AS the United Nations celebrates past glories this week, its future is overshadowed by a crisis of self-confidence and financial problems.
Even as US President Bill Clinton and other world leaders gather in San Francisco to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter, members of Congress are debating their threat to pull the plug on vital funding to the cash-hungry body.
With Washington, which supplies more than a quarter of the UN's annual US$10.5 billion (HK$81.15 billion) budget, embarking on an isolationist path, attention is focusing on the organisation's raison d'etre.
Having lumbered along as the great moderating force during the Cold War, the UN has, its critics say, failed the tests placed upon it since.
High-profile peace-keeping missions, notably in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, are perceived as expensive failures. Even successes in the development and social fields are tainted by the image of bloated bureaucracies in New York and Geneva.
It is peace-keeping, its most controversial role, which is under fiercest attack on Capitol Hill.
Despite this, a nationwide survey released yesterday showed the American public backs the UN more than it does Congress. The Times Mirror Centre poll showed two out of every three Americans, 67 per cent, gave the UN very favourable or mostly favourable ratings while 28 per cent opposed it.
Congress rated only 53 per cent very or mostly favourable against 42 per cent who viewed the lawmakers unfavourably.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms has led the campaign to curtail funding.
His committee has approved a bill which would: Require the UN to reimburse the US for expenses incurred in peace-keeping; Allow the President to withhold a fifth of America's dues if the UN does anything out of line with US policy; Bar US troops from serving under a non-US command in a peace-keeping mission; and Require the White House to consult Congress before sending troops to a UN mission, unless in an emergency.
If the bill passes both Houses, the result could be devastating for the UN. America already provides around a third of the body's annual US$3 billion peace-keeping budget, an amount that would virtually disappear.
But what is important about the legislation, according to UN expert William Durch, is the trend in Congress to view US interests as hamstrung by UN activities.
'There is now this feeling that the UN as an organisation is fundamentally wrong, or to put it in a Dr Strangelove way, that it is sapping America's vital bodily fluids.' Mr Durch said conservatives had always viewed the UN as a 'socialist stalking horse' for developing countries to push their own development agenda.
In reality, it was not always so. America, with its prominent seat on the Security Council, has often exercised a virtual veto over crucial security issues, and many peace-keeping missions in the 1970s and 1980s were so weighted towards Western interests Moscow withheld its contribution.
But the one event which has coloured anti-UN fervour in the US is the night in October 1993 when 18 US troops lost their lives in a shootout with Somali rebels. As Senator Mitch McConnell has put it: 'Multilateralism's obituary was written in Mogadishu.' But intervention in Somalia, and Haiti, was originally American policy.
Nevertheless, it does not look as if Congress will back off from its central demand that US troops are not deployed under a commander who is not American.
UN Secretary-General Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali has admitted that new demands placed on peace-keepers are not always ones which limited UN forces can live up to.
But Michael Stopford, UN representative in Washington, pointed out that UN missions had been successful, and America had benefitted from them, in Cambodia, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.