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On December 10 Secretary General Kofi Annan and the United Nations were awarded the Centennial Nobel Peace Prize. The citation commends Annan for "bringing new life to the organization," and it expresses the hope that the UN will serve "at the forefront" of the world's efforts to achieve peace and to meet its economic, social and environmental challenges. Whether or not it can hinges heavily on Washington, with which relations have been rocky in the recent past.

It is encouraging, therefore, that September 11 and the subsequent war against terrorism have caused the Bush Administration to discover the UN's utility. Annan, the UN Security Council and the General Assembly immediately and unequivocally condemned the attacks, and the Council adopted an antiterrorism resolution requiring all countries to report back regularly on their steps to implement its prohibitions against providing active or passive assistance to terrorists. Lakhdar Brahimi, Annan's special envoy for Afghanistan, has led the negotiations among Afghan factions to devise a political formula for governing the country. President Bush has not only encouraged the UN to play an active "nation-building" role in Afghanistan--a concept he disdained as recently as the 2000 electoral campaign--he also convened a White House meeting with Annan and his top team to discuss the many challenges that entails. For its part, the House of Representatives moved quickly after September 11 to release $582 million in back dues long owed the UN, while the Senate confirmed President Bush's choice of John Negroponte as US ambassador to the UN; both had been held up for months in Congress.

Do these affirmations of the UN, in Oslo and in Washington, mark the beginning of a new era in US/UN relations? At this point, few if any close observers have answered with a resounding yes. After all, it wasn't so long ago that the UN proved essential to the United States in the Gulf War and in imposing an unprecedented sanctions and weapons-inspection regime on Iraq. Yet that was followed by some of the worst times ever in the relationship.

The US Congress, with the acquiescence of successive administrations, has held US/UN relations hostage to domestic political fights over abortion and in order to placate the paranoia of the right about "world government." President Clinton saw in the UN a useful tool to avoid or limit US engagement abroad that might pose domestic political risks, and a handy scapegoat when those efforts failed. President George W. Bush's eight-month rejectionist streak prior to September 11 was an even worse omen for the future--simply saying no to the Kyoto Protocol limiting greenhouse gas emissions, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the International Criminal Court, the enforcement provisions of the biological weapons treaty and modest steps to curtail the worldwide proliferation of small arms, which has become so intense that an AK-47 rifle can be had in most Third World conflict zones for the price of a chicken.

Did this history simply evaporate after September 11? Are we witnessing love at second sight? To get a better grip on what the future might bring we need to understand how the US/UN relationship came unglued in the first place, and what would have to change to alter it permanently. Here, in brief, is the story line.

The first chapter unfolds in the 1970s, with the UN systematically alienating supportive US constituencies in ill-considered acts led by the developing countries, feeling newly empowered by OPEC's success and abetted by the Soviet Union. The American Jewish community was traditionally pro-UN. The General Assembly had voted in 1947 to establish the state of Israel. But a 1975 resolution branded Zionism as racism--and there went that relationship. The internationally oriented segment of American business had been generally supportive of the UN. Its International Chamber of Commerce was one of the first NGOs granted consultative status at the UN. …