It's a measure of how low U.N. stock has fallen that the first major overhaul of the 59-year-old body earns a resounding ho-hum from most corners of the world.
The recommendations last week from a blue-ribbon panel of experts are so mild that virtually no change in U.N. rules is even required to implement them.
Only one proposal - changing the makeup of the Security Council - needs a U.N. charter revision.
But it's worth paying attention - if only because the widening oil-for-food scandal and the United Nations' paralysis on the Iraq war and Darfur bear an uncanny resemblance to the circumstances under which the League of Nations withered away in the 1930s.
The league looked toothless in 1935, when it couldn't enforce sanctions against Italy for attacking a fellow member, Ethiopia. And what followed the end of that last experiment in collective security and dialogue was Hitler's Anschluss and a brutal world war.
The United Nations is not going down the tubes tomorrow.
But the deep alienation and disdain felt by the George W. Bush administration and many in Congress point toward trouble.
When President Bush talks about the world body's lack of "credibility," he's really saying that America will continue to thumb its nose at the Security Council with its go-it-alone doctrine on using force.
When U.S. lawmakers talk about establishing a democracy test to join U.N. bodies, they're really saying they want a "club" of pals and sycophantic allies in place of the United Nations.
Yet one of the real reasons the League of Nations failed was because America was never a member.
It's true that the United Nations must reform itself. The scandal over the U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq - $21 billion and growing - has exposed how a brutal dictator was able to use a U.N. human- itarian program as cover for blackmail, extortion and kick backs. Saddam Hus sein spent some of that money on the weaponry and mili tary training now be ing used against U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Investigations into the scandal expose the nasty undercurrent of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" in world-body politics.
In the 1990s, France and Russia said they stood for impoverished Iraqis when they objected to U.S. proposals to toughen U.N. sanctions against Saddam. But behind closed doors, some of their officials were collecting valuable oil vouchers from the dictator. America, for its part, chose to look the other way while Saddam made billions shipping oil to Gulf war ally Syria.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's credibility is withering with revelations that his son, Kojo Annan, used his father's name and connections to fatten his own wallet.
Formed in 1945 in the shadow of the first use of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II, the United Nations now seems impotent when faced with rapacious governments, terrorists seeking nukes and recurring warfare.
Annan reacted to this dismal state of affairs by initiating a project to overhaul U.N. institutions. He was hoping thereby to tweak America's conscience by reminding the White House that one reason the United Nations is paralyzed is the loss of U.S. support for U.N. peacekeeping and security projects.
So far, the process has served mainly to underscore how hard it is to move this unmovable behemoth.
Annan has yet to produce his own recommendations. But his panel of 14 experts, who included Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, couldn't agree on a single item for dramatic action.
The group endorsed the idea of "protective" intervention when citizens of a country are being slaughtered en masse, yet didn't propose altering by one iota the U.N. charter that enshrines sovereignty as the core principle of international law.
On the central issue of how to fix the Security Council, the group failed to offer veto power beyond the current five - the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China - and split on what to do beyond that.
One suggestion would create a new category of six non-veto-wielding permanent Security Council members. But in 130 pages, the panelists don't say once which countries should get this prize.
Bets are on Japan, Germany, India, Brazil, Egypt and either Nigeria or South Africa, yet behind-the-scenes maneuvering and sour grapes from prospective "losers" - including Italy - show this proposal is going nowhere fast.
Americans aren't alone in seeing the United Nations as a bloated blowhard that does little but enrich "world bureaucrats" and ignore real problems.
Yet its agencies are still the best bulwark against rampant disease and nuclear proliferation. Their poverty remediation, childhood immunizations, scientific cooperation, weather and crop monitoring and nuclear safeguards are so important they rack up more than $2 billion in voluntary U.S. contributions every year.
Yes, little of any value gets done in the annual gas-fest that is the General Assembly.
But the back corridors and U.N. missions are the place for informal talks between even the frostiest diplomatic contacts. For years, this was the principal way American diplomats spoke with the North Koreans.
The United Nations is no great prize. But it's the best we've got. And in an era when nuclear war seems ever more likely and terrorism has taken on apocalyptic dimensions, it's worth holding on to.
Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.
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