Secretary-General Kofi Annan opened the United Nation's annual General Assembly this week by laying down a marker.
Mr. Annan addressed the issue of the day: security in Iraq. But he also made it known that the UN's legitimacy, authority, and credibility would depend on a new effort to overhaul the 58-year-old institution.
The US fight against terrorism - now dominating the foreign policy of the world's sole superpower - renews concerns that the UN's power-sharing structure is outdated and of questionable effectiveness. "We have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded," Annan said Tuesday. "Now we must decide whether it is possible to continue on the basis agreed then, or whether radical changes are needed."
No one expects remaking the UN to happen quickly. But the question of reforming the institution has been lent a palpable sense of urgency by the evolving situation in Iraq.
After invading Iraq last spring without the authority of a new Security Council resolution, the US is now going back to the council to request UN assistance in managing the country's rehabilitation. But the tenor of President Bush's speech Tuesday struck many here as a throwback to last year's bitter UN debate.
"The Security Council debate on the war last spring was wrenching and prompted people to consider again that we ought to have new rules," says Frederic Eckhard, Annan's official spokesman. "There's a fresh environment for thinking about these things."
In addition, UN officials and staff personnel are still reeling from the August 19 bombing of the UN's headquarters in Baghdad. That tragedy brought home the pressing need to clarify the organization's roles and responsibilities.
For the moment, at least, a deep sense of uncertainty pervades the corridors of the Secretariat building. At one extreme, the UN is seen by many critics, especially in the developing world, as an extension of the US State Department and the Pentagon in crisis zones such as Iraq. At the other extreme, conservative critics in the US view the institution as little more than an impediment to the exercise of American power.
"How do you navigate this?" one career official here asked. "How do you stay on the ground and remain effective while making sure what happened in Baghdad doesn't happen again?"
A career UN official himself, Annan has made institutional reform his highest priority since assuming office six years ago. He has been credited with successfully reshaping much of the UN's management - organizational and administrative procedures ranging from budgetary and personnel policies to relations between the Secretariat here and field operations around the world.
What remains unchanged are the governing bodies - the General Assembly and the Security Council. "The reform process is very real," says an official at the UN Development Program, one of the largest UN agencies. "So far, though, the focus has been on the staff. Now we have to reform the bosses - the member states and their structures."
As Annan made clear Tuesday, his chief concern now is the Security Council: "If you want the council's decisions to command greater respect, particularly in the developing world," Annan said, "you need to address the issue of its composition with greater urgency."
At present the council is made up of five permanent members - the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China - and 10 rotating members elected on a regional basis for two-year terms. Since any permanent member can veto a proposed resolution, the council is effectively controlled by the five nations that won World War II.
All member states agree that the council as now constituted is an anachronism. They also agree that its permanent membership must be enlarged and something - though no one knows quite what - should be done about the veto power of the five permanent members. Germany and Japan, as two of the world's most powerful economies and leading contributors to the UN budget, have been candidates for council membership for years; Brazil and India are frequently mentioned as candidates among developing nations.
But as yet, there is no consensus how the Security Council should be expanded. And why, many senior UN officials ask, should permanent members dilute their own power?
Many here also view the Iraq issue not as an opportunity to push reforms forward, but as a distraction that will delay them. The immediate task, they say, is avoiding the fractious disagreements that prompted the US to invade Iraq without the council's support.
"Nobody wants to see another big split in the council," the career official said. "The reforms we're talking about involve the UN Charter and require everyone to come together on them. They're going to have to wait for now."
Annan clearly disagrees. He announced plans to name a "panel of eminent personalities" to review the UN's major organs and recommend reforms. Annan will then report on the panel's findings at next year's General Assembly. In effect, he has set a one-year timetable for the assembly to begin debating specific measures to reshape the organization.
It is a strategy he has used before. "By bringing in experts he'll get a fresh way of saying 'Here's what might be done.' It gives members something to react to," a senior official explained. "He did this with his first round of reforms, and by and large he got the agenda adopted."
More broadly, officials say, the question of the UN's effectiveness has reached a kind of do-or-die moment and can no longer be ignored - even among those whose influence may be diminished as the organization evolves.
"Being a permanent member of the council is only worth something if the council itself is relevant," says Shashi Tharoor, a prominent aide to the secretary-general. "And there's increasing concern that it may not continue to be without serious reform."