The US government today appears more disenchanted with the United Nations - that shining symbol of collective action on New York's East River - than it has been for years.
Thus current US opposition to a second term for UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali may be only one aspect of a broader dispute. Troubled UN-led peacekeeping actions in Somalia and Bosnia, among other things, have led many in Washington to question the very reach of the institution in a chaotic post-cold-war world.
Conservative Republicans aren't the only ones complaining. When they took office four years ago Clinton administration officials talked often of the need to work more closely with the UN and other multination bodies. For the most part, they don't emphasize that point of view any more.
"Boutros the man is not the issue. UN reform is not the issue. The real issue is whether the US sees benefit for itself in a multilateral approach," says Iain Guest, a fellow at the US Institute of Peace, who studies UN issues. "By and large the answer now seems to be no."
In fact, the urbane Boutros-Ghali has done about as well as he could in bowing to American concerns about the UN structure, say some experts. The decentralized nature of much UN decisionmaking leaves the secretary-general with little real power to fire anybody or slash the institution's budget, they say.
But it's no secret that morale at UN headquarters has been affected by their leader's sometimes-imperial style. Furthermore, there's little chance that Congress will ante up the $1.5 billion in arrears that the US owes the UN until there's a new secretary-general.
"And there will be no serious reform until the Americans pay up," say Bruce Russett, a Yale University political scientist and co-director of an independent study group on the UN's future.
As of this writing, the UN appears to face a lengthy struggle over who its next leader will be. In the wake of Tuesday's US veto of a second term for Mr. Boutros-Ghali, the secretary-general's supporters - the majority of UN nations - appear in no mood to quickly search for other candidates.
The powerful UN Security Council has agreed that if Boutros-Ghali is denied a second term, his successor should at least be another African. Possible compromise candidates include Kofi Annan of Ghana, the UN undersecretary-general who heads peacekeeping operations, and Salim A. Salim of Tanzania, secretary-general of the Organization of African Unity. On Tuesday, Dijibouti's UN ambassador, Roble Olhaye, said it was "inevitable" that new candidates would come forward if the US held firm.
Conservative criticism of the UN is one force that has pushed Washington into the Boutros-Ghali showdown. GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole would repeat the name "Boutros Boutros" with distaste. One sure applause line in his stump speeches was a promise that US troops would never serve under direct UN command.
Mr. Dole may be gone, but Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina remains. In a recent article under his name in the journal Foreign Affairs, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee threatened to support a US pullout from the UN in 2000 if the next secretary-general does not have the proper reformist zeal.
Among other things, Mr. Helms called for a 50 percent cut in the UN bureaucracy. The Clinton team's call for a zero-growth UN budget, he said is inadequate. Currently, the UN secretary-general has about $1 billion to pay for the activities he directly controls; that should be pared to $250 million, judged Helms. Unnecessary UN panels, such as the Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, should be cancelled. Peacekeeping - funded under a separate system - should be overhauled so that the US doesn't have to help pay for operations it doesn't back, said Helms. Currently the US is assessed for 31.7 percent of all peacekeeping missions.
The Helms article complained bitterly about recent proposals to establish a standing body of UN troops and collect some direct UN taxes. "As it currently operates the United Nations does not deserve continued American support," said Helms bluntly.
Such views are extreme compared with those of many other Republicans, much less the Democratic administration. But there's no denying that the reach of the UN, symbolized by such efforts as its ineffectual presence in Bosnia, where UN officials repeatedly refused NATO requests to use force, bothers even some centrist US politicians. "We've all been soured to some extent," notes Mr. Guest, who adds that Clinton has failed to promote the virtues of acting in concert with other nations to the public.
With the increasing pace of global technological and political change, the need for a world organization is growing, not shrinking, insists Yale's Mr. Russett. Businesses and individuals that act across national borders need an international system to provide economic and legal security; they need international cooperation to deter terrorists; they need such bodies as the World Trade Organization to head off trade wars and human-rights organizations to promote values. "If the United Nations system did not exist, much if it would have to be invented," said Russett in another Foreign Affairs article on the UN.