The United States' commitment to the concept of international cooperation will be put to the test with the streamlining reforms outlined by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
With Annan announcing plans to cut 1,000 jobs, replace a multiheaded fiefdom with a smaller, more focused cabinet and create a development fund using money to be saved from the overhaul, he has tossed the ball squarely in Washington's lap.
The reforms are not the huge cost-cutting plan that some congressional critics have called for. But they are more than enough to put the onus on nay-sayers to demonstrate that they actually do want to improve the United Nations and aren't just seeking an excuse to gut it.
Annan's plan would cut administrative overhead from 38 percent to 25 percent of the budget over the next five years.
It also would create a revolving fund to tide the organization over during fiscal crises like the one caused by the United States' refusal to pay all of its dues. Such a fund would lessen the clout of politicians hostile to the United Nations who might want to withhold dues as a form of reverse extortion in order to get the agency to bend to their will.
On the operational side, a significant proposal would have member nations keep some troops on standby for U.N. peacekeeping duty. Such a force could be quickly deployed to trouble spots. This would help the agency head off a crisis instead of waiting until one develops while it goes through the slow process of putting a force together each time.
Other operational reforms include the creation of a deputy secretary-general's post as well as reinstatement of a disarmament department and an upgrade of the human-rights office to help the United Nations pursue two of its most critical missions.
Some of the changes can be carried out administratively. Others, however, require the approval of the 185-member General Assembly, a body not much enamored with the United States' efforts to reshape the United Nations unilaterally to its liking.
The United States admits to withholding $819 million in back dues. However, Washington really is a deadbeat to the tune of $1.3 billion because that's how much it owed before some in Congress unilaterally decided they would cut the U.S. assessment.
With other nations such as Japan ready and able to play a more prominent role on the world stage, and with serious talk of expanding the U.N. Security Council to give other regions a greater voice, it may well be time to reduce the U.S. assessment and have other countries assume more of the financial burden. The schedule of who pays what in U.N. dues needs revising.
But that should be negotiated. And agreement will never be easily reached if the United States alienates other nations with imperious demands. The United Nations is not, after all, just another department of the U.S. government.
Annan's reform plan is a good-faith effort to carry through on promises made when the United States engineered his appointment last year. The right U.S. response would be to welcome this plan as the start of a genuine effort to revamp the United Nations for a new world.
It is the United Nations, after all, that can relieve the United States of carrying too big an international burden.