Great Britain’s John Major presided over the recent opening of the summit meeting of the United Nations Security Council. George Bush took his seat as an ordinary delegate with a presence in theory no larger than the president of Ecuador’s and far less imposingly identified than His Majesty Hassan II, King of Morocco. But no degree of camouflage by protocol could obscure Bush’s unchallengeable eminence as the de facto UN commander-in-chief to whom the President of Russia can only come as a suitor for a junior partnership.

The heads of the states represented on the Security Council have met to shape the new world order and are now adjourned, content to have limited themselves to celebrating the end of the old one. The new had been so vaguely sketched as to offer an outline whose most tangible strokes emerged not in any words Bush and Yeltsin spoke but in their marked and mutual silence about the hunger, the disease, and the homelessness of the Africa of 10 million refugees.

Yeltsin appeared, to be sure, as the newest and stateliest representative of the beggar class and his own desperations excuse some want of concern for other, longer suffering members. Excuses for Bush are cloudier. A little while before he saluted the UN’s “noble work of peacekeeping,” the Secretary-General reported on contributions assessed from member states and still unpaid; and the United States led with a total debit of $407 million, $141 million of it for peacekeeping operations.

It is no small irony to avail oneself of guest privileges in what is, for the moment, the most harmonious club within New York’s city limits and to find the chairman of its house committee posted highest on the list of delinquent dues payers.

The tender-minded could scarcely have expected to feel their humanitarian sensibilities abraded by the cold war’s demise. And yet a curious nostalgia commences to stir for the irrecoverable time of those competitive biddings for the third world when the United States used to trade Ethiopia for Somalia and perhaps two Soviet-leaning countries to be named later.

For now the poor among the uselessly unaligned countries have lost all appeal to the political calculations of the rich nations and are left with no hope but their benevolence. The most desolated face at the Security Council that day belonged not unnaturally to the President of India, bankrupted inheritor of an estate that had been as proud of its moral superiority to the superpowers as of its dexterity at playing one against the other. Today’s Russia has neither the impulse nor the resource for buying other countries; and today’s United States has no need to, being itself near exhaustion of purse.

The poor have no remaining credit except with the social conscience of the rich, which seldom more than fitfully wakes from sleep: it has been slumbering over Somalia, the Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti since October, when the Emergency Committee for the Southern Horn of Africa reported that it had yet to raise a fourth part of the $400 million needed to deal with the immediate crisis in that withered and devastated area.

Droughts and displacements have reduced an estimated 9 million souls in Ethiopia, 4,500,000 in Somalia, and 8 million in the Sudan to lingerings between life and death. Americans tempted to be ashamed to find themselves first on the UN’s roster of bad debts can raise their heads a bit with the news that the $41 million the United States has contributed puts her first among donors to relief of the Horn of Africa.

Japan brought an additional stroke to the new world order’s lineaments when her prime minister politely demanded a permanent seat and maybe a veto on the Security Council. The next chapter of the UN’s history may then begin with today’s economic victor taking his equal place beside yesterday’s military victors. That is a prospect at once appropriate and discomfiting, because economic victors usually treat losers with less mercy than military victors do.

Copyright © 1992 Newsday, Inc.

This Issue

March 5, 1992