Do we need the United Nations? If so, how much UN do we need? If not, how will nations deal with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons threats; global climate change; growing migration problems; and peacekeeping?
Those questions lie at the heart of the gentlemanly but dead serious tug of war between UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Jesse Helms over the future of the world body.
The two men met in January when Annan flew to Washington to lobby for ending the UN's greatest problem: the bankruptcy threat caused by Washington's withholding of some $1.5 billion in unpaid dues.
A tacit but undefined deal was struck: Downsize the UN and the US would pay up. Annan went to work on the UN structural reforms he unveiled last week. Meanwhile, Helms had introduced legislation creating US "benchmarks" for downsizing. These would be used to judge when and how much of its debt the "deadbeat" superpower would fork over.
As soon as Mr. Annan released his downsizing blueprint, Helms found it wanting. And the Clinton administration has so far virtually abdicated its leadership role on the issue. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former US ambassador to the UN, has seemed content to let Helms take the bad cop role, without herself playing good cop by finding a constructive compromise.
So what next?
It's tempting to assume the UN, long supported by a sizable majority of Americans, will weather this crisis. It did, after all, survive a 1960s financial squeeze when Moscow and Paris withheld dues to protest peacekeeping policies. US envoy Adlai Stevenson argued that "if the UN didn't exist we would have to invent it." So what could be more natural, in this era of reinventing governments, than to produce a streamlined UN.
That, alas, is not likely to happen unless the Clinton administration shows more leadership. It ought to be sitting down with other major nations (not going it alone) to find ways to help Mr. Annan cut outdated specialized agencies while revamping the UN's peacekeeping, weapons-hunting, environment-monitoring, and humanitarian machinery. And it ought to pay its arrears as part of this process.
The carnage of major wars sobers world leaders, and they design machinery to keep the peace: The Congress of Vienna power balance after the Napoleonic wars. The shortlived League of Nations after World War I. The UN after the first truly global war. But then postwar urgency fades. And so does the peace machinery.
Bill Clinton makes no secret of his search for a place in history. Improving the world's machinery for fending off wars and environmental degradation should qualify.