ROME. — Rome -- It is not the best use of scarce time to rush across the world to New York merely to tell the new U.N. secretary general to find new ways of identifying disputes before they get out of hand, nor to pass paper declarations on the earnest need for a registrar of arms sales.
To win the accolade ''historic,'' today's unusual meeting of the U.N. Security Council, with heads of state occupying the chairs around the horseshoe table, would have to do the one thing it isn't ready for -- decide, irrevocably, to allow the Security Council to function as their predecessors, who drafted the U.N. Charter, intended.
It was to be the supreme authority for resolving international disputes and insuring ''that armed force should not be used, save in the common interest.''
Despite superficial appearances to the contrary, the Security Council was not the responsible instrument in the Persian Gulf War, nor the Korean War. In both cases one country, the United States, determined what was supposed to be a world body. No one, not even China, wants to confront this conundrum.
For not very good reasons, none of the veto-wielding ''Big Five'' is prepared to endow the Security Council with more than an added dose of consultation, laced with, perhaps, some more sophisticated ad-hocery. Forsaking a significant portion of their own sovereignty, they clearly feel, is even worse than letting Washington operate in the Security Council's mantle.
Yet the Big Five ask the majority of the world's countries, big and small, industrialized and developing, to renounce their sovereignty, not least by accepting the principle that the Big Five can, if they agree, as they did with the gulf war, do as they please. Or by accepting the Nonproliferation Treaty, in which a total of 137 countries voluntarily forswear the right to develop nuclear weapons, while letting the Big Five have theirs.
What was tolerable, even excusable, in the polarized hostility of the Cold War, is inadmissible today. We are at a rare moment of opportunity when there is no insuperable ideological or religious divide among mankind, no rapacious empire widening its hold, no power-hungry dictator out to reshape the world. When the world's greatest menace is the potentate of a small Arab nation intellectually and spiritually isolated from most of his own blood brothers, the global situation is as good as it's ever going to be.
When the U.N. Charter was adopted at San Francisco in 1945, Truman and Churchill, if not Stalin, believed that the mechanisms they were putting their signatures to were workable. It was the sum of their wisdom, albeit based on the notion -- alas, gravely mistaken -- that the wartime allies would remain together. ''Those whom war hath joined together let not peace put asunder'' said the U.S. secretary of state, James Byrnes.
When the Cold War erupted, it was too blithely and quickly concluded that the charter was faulty. For that circumstance, perhaps, but not for all time. But who will speak for the charter?
Not, it appears, Boris Yeltsin, whose feel for international matters is a long way from Mikhail Gorbachev's. Not Francois Mitterrand, John Major or Li Peng, who, like three old ladies, clutch their nuclear skirts close about them while the big boys are loosening their nuclear pants. And certainly not George Bush, who revealed during the gulf war how he sees the U.N. -- as an acolyte of American resolve and leadership that gives the U.S. the authority to punish wickedness and impose order.
The non-permanent members of the Security Council and the broad membership of the General Assembly must start making a scene -- a campaign for the acceptance of the ''enforcement'' procedures of the charter's chapter 7 to keep the peace and repel aggression.
Dag Hammarskjold laid down the blueprint. Frustrated by the U.N.'s inability to use chapter 7, he designed, while secretary general, a low-level substitute, ''peacekeeping,'' lightly-armed ''policemen,'' which have done sterling work arbitrating in numerous situations.
To take Hammarskjold's principles of organization and command, and apply them to a fully-fledged U.N.-controlled army, navy and air force that can truly face down major acts of aggression is now the logical next step for the world body. Logical, yes. Will it be done? Not without an almighty push from below.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.