The organisation's golden jubilee has coincided exactly with one of its worst moments of crisis, fed by the refusal of the United States to pay up the roughly $1.3bn it owes the UN. Had Washington stumped up the cash, it might just have been possible for those attending the jamboree in New York to leave saying that all was relatively well. Complacency and inaction would have been the order of the day.
Instead, we now have probably the best chance we are ever likely to get to institute wide reforms of the UN. John Major was right on Monday to support Boutros Boutros-Ghali's request for an emergency session of the General Assembly next year to try to agree a way forward and re-establish some order in the UN's accounts. In the run-up to such a session, Britain, the US and the other countries that make up the core 15 member states (who pay 80 per cent of the UN's budget) should work hard to ensure that a serious attempt is at last made at reform.
The headings for that reform have been more or less identified. Clearly the perennial money crisis has to be sorted out once and for all. Unarguably, the bloated expanse of bureaucracy in New York and around the world should be slimmed down, corruption rooted out and some satellite agencies closed down. The Economic and Social Committee in the UN, which is meant to deal with everything other than security, including development, is a hopelessly confused operation that needs urgently to be rebuilt. The need for regional organisations such as the UN Economic Commission for Europe is far from evident.
But austerity alone will be insufficient to underpin the UN's future, and more than the cost-cutter's logic will be needed to win the agreement of all countries to change. Above all, the organisation needs to have its legitimacy underpinned. For a start, that means making its steering bodies more democratic. There is consensus now that the Security Council itself, dominated by the original permanent five, should have a wider membership. And while Britain and the US might like the idea of jettisoning some agencies concerned with development, many smaller countries will resist. So the UN will have to prove that it is still concerned with economic, social and environmental issues, and that it realises that they are deeply intertwined with security problems.
Reform of the UN will only happen if the member states achieve a mutual sense of confidence about the organisation's purpose. Redefining that purpose must be the first and most urgent step towards renewal. From that, detailed reshaping and retrenchment can flow.