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A 21st Century UN

That's right with the UN? What's wrong with the UN?

First, some shorthand answers. Then some background.

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In the what's right column:

All those little noticed agencies that make the world work better: aid to undernourished children, global air traffic refereeing, nuclear weapons sleuthing, weather monitoring, basic sanitation instruction, refugee protection, and preservation of civilizations' monuments.

Even less noticed, but important: providing a "finishing school" for scores of men and women who become their nations' foreign ministers and prime ministers. It's at the United Nations that many of them first meet the complexities of foreign policy and meet each other.

Peacekeeping, which falls into both the success and failure columns. Where the task is policing a cease fire or troubled border, the blue-helmeted troups have generally succeeded. Where multinational forces are expected to wage military or semi-military campaigns - as in the Congo (now Zaire), or Bosnia - peacekeeping runs into trouble. A nation state is, of course, dedicated to defending its own borders. But UN members are more fickle about defending someone else's sovereignty.

In the what's wrong column:

The sheer cacaphony of near universal membership. Since the UN was founded it has expanded from 50 to 185 members. In the general assembly, tiny slices of mankind meet alongside the only military superpower, economic superpowers, and superpopulous China and India. When the UN sponsors a specialized conference (environment, population, women's rights, housing) universal attendance is both desirable and ultimately frustrating. The less democratic but more efficient Security Council provides occasional steering on global trouble spots. Quiet meetings between the foreign ministers of the permanent members of the council and the UN secretary-general provide the closest approach to global management. But neither great powers nor small really want to cede much sovereignty to the UN. So activist secretaries-general (Dag Hammarskjold, Boutros Boutros-Ghali) constantly risk being reined in.

Much has been written about bureaucratic waste and inefficiency at the organization. Both exist. No surprise. Most member governments are themselves wastrels. And few members, particularly poorer nations, want to send their best and brightest to serve a distant world organization. But enough pluses and minuses. After 50 years, should the UN be downgraded - as many members of the US Congress assert - or reinvented? History argues strongly for reinvention.

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SINCE the start of "modern history" - the end of the Napoleonic Wars - world leaders have been trying to design the perfect world organization: one that would keep a peaceful balance of power without destroying its members' sovereignty. Each was driven by horror over the widespread war just ended. After Napoleon's downfall, the Congress of Vienna in 1815. After World War I, the League of Nations. After World War II, the UN. In each case the world changed dramatically within a few decades, altering the task the body was designed to perform. Just as the industrial revolution created power centers outside Europe, so has the end of empires and decolonization extended the UN's reach beyond its grasp. Now, the end of the last empire (the Romanov/Communist empire), the rise of Asian economies, the spread of global trade and finance, the globalization of environmental problems, and the threat of nuclear weapons spread are among the alterations of the world balance not foreseen by the UN's founders in San Francisco.

Less observed, but perhaps most important, is the graying of the UN's grass-roots supporters. It's only natural that generations that cannot remember World War II's horrors are at most lukewarm toward the remedies that grew from that war: the UN, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and GATT (now the World Trade Organization).

Between now and next October's UN Day anniversary, we will look at specific reforms to improve all of these organizations. For now, the most useful generalization derives from Adlai Stevenson's quip that if the UN didn't exist we would have to invent it. What's really needed is for today's generation of leaders to work on reinventing the world organization to meet current needs. And for citizens to become enthusiastic about the reinventing. Only that will prevent the UN blue from graying.