Leading article: More modest aims could yet rescue this vital summit

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The danger of hubris was apparent months ago, when the UN announced the summit as a "once in a generation opportunity" to right such ancient ills as poverty, disease and terrorism as well as to carry out root and branch reform of the UN itself, curbing corruption and inefficiency. Finally, new preventive mechanisms would ensure that such blots on the world's conscience as Srebrenica and Rwanda would never be repeated.

Now, with the squabbling over the details continuing unabated even as the 180 or so world leaders pack their trunks, there are fears that nothing will emerge except warm, unimpressive words on world poverty.

In many ways, the UN resembles that earlier organ of international mediation, the medieval papacy. Invested by its supporters with miracle-working powers and with the colossal task of bringing peace on earth, it is repeatedly dragged down by the petty, conflicting agendas of the individual nations that comprise it.

Step forward, in this instance, John Bolton, America's disputatious UN ambassador, whose myriad, line-by-line objections to the draft reform proposals sunk all hope of an easy summit even before it opened.

President Bush's America must bear much of the blame if there is an air of disappointment at the summit's close on Friday. But the planners under Annan's leadership are also guilty for trying to tackle too many areas at once. They were clearly tempted by the heavy symbolism of the 60th anniversary of the UN's foundation to raise the bar as high as possible.

It now looks like a strategic error to have tacked an ambitious pledge to halve world poverty by 2015 - a goal inherited from the Millennium Summit of 2000 - on to the separate issue of the UN's internal reform, let alone the controversial question of Security Council reform.

For one thing, the grandiose nature of both the plans and the rhetoric stirred US suspicions that Annan was not aiming at a trimmer, slimmer, less corrupt UN - a goal America would sign up to - but at an organisation promoting world governance through institutions such as the international criminal court.

For another, the planned reforms gave plenty of other member states umbrage. When it came to the Security Council, China signalled that it would never agree to its regional rival Japan obtaining a permanent seat. In the meantime, America's favourite reforms, the improvement of the UN's tarnished human rights record through the creation of a new Human Rights Council, and new measures to prevent genocide, have also hit opposition. Here the nay-sayers are Third World states that fear the UN is giving Washington carte blanche to intervene militarily wherever it pleases.

Against such an unpromising backdrop, Kofi Annan's best ally in averting a fiasco may be simple embarrassment. The 180 or so world leaders may feel so shamed by the idea of leaving the summit empty handed that they end up signing up to at least some of the reforms they earlier objected to.

We must hope this is the case, for it is in no one's interest that the impetus for UN reform should fail and the organisation emerge hopelessly ill-equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century. The world needs a strong UN. It may have overreached itself at the World Summit, but the desire to set ambitious goals is commendable, and an aim that most of us would support.