The United Nations is beginning its second half-century this fall under a cloud of uncertainty about its future, its finances, and its leadership.
Nowhere is criticism of the world body more widespread or shrill these days than in the UN's host country and most powerful member - the United States.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina puts it bluntly in the current issue of "Foreign Affairs." He calls the UN a "power hungry" and "dysfunctional" body that should "reform or die." Even moderate Democrats such as Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana agree that new UN leadership and direction are crucial.
This lack of confidence in the world organization is considered a key reason - along with national budget troubles - for US foot-dragging on paying its outstanding $1.8 billion UN bill.
"People in the US want a good guy and a bad guy," says UN spokesperson Sylvana Foa. "They had to look and look to find a new bogeyman after the disintegration of 'the evil empire.' They found the United Nations."
When President Clinton steps to the General Assembly's green podium today during the three-week annual fall recital of speeches by representatives of UN member nations, he will "take the high road," says a US official. He will propose a new treaty to combat terrorist bombings and praise the comprehensive test ban treaty he has just signed.
If the US were more popular at the UN these days, veteran UN watchers say, Mr. Clinton might have focused instead on the one UN issue that draws the strongest response on Capitol Hill - the desire to see a leaner, more efficient UN with a clearer, more limited mission.
A major piece of that reform effort, in the view of both Clinton and GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, is the replacement of UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, whose first five-year term ends Dec. 31. All previous secretaries general have served at least a part of a second term. Just last week US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright reaffirmed that the US is ready to use its veto if needed to block any effort to reappoint Mr. Boutros-Ghali.
The former Egyptian diplomat and international law professor is widely respected for his intellect, devotion to the job, and energetic travel schedule. He did slice senior staff ranks when he came in 1991. This year he proposed to cut 10 percent of the 10,000-strong permanent UN staff and stick to a zero-growth budget.
Yet his manner is frequently described as condescending and his management style as secretive and demanding. He has often clashed with top US foreign-policy officials. The US argues that he has adopted reforms only under pressure and is more interested in policy than in sound administration.
"We are looking for someone who has a vision about reform and is not dragged into it kicking and screaming," Ambassador Albright says.
American tactics gall some diplomats
Many UN diplomats say the organization and Boutros-Ghali are taking an unfair hit from the US for what are described as Western policy failures in Bosnia and Somalia and from Americans who simply dislike the UN and want out. They say Boutros-Ghali bowed to US demands in accepting a number of Americans in senior UN posts and has made more reforms than he is given credit for.
Particularly galling to a number of UN diplomats is the way in which the US announced its decision last June not to support Boutros-Ghali. The press and the American public were told before the secretary general himself, who then quickly announced his candidacy. The effect was to rally a number of sympathizers to his side. For now, Security Council members Russia, China, and France, as well as many developing nations are supporting Boutros-Ghali.
The secretary general, who originally vowed to stay only one term, says he hopes the US will change its mind. Last spring he turned down a quiet American offer of a one-year extension. Boutros-Ghali argues he has done a good job but has not yet finished it. Ms. Foa, the UN spokesperson, says several reports on UN restructuring will be coming to the General Assembly in the next few months. "Things are right at the point of showing major, major results," she insists.
Not naming new names - yet
All this leaves the UN leadership question in a stalemate that is unlikely to break until after the American elections in November. The Clinton administration, which has tried twice without success to put the issue before the Security Council, publicly suggests no names, lest the candidates be shot down out of spite. The US says only that it would be "sympathetic" to the appointment of another African.
"The reality is that anybody selected by the Americans now would be rejected by most of the international community," says Jeffrey Laurenti, director of policy studies at the United Nations Association of the USA, a New York-based citizen support group. Other nations, lest they appear disloyal to an incumbent who still might win, also are reluctant to offer names. Informal talks are going on.
Some of Boutros-Ghali's UN supporters say there may yet be a way around the American opposition if no acceptable replacement surfaces. Germany is trying to persuade its European partners to back a two-year term extension for Boutros-Ghali. But outside the UN, analysts say the US is unlikely to buy any compromise.
"The US is not going to eat crow," says Benjamin Rivlin, director of the Ralph Bunch Institute on the United Nations at the City University of New York. "Bucking the most powerful country in the world may make Mr. Boutros-Ghali popular with some people in the UN, but I don't think it's going to get him the job."
"I think if Washington proves adamant, other member states would be ready to move on," agrees the UN Association's Mr. Laurenti.