UNITED NATIONS -- While the United Nations probably enjoy a higher profile today than at any time in its history, its most important peacemaking missions are bogged down or threatened with collapse in trouble spots as varied as Angola, El Salvador, the former Yugoslavia, and Cambodia, raising the possibility of a damaging reversal to its influence in the year ahead.
Despite these setbacks, demand for the organization's services as peacekeeper, mediator, election monitor, and distributor of aid remains so strong that the secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, fears it may be unable to cope with the strains. In addition, members still owe more than $1 billion in dues.
President Clinton and his top Cabinet officers have tried to address some of the secretary-general's concerns about meeting the needs of war-ravaged or threatened countries by suggesting ways to strengthen the United Nations in the post-Cold-War era.
During his campaign for the presidency, Mr. Clinton said the United States should "pay up and pay up now" the $410 million it owes in unpaid dues and peacekeeping costs. And Congress will soon be asked to approve a contribution to a $150 million fund the secretary-general is setting up to start new peacekeeping operations.
In confirmation hearings last week, both Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher and Madeleine K. Albright, the new U.S. representative to the United Nations, raised the idea of a special U.N. force that could be deployed rapidly for emergency missions like guarding the borders of a threatened country, halting a massacre or delivering food.
But while support for a rapid response to world crises is growing, Mr. Boutros-Ghali and his chief aides are struggling to prevent several of the 13 peacekeeping missions from disintegrating. They now believe that one of the most heralded peace efforts of the post-Cold-War era, a 1991 accord in Angola, has failed, in part because the United Nations tried to achieve its goals too rapidly.
In this case, the mistake they made -- and which they hope not to repeat in nearby Mozambique in coming months -- was to organize elections before both sides in Angola's 17-year civil war had been disarmed. Thus, Angolan rebels were able to contest the outcome by force when their movement lost parliamentary and presidential elections last September.
Fighting between rebels and government forces has now spread to dozens of towns, and last week oil companies evacuated foreign workers from the oil port of Soyo after forces led by Jonas Savimbi -- the rebel leader once backed by the United States -- took control.
The U.N. Security Council must now decide whether to throw in the towel by withdrawing the peacekeeping force it deployed in Angola in June 1991.
U.N. efforts to heal the wounds of war are also faltering as agreements unravel in El Salvador, Somalia, and Cambodia.
While fighting has stopped in El Salvador and the leftist rebels of the Farabundo Marti movement are largely disarmed, President Alfredo Cristiani's reluctance to dismiss all officers accused of atrocities, including Defense Minister Rene Emilio Ponce, now threatens the final stages of the agreement under which poor peasants are to receive land and the government will restructure the police forces.
The potential for any pact to dissolve within days or hours was illustrated last week in Croatia, where fighting exploded on Friday a full year after the United Nations patched together a fragile truce.
But the reputation of the United Nations may be suffering most in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the world has watched peacekeepers stand by helplessly as Serbian nationalists kill Croats and Muslims or oust them from their towns in a campaign of "ethnic cleansing."