If, as Secretary of State-designate Madeleine Albright recently reiterated, the United States is the "indispensable nation" when it comes to championing freedom, the United Nations may well be the world's indispensable organization. Without the UN, mankind would have no ready means of jointly responding to international crises, whether an outbreak of war or the onset of famine. Countless human beings, deprived of its aid, would descend into hopelessness.
That recognition - of the need for a functioning global organization - has been around for most of this century. But it has never had a smooth path toward acceptance, and the path has rarely been more strewn with obstacles than now, as Kofi Annan of Ghana prepares to take the UN's reins.
Mr. Annan has logged 34 years of service in various branches of the organization. He is currently Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping. His ability to carry off tough assignments - such as handing over the peacekeeping baton to NATO in Bosnia - has won plaudits. He is known for diplomatic gracefulness, a persuasive way with words, and the devotion of his co-workers.
He'll need those talents and more to move the UN forward at a time of persistent calls for reform, pinched budgets, and antagonism from that indispensable member - the US. American relations with the UN have just had a rough passage over the Clinton administration's determination to oust sitting Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The election-year politics of that episode aside, the new secretary-general will face a recurrent fact of American political life: Internationalist impulses often meet with instinctive distrust.
Today that distrust ranges from inaccurate campaign-trail broadsides against UN "command" of US forces to the passionate concerns of those who perceive a UN-led conspiracy to undermine American sovereignty. US worries about the UN find their most politically poignant expression in Congress, which habitually refuses to pay UN dues - an intransigence that now amounts to more than $1 billion in back dues.
Kofi Annan is considered by many - including, apparently, President Clinton, who backed his selection - as someone who may be capable of reforging UN ties to Washington, and beyond Washington to the American people generally. He'll have to push ahead with the financial and administrative reforms already underway. Congress must be convinced he'll run a tight ship. Then, presumably, the lawmakers will do the right thing and end the US parsimony.
At the same time, Annan will have to maintain his credibility with the rest of the world, which doesn't want a UN chief who bends too easily to Washington's will.
The genial Ghanaian brings considerable goodwill to these tasks. He is said to be a man without enemies. It will take a very big man indeed - big in soul and intellect - to rise above the squabbles that have marked the UN's recent history and get on with its indispensable work.