The United Nations, that much-maligned and much-misunderstood institution that has the potential to do much good for mankind, is at a crossroads.
The United States, its most powerful member nation, can help reform it and make it better. Or it can sink it.
Traditionally, most Americans have supported the UN, if for nothing else than its enormous achievements in the fields of world health, aid to children, feeding the hungry, and relief for millions of refugees. A US withdrawal from the UN now, for which some of the more extreme critics are calling, would clearly render it defunct. It would also be immensely damaging to the US at a time when the Bush administration is seeking to demonstrate its desire to work with the international community.
True, the UN can be a place of maddening bureaucratic torpor, and at times, as in the case of Iraq, of self-destructive political impotence. Its current image is hardly helped by an unfolding saga of corruption and managerial incompetence in the international oil-for-food program that enabled Saddam Hussein to siphon off billions of dollars for palaces and weaponry. Its embattled secretary-general, Kofi Annan, has been called on to resign by a US Senator - Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman.
In my time at the UN, Mr. Annan was the able and tough head of its widespread peacekeeping forces. Though he has made some injudicious remarks about the US role in Iraq, and has been embarrassed by his son's ties to a company contracting with the UN, Annan deserves a postponement of judgment until the "full disclosure of the facts" about the oil scandal, which President Bush has called for, is at hand. Though one other senior UN official is under suspicion, the evidence so far points to officials in France and Russia as the principal culprits.
This underlines what is often misunderstood about the UN, namely that it is no more than an association of world nations, some of which observe and practice its high-minded principles, some of which do not. Some place self-interest above helping or policing others. Some lie. Some shamelessly manipulate.
But the collective effort has generally been more constructive than not in tackling humanitarian problems. As for war and peace, the UN has deterred some states from going to war, and kept the peace afterward between states that went to war and gave it up. From most of this, the US has benefited. In international peacekeeping operations, for instance, a multinational force saves billions of dollars over a unilateral US operation.
Annan, a realist about the UN's shortcomings in the face of a changing world, last year appointed a panel of distinguished leaders to recommend reforms. Last week, the panel offered ideas that might prevent the UN from drifting into irrelevance.
It tiptoes around the controversial question of preemptive strikes, which are central to the Bush administration's foreign policy in the age of Al Qaeda. The panel's report states that the UN Charter (Article 51) enshrines the "long-established customary international law" of self-defense that "makes it clear that States can take military action as long as the threatened attack is imminent," and no other means would deflect it. The panel does not seek to change this. But it says that in the case of "non-imminent threat," arguments for it should be "put to the Security Council, which can authorize such action if it chooses to."
Thus, the panel appears to reinforce the principle of preemptive strikes but offers caveats about the conditions under which they can be launched.
The panel says the UN has lagged in combating terrorism; offers criticism of various UN agencies; makes proposals for making the bureaucracy more efficient; and offers a variety of strategies to curb the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons - about which it is clearly alarmed.
One of the panel's most significant recommendations is to restructure the Security Council, whose present membership it considers unrepresentative and ineffective. The council presently consists of five permanent members with veto power - the US, Britain, Russia, France, and China - and 10 revolving members that each serve two years. Two options for enlargement offered could expand the council to 25, but neither is likely to quell political dissent and squabbling as nations such as Japan, India, Brazil, and Italy argue their respective claims.
Major action must probably wait for a heads of state meeting on the eve of next September's General Assembly session. Meanwhile, the US should be busily promoting those reforms at the UN that would make it more relevant to US interests.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, was assistant secretary-general and director of communications at the UN in 1995.