The presidential campaign is in a lull, little more than nattering until the candidates square off after the conventions. Then, it is to be hoped, the American people will be engaged not only in the crucial domestic choices before them, but also in defining this nation's place in the world.
Foreign affairs has little voting appeal and the United Nations, it would seem, none at all - or only negative. This is strange in light of reputable polls showing majorities of two-thirds or more supporting the UN and demanding full payment of outstanding dues.
Perhaps the polls reflect a sentimental inclination rather than a reasoned judgment. Polls also show that isolationism has grown markedly since the 1960s and that most people prefer unilateral action to deal with trade disputes rather than multilateral machinery such as the World Trade Organization.
Politicians gauge public opinion differently - the large number who bash the UN must feel sure it will gain them votes. Leaving aside Pat Buchanan and Sens. Phil Gramm and Jesse Helms, Bob Dole won a round of cheers when he told a joint session of the New Hampshire legislature that, in his administration, "I'll decide when troops are sent - not Boutros Boutros-Ghali." Dole also once interrupted his campaign to demand legislation blocking the UN from levying taxes on the US - something The Washington Post called a "fantasy."
The administration professes to see the value of the UN and urges payment of the arrears that make the US the biggest deadbeat ever. But it seems to look over its shoulder, doing no heavy lifting in Congress, never making a public issue of the UN. Participation is being cut back, though it is clear without Washington's leadership the UN would be a hollow shell, another League of Nations.
If there is an American consensus about the US role in the world, it is that the burdens and risks of leadership should be shared. All agree that this country should not try to be the world's policeman. But by backing away from the UN in these unpredictable, riotous times, the US would ensure that there be no world policeman at all. Without some ordering authority, necessarily backed by force, world affairs risk a fateful retrogression. Bosnia showed that Europe can't cope with a crisis even on its continent if the US does not provide the backbone and the beacon. Russia is in the throes of transition to an identity still unknown. The same can be said of China.
The elements of strategic balance do not exist today. We do have the toxic remnants of political Darwinism, which found its culmination in Adolf Hitler's megalomania and in Mao Zedong's dictum that power grows out of the barrel of a gun. The notion that the US could sit this out as a disapproving spectator was surely disposed of on Dec. 7, 1941. However remote, another Pearl Harbor is a possibility, but showdown has other faces.
This train of thought hasn't figured in political debate. UN-bashers harp on the shortcomings of a human institution. The UN's defenders don't find much resonance for their explanation of what the US stands to lose. Only the president could command attention if he made this an issue. After much wobbling, an emphatic statement would be news.
National security isn't far from people's minds. Without monitoring of the rogue regime in Iraq by the Special Commission of the UN Security Council, Saddam Hussein would be so far advanced in his program of aggressive rearmament that he could be stopped only by another Desert Storm. Central America and Haiti offer other examples.
The UN isn't a magical problem-solver. It is an instrument, made in the American image, which can turn unilateral plans into collective security and collective peace if the American people put their backs to it.