London. -- The United Nations has been called many things in its time. ''Ce machin'' by Charles de Gaulle, a ''cesspool'' by one mayor of New York and ''UNO'' until quite recently in Britain. Now practically every week someone important is saying something nice about it, or there is a new appeal for its intervention to sort out some contention somewhere.
Last weekend it was Russia and Georgia issuing a joint call for the U.N. to take a look at the ethnic strife that is bedeviling their relationship -- the first time one of the old superpowers has thought the U.N. could do something in its own backyard.
Last month it was agreed that the U.N. should monitor the peace process in South Africa. Former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance is working overtime to negotiate a compromise in ex-Yugoslavia, and the blue-helmeted troops keep the relief moving. In Cambodia, U.N. troops hold the ring in the Killing Fields.
And the newly-elected Israeli government has decided to put the Middle East peace conference into serious business with its announcement that it will use Resolution 242, the most famous ** number in the U.N. catalog, as a basis for negotiations.
How far is it going to go? From being derided, the United Nations is now in danger of being overloaded with such high expectations that not even its most fervent advocates are sure it can always deliver.
It was Dag Hammarskjold, the former secretary general, who once warned that the U.N. was not set up to take humanity to heaven, but to save it from hell. This is the first danger, that if the U.N. cannot stop bloodshed immediately, as by the lightning application of force advocated by some for the Yugoslavian situation, then the painfully slow work of negotiating or providing relief supplies will be regarded as a mark of inadequacy and failure.
Danger number two is that the three Western veto-wielding powers on the Security Council, after years of holding the U.N. at a distance during the Cold War, are now smothering it in their embrace.
George Bush, from his time as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., always knew the organization's potential, and he knows its charter as well as anyone. But even he could never have imagined how relatively easy it would be to line up the Security Council behind his cause in the Persian Gulf.
While he followed the charter to the letter in gaining approval for military intervention, he totally ignored its strictures on how a U.N. military enforcement operation was to work. Instead of the force being raised by the secretary general on instructions from the Security Council -- as are the peacekeeping armies in ex-Yugoslavia and Cambodia today -- America just did it itself. Russia and China, the two non-Western veto-wielding powers, lamely went along for their own reasons.
This was a significant breach of procedure. But what followed with the Kurds of northern Iraq and now with the Shias of southern Iraq is an even more serious undermining of the legal norms of the charter.
The famous Resolution 688, which was passed in a hurry, pressed by a world opinion horrified by Saddam Hussein's turning his guns on the helpless Kurds, is in one respect a milestone -- the U.N. has never before so explicitly ordered a member country to allow in relief agencies. But the resolution was twisted out of shape by the U.S., Britain and France, which used it to justify their own (albeit well-intentioned) military intervention to stop the killing of the Kurds.
Russia, China and a non-veto member, India, had all clearly refused to sponsor a resolution authorizing the use of force, fearing it would set a precedent for interference in a country's sovereignty. Today the resolution is further distorted as U.S. and British fighters patrol the skies above the Shia areas, their governments insisting that they are acting under the same authority given them to protect the Kurds.
If the Western Big Three continue as they have the last two years, warming to the U.N. but in the process taking it over and rewriting its laws to their own preferences, they are in danger of destroying its value just at the moment of its re-emergence and restored sense of credibility.
At the same time, there is a loud knocking on the door of the Security Council. Japan, now the second-largest donor (after the U.S.) to the U.N. peace-keeping budget, feels it should be included as one of the veto-wielding members. Germany, less pushy, would certainly step up its efforts if the door appeared to be opening for Japan. It is hard to refuse them. The present five were the victors of World War II. That legacy cannot exist forever. But if Japan and Germany are given permanent membership, then it will be difficult to refuse influential Third World countries like Egypt, Brazil, India and Nigeria the same position.
Even if Britain, France and Germany could be persuaded to sink their identities in one European Community vote, which would make sense if the Maastricht Treaty survives, it would still mean nine members with power of veto. The West rightly argues that this is too cumbersome. In truth, the veto itself is an anachronism and the Security Council should work by consensus, as indeed in practice it did, both for good and for ill, on the Gulf War.
The U.N., its charter, its ability to arbitrate and keep the peace is probably, given mankind's propensity to quarrel, going to be needed for at least a few centuries more. If these distortions of the U.N. are not faced up to, we will undermine it just at its moment of possible maximum effectiveness.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.