It's been a long time since the world's gaze fell on the UN General Assembly. The more powerful Security Council mainly takes the spotlight as the world's diplomatic boxing ring. Yet in coming months, the 191-member Assembly will be asked to reshape the UN's structure and role - a world-reordering task long overdue.
If the Assembly fails - a two-thirds vote is needed to alter the charter - the UN could further lose legitimacy and trend toward irrelevance. Recent scandals by its staff and stalemates between nations over its missions have created political riptides as strong as the East River's tidal currents that swirl past its New York headquarters.
On the table is a reform package released last week by Secretary- General Kofi Annan that carefully balances competing interests. Mr. Annan, himself facing pressure from Washington to resign over two UN scandals, wants his plan accepted in total before a September summit of world leaders. Finding a wide consensus, however, will be difficult, and requires strong US and European leadership.
What's really at stake is not just making trade-offs among national interests in redistributing influence among old and new powers at the UN. Rather, any reform must push nations to recognize that the post-1945 world at the UN's founding is moving beyond the interests of the nation-state toward a more global acceptance of universal principles and aims. Power flows less and less out of the gun or a country's size as technology moves ideas and values across borders. The UN's universal role in promoting freedom, political rights, open markets, and economic growth is becoming easier in a globalizing and wired world.
Sure, it still matters that the Security Council membership should be expanded, and whether Brazil or Germany will be given a permanent council seat. Yes, China and Libya might be angry if denied a seat on a better-selected human-rights panel. For now, the UN must be structured as a democracy of nations, even though many members aren't democracies. But what matters more is that the UN avoid nationalist tendencies and deal with threats that hurt or offend most of the world, especially terrorism, gross atrocities within a country, and poverty.
Annan's reforms set forth a definition of terrorism, criteria for military action in a country suffering a humanitarian crisis, and minimum aid spending by rich nations. Not all his recommendations will please Washington, but in coming months the Bush administration must help achieve a level of reform that doesn't leave the UN stuck in a model that's, well, so 20th century.