Rating the U.N. Summit

The United Nations Millennium Summit last month aroused no enthusiasm at Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, The New York Post. The paper’s pundits were heavily sarcastic. In a Sunday roundup of the events of the first week in September, Linda Stasi claimed that environmental scientists had discovered that a new hole had been blown into the ozone from all the hot air rising out of the U.N. building.

Steve Dunleavy, a Post commentator, complained that Clinton’s murdering Cuban and Iranian pals had left the city stuck with a $25-million security bill. Cindy Adams, the gossip columnist, agreed: Enough with those U.N. pests and their motorcades....


Those disenchanted observers had a point. All the same, there was more to that meeting on Sept. 6-8 than the chances it gave some 152 world leaders to make airborne speeches and grab photo-ops. To begin with, as Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pointed out, the summit’s first value was to be found not in anything that was said there but simply in the fact that the meeting happened.

Ms. Mathews made that comment as a member of a panel of four experts who talked about the summit during the Sept. 8 broadcast of The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. Another of the panelists was John Ruggie, a U.N. assistant secretary general. He explained that the accident of the calendar, the arrival of the year 2000, had provided the United Nations with an opportunity to take a look at what it does, how it does it and how it can do better.

The United Nations was founded in 1945 to promote peace by providing a forum for negotiating international differences in a world that then had about 53 countries. Twenty years later, without naming names, the Second Vatican Council had praise for this effort. In its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the council said: The international agencies, both universal and regional, which already exist assuredly deserve well of the human race. These stand forth as the first attempts to lay international foundations under the whole human community for the solving of the critical problems of our age, the promotion of global progress, and the prevention of any kind of war (No. 84).

In the prevention of wars, the United Nations has had only limited success. It probably did moderate the cold war and help to keep it from turning into World War III. The record of its peacekeeping operations has, however, been spotty. It had some success when lines of conflict between smaller nations were clearly drawn. That was the case in the early 1960’s, when the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots were quarreling, and in 1973, when there was a cease-fire to maintain between Israel and Syria after the Arab-Israeli war. On the other hand, peacekeeping efforts failed in Korea, Iraq, Liberia, Angola, Rwanda and Eritreacountries internally divided by civil war.

What Vatican II called the promotion of global progress makes for a more cheerful topic. The United Nations system, as distinguished from the United Nations itself, includes a number of specialized agencies that are juridically autonomousUNESCO, for instance, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Labor Organization.

These associated bodies were established to promote socioeconomic welfare around the world, and without attracting much public notice they have accumulated solid accomplishments. They have developed water power projects within the dry areas of poor countries, improved crop productivity and introduced pest control. They have curbed potential epidemics and trained teachers for the unschooled.

In their short speeches at the International Summit and in their joint declaration when the meeting ended, the world’s leaders, one after another, pointed the United Nations toward a widening of this social activism, toward consideration of the needs of all personsthose born in the villages of East Africa as well as those born on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

The heads of state may or may not have been sincere in recommending this expansion of the U.N.’s horizon, and the organization itself may or may not move toward implementing this ideal. But at least the ideal was highlighted, and that may produce some changes in international relationsnot less concern for war and peace, but more concern for human values.

If that should happen, even the crankiest New Yorkers might concede that the Millennium Summit, with all its motorcades and traffic gridlock, was worth the trouble.

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