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Promises kept and unkept at the United Nations

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TWENTY or 25 years ago, a candidate who proposed - as Michael Dukakis has done - that he would try to make more use of an international forum like the United Nations for resolving international disputes and conducting foreign policy would not have raised many eyebrows. With the exception of a right-wing minority, voters would readily have accepted such a comment as a promising sign of an American president's willingness to take a truly global perspective. At this point in the campaign, Mr. Dukakis's remark has not become a serious liability, and it is too early to tell what direction his foreign policy statements may take. What struck me about his mention of the UN was the reaction it generated, reflecting a change in American attitudes over the last couple of decades.

You don't have to be an old-fashioned isolationist to be disappointed in the record of that body, founded with such high hopes and noble principles in the aftermath of World War II. I remember how exciting it was, as a child growing up in those years, to be taken on a class trip to the UN headquarters in New York, where we were shepherded from one imposing, elegant, beautifully decorated chamber to the next. Fiberglass curtains from Sweden, crystal chandeliers from Austria, tapestries from India, sculpture from Africa. I don't remember the specific provenance of each gift, but the overall impression was unforgettable: a great, progressive, generous, quintessentially ``modern'' idea, the institutional embodiment of the dream of peace and world unity.

What, exactly, happened in the interim? Was it simply a case of too-high expectations bound to result in disappointment? In a deep sense, yes. Poised against the shadow of World War II, the emerging cold war, and the omnipresent mushroom cloud, the UN stood as a tangible symbol of hope. That it was unprecedented (back in our classrooms, we were assured that the UN had been carefully structured not to fail, as the old League of Nations had done) made it seem still more hopeful.


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