The United Nations, that much-maligned and much-misunderstood institution that has the potential to do much good for mankind, is at a crossroads.

The United States, its most powerful member-nation, can help reform it and make it better. Or it can sink it.

Traditionally, most Americans have supported the United Nations if for nothing else, its enormous achievements in the field of world health, aid to children, feeding the hungry and relief for millions of refugees.

A withdrawal from the United Nations now, for which some of the more extreme critics are calling, would clearly render it defunct.

It would also be immensely damaging to the United States at a time when the Bush administration is seeking to demonstrate its desire to work with the international community.

True, the United Nations can be a place of maddening bureaucratic torpor, and at times, as in the case of Iraq, of self-destructive political impotence. Its current image is hardly helped by an unfolding saga of corruption and managerial incompetence in the international oil-for-food program that enabled Saddam Hussein to siphon off billions of dollars for palaces and weaponry. Its embattled secretary-general, Kofi Annan, has been called on to resign by a U.S. senator (Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman).

In my time at the United Nations, Annan was the able and tough head of the U.N.'s widespread peacekeeping forces. Though he has made some injudicious remarks about the U.S. role in Iraq, and has been embarrassed by his son's ties to a company contracting with the United Nations, Annan deserves a postponement of judgment until the "full disclosure of the facts" about the oil scandal, for which President Bush has called, are at hand. Though one other senior U.N. official is under suspicion, the evidence so far points to officials in France and Russia as the principal culprits.

This underlines what is often misunderstood about the United Nations, namely that it is no more than an association of world nations, some of whom observe and practice its high-minded principles, some of whom do not. Some place self-interest above helping, or policing, others. Some lie. Some shamelessly manipulate.

But the collective effort has generally been more constructive than not in tackling humanitarian problems. As for war and peace, the United Nations has deterred some states from going to war, and kept the peace afterward between states who went to war and gave it up. From most of this the United States has benefited. In international peacekeeping operations, for instance, a multinational force saves billions of dollars over a unilateral U.S. operation.

Annan, a realist about the U.N.'s shortcomings in the face of a changing world, last year appointed a panel of distinguished leaders to recommend reforms. Last week the panel offered ideas that might prevent the United Nations from drifting into irrelevance.

It tiptoes around the controversial question of pre-emptive strikes that are central to the Bush administration's foreign policy in the age of al-Qaida. The U.N. Charter (Article 51) enshrines the "long-established customary international law" of self-defense that "makes it clear that states can take military action as long as the threatened attack is imminent," and no other means would deflect it. The panel does not seek to change this. But it says that in the case of "non-imminent threat," arguments for it should be "put to the Security Council, which can authorize such action if it chooses to."

Thus the panel appears to reinforce the principle of pre-emptive strikes but offers caveats about the conditions under which they can be launched.

The panel says the United Nations has lagged in combating terrorism; offers criticism of various U.N. agencies; makes proposals for making the bureaucracy more efficient; and offers a variety of strategies to curb the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, about which it is clearly alarmed.

One of the panel's most significant recommendations is to restructure the Security Council, whose present membership it considers unrepresentative and ineffective. The council presently consists of five permanent members with veto power — the United States, Britain, Russia, France and China — and 10 revolving members who each serve for two years. Two options for enlargement are offered that could expand the council to 25, but neither is likely to quell political dissent and squabbling as nations like Japan, India, Brazil and Italy argue their respective claims.

Comment on this story Major action must probably wait for a heads of state meeting on the eve of next September's General Assembly session. In the intervening months, the United States should be busily promoting those reforms at the United Nations that would make it more relevant to U.S. interests.


John Hughes is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News. He served a one-year term in 1995 as assistant secretary-general and director of communications at the United Nations. He is a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column. E-mail: hughes@desnews.com