dole recently introduced legislation to bar UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali from levying a head tax on international travelers. But this is a nonissue. No such tax is under consideration. Dole and others raise the threat of American troops serving under a foreign commander. It gets roars of rage at election rallies. But the fact is that American units committed to UN peacekeeping serve under American officers.
The polls show that most Americans support the UN. A minority is captured by a conspiratorial theory that the UN is a threat to US sovereignty. Mr. Buchanan tells them that the UN is part of a plot to create a world government that would take over the United States.
With their anti-UN broadsides, the candidates are feeding the unreal fears of this minority. It is a short-sighted policy that will boomerang. In the end, Buchanan's protectionist and isolationist pull-up-the-drawbridges-around-America policy will be rejected by the American people. But Dole is a credible presidential prospect. Should he win, his conduct of the nation's foreign policy will be more difficult if the UN has been emasculated.
Some time in the latter part of this year, the UN will likely have to start closing down some of its programs. Without emergency funding, it will run out of cash to pay for various humanitarian and peacekeeping operations that its member states have instructed it to carry out.
The principal cause of this financial crisis is the United States, which owes $1.5 billion in arrears for programs the US has approved.
President Clinton wants to pay off this debt. Republican critics of the UN in Congress are stalling. Though there are certainly Republican legislators who support the UN, other Republicans threaten to ram through anti-UN legislation. Prospects of the American arrearages being paid off before election day are slim.
A pause here to declare my conflict of interest. Over the years, as a correspondent in Africa and Asia, I have seen the UN in action, from peacekeeping in the former Belgian Congo, to feeding starving children and refugees in a string of forlorn lands. The UN has made the world a better place for many. Last year, UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali asked me to take a leave of absence for 12 months to serve as his adviser on communications. This is my first column since completing that assignment. I come away from it convinced that, despite all its flaws and shortcomings, the UN is an essential instrument for making peace, keeping the peace, and helping mankind.
The UN's critics seem not to understand the usefulness of the UN to the US at a time when the new president - whoever he may be - will face a fluid world situation.
Among the major players, Russia, Britain, and China may all have new leaders, each with new agendas. France is an ally but never one to be taken for granted. Germany and Japan are seeking new diplomatic influence. All of the above nations are angered by America's failure to pay its UN debts. If the UN were to collapse because of American nonsupport, American leadership in the world would be jeopardized. The new American president will face dangerous world hot spots, where US interests are involved.
Will Saddam Hussein, having dispatched his dissident family members, seek vengeance against Jordan? How peaceful will be the post-Castro succession in Cuba? Who can fathom the intent of North Korea? Will China war against Taiwan? Will Burundi follow Rwanda into genocide? Where will international terrorists strike next? Who is clandestinely developing a nuclear bomb?
As Colin Powell writes in his autobiography ''My American Journey,'' the UN has been especially active in diffusing chronic conflict and negotiating settlements in countries like South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Cambodia, El Salvador.
Do the Republican UN-bashers really want to abandon this constructive resource? Do they want the US to go it alone as the world's policeman? The polls say the American people don't want that. In a December Wirthlin poll, Americans overwhelmingly favored UN handling of world conflicts, instead of independent action by big countries.
UN peacekeeping operations in Somalia and Bosnia may have gone awry, but other peacekeeping operations have been successful. When others share the burden, the cost to the US is less. In Haiti, the bill for the US was about one-tenth of what it would have been for an all-American peacekeeping operation.
The UN can be improved and remodeled - but shouldn't be sunk.