In pleading last week for UN support for the postwar reconstruction effort in Iraq, President Bush made quite a U-turn in his administration's policy.
Meanwhile, at the very same UN session where Mr. Bush signaled this direction, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared that the UN has "come to a fork in the road," and gave its members a year to think about serious UN reforms.
It looks as though both the US and the UN need a new road map to define the relationship between them.
Actually, after waging the war pretty much alone except for help from Britain, the Bush administration seems to be recognizing the advantages of multilateralism, in which the UN is currently a preeminent institution. Rebuffed and stung by the Security Council as he sought multilateral support for the war, Bush nevertheless told UN members last week it was time to work together and "move forward." Thus he hopes to put to work in Iraq a UN infrastructure whose core budget is substantially less than what is currently being asked of the US Congress for Iraq. Meanwhile UN peacekeeping is also relatively cheap. It typically costs less worldwide in a year than the combined budgets of the New York City fire and police departments
For its part, the UN is smarting from charges of irrelevance following its abstention from the liberation of Iraq. Despite a string of UN resolutions condemning Saddam Hussein, a French-led campaign designed to curb American influence succeeded in preventing the Security Council's blessing of the US action. But the reality is that American political, military, and economic influence in the world is immense, and that reality is reflected at the UN, however the French or other nations may bridle.
One problem is that the five permanent members of the Security Council who hold veto power - France, Britain, China, the US, and Russia - no longer represent the world's power structure as it existed in 1945. (Ten other seats are filled by countries that are elected for two-year terms and do not wield a veto).
As Shashi Tharoor, one of Mr. Annan's key advisers, wrote recently in "Foreign Affairs," the Council has "acted unwisely at times and failed to act altogether at others. Sometimes it only muddles through. As Dag Hammarskjold put it, the UN was not created to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell."
Many schemes have been advanced, and much discussion gone nowhere, for the restructuring of the Security Council. The US in the past has supported giving permanent seats to Japan and Germany (at which the Italians cry, "Why not us?") and expanding Council membership to 21. Strong arguments have been advanced for including Brazil and India (at which the Pakistanis cry, "Foul!").
A frustrated Annan scolded UN members last week, telling them: "The difficulty of reaching agreement does not excuse your failure to do so." He told them he had set up a panel of "eminent personalities" to report back in a year with their recommendations for change and reform.
The irony is that despite recent tensions, the US now clearly needs the endorsement and help of the UN in Iraq, and the UN clearly needs the support of the US, without which the international organization would indeed become irrelevant and founder.
Since its inception after World War II, the UN has established an extraordinary record in extending humanitarian aid to millions. Emaciated children have been saved from starvation, refugees housed, diseases overcome and sometimes, as with smallpox, eradicated. It has promoted democracy and monitored free elections in emerging countries. It has underpinned international agencies checking nuclear proliferation, and early warning weather systems, and international civil aviation standards. It has lost more than a thousand peacekeepers killed and, as we have seen recently in Iraq, some of its key civilian personnel have been murdered by terrorists as they sought to bring food and aid to the needy.
This seems generally recognized by the American public. There are irrational conspiracy-minded critics of the UN, who think they detect clandestine overflights by black UN helicopters, and fear the takeover of national parks by the UN, and an assault on Washington by unnamed peacekeepers.
But the polls show fairly consistent public support of the UN and even of Annan, who in a recent Pew Global Attitudes Project ranked the fourth most respected world leader after Tony Blair, George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon.
Thus the UN is not irrelevant. Its challenge is to reaffirm and substantiate its relevance.
• John Hughes, a former Monitor editor, served as UN assistant secretary-general in 1995.