On December 10 Secretary General Kofi Annan and the United Nations were awarded the Centennial Nobel Peace Prize. The citation commends Annan for "bringing new life to the organization," and it expresses the hope that the UN will serve "at the forefront" of the world's efforts to achieve peace and to meet its economic, social and environmental challenges. Whether or not it can hinges heavily on Washington, with which relations have been rocky in the recent past.

It is encouraging, therefore, that September 11 and the subsequent war against terrorism have caused the Bush Administration to discover the UN's utility. Annan, the UN Security Council and the General Assembly immediately and unequivocally condemned the attacks, and the Council adopted an antiterrorism resolution requiring all countries to report back regularly on their steps to implement its prohibitions against providing active or passive assistance to terrorists. Lakhdar Brahimi, Annan's special envoy for Afghanistan, has led the negotiations among Afghan factions to devise a political formula for governing the country. President Bush has not only encouraged the UN to play an active "nation-building" role in Afghanistan–a concept he disdained as recently as the 2000 electoral campaign–he also convened a White House meeting with Annan and his top team to discuss the many challenges that entails. For its part, the House of Representatives moved quickly after September 11 to release $582 million in back dues long owed the UN, while the Senate confirmed President Bush's choice of John Negroponte as US ambassador to the UN; both had been held up for months in Congress.

Do these affirmations of the UN, in Oslo and in Washington, mark the beginning of a new era in US/UN relations? At this point, few if any close observers have answered with a resounding yes. After all, it wasn't so long ago that the UN proved essential to the United States in the Gulf War and in imposing an unprecedented sanctions and weapons-inspection regime on Iraq. Yet that was followed by some of the worst times ever in the relationship.

The US Congress, with the acquiescence of successive administrations, has held US/UN relations hostage to domestic political fights over abortion and in order to placate the paranoia of the right about "world government." President Clinton saw in the UN a useful tool to avoid or limit US engagement abroad that might pose domestic political risks, and a handy scapegoat when those efforts failed. President George W. Bush's eight-month rejectionist streak prior to September 11 was an even worse omen for the future–simply saying no to the Kyoto Protocol limiting greenhouse gas emissions, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the International Criminal Court, the enforcement provisions of the biological weapons treaty and modest steps to curtail the worldwide proliferation of small arms, which has become so intense that an AK-47 rifle can be had in most Third World conflict zones for the price of a chicken.

Did this history simply evaporate after September 11? Are we witnessing love at second sight? To get a better grip on what the future might bring we need to understand how the US/UN relationship came unglued in the first place, and what would have to change to alter it permanently. Here, in brief, is the story line.

The first chapter unfolds in the 1970s, with the UN systematically alienating supportive US constituencies in ill-considered acts led by the developing countries, feeling newly empowered by OPEC's success and abetted by the Soviet Union. The American Jewish community was traditionally pro-UN. The General Assembly had voted in 1947 to establish the state of Israel. But a 1975 resolution branded Zionism as racism–and there went that relationship. The internationally oriented segment of American business had been generally supportive of the UN. Its International Chamber of Commerce was one of the first NGOs granted consultative status at the UN. But in the mid-1970s the General Assembly pushed for a so-called New International Economic Order, geared toward regulating multinational corporations and redistributing the world's wealth–so business turned hostile. The liberal media, traditionally favorably disposed to the UN, was lost when UNESCO, created to promote the free flow of information, proposed what many saw as an Orwellian New International Information Order making journalists more responsive to societal needs as interpreted by governments.

Because the external world turned out to be more resistant to these assaults than the UN itself, the Secretariat and its programs, already severely constrained by the cold war, became the battleground instead. And poking America in the eye while giving the Soviets a freer ride became a recreational sport in the General Assembly. This neutralized policy analysts, for whom effective multilateral institutions were a necessary instrument in managing increased interdependence, and of course it disaffected the general public. The UN's domestic US political support went into free fall.

In the second chapter, a combination of outraged and opportunistic politicians took aim at the UN. Financial withholding began, first as a focused trickle, often related to Palestinian issues, then a flood. Conditions for repayment mounted, and when the UN met them new ones were added. Boutros-baiting–ridiculing the name of then-UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali–became a staple in the 1996 Republican presidential primaries, while President Clinton was accused, in the words of that party's 1994 Contract With America, of "saluting the day when American men and women will fight, and die, 'in the service' of the United Nations." Attacking the UN became a one-way bet, like investing in the NASDAQ before its recent crash: You could only win.

Peacekeeping in the 1990s comprises another chapter. For Boutros-Ghali the end of the cold war promised a UN revival, but he was right only up to a point: Most of the world's conflicts ended up on his desk, to be sure, but no one, including the Clinton Administration, was prepared to pay the price of providing the UN with the capacity needed to deal with them effectively. Even so, the UN did a credible job in Cambodia, Mozambique and the Central American peace processes.

For the American public three failures mattered most: Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. But the UN hardly bore sole responsibility. In the case of Somalia, the disastrous operation in which eighteen American soldiers were killed was entirely US-run; the American military didn't so much as give the UN advance notice of it. That didn't stop President Clinton, however, from blaming the UN and scolding it for being unable to say no. In Rwanda, much of the criticism of the UN has focused on a January 1994 cable reporting suspicions of imminent bloodletting, which UN headquarters discounted. But when the genocide actually began in April the Clinton team, haunted by the specter of Somalia, did everything possible to prevent the UN from taking action, and to draw down the few UN troops there. Indeed, Madeleine Albright, UN ambassador at the time, fought to prevent officials from using the term "genocide," fearing that it might force the United States to get involved.

In the case of Bosnia, the United States and its European allies first dithered when Serbian aggression might still have been contained, and then failed to cobble together a strategy of combining ground forces, provided by Europe but not the United States, with American air power. Bosnia also reflected more directly deficiencies in the UN's own institutional culture. The fact that key officials equated impartiality with neutrality toward victim and aggressor, and exhibited an aversion to the use of force even when events demanded its sustained use, constituted appeasement of the Serbs and, in the most tragic instance, led to the slaughter of several thousand Muslims at Srebrenica, which the UN had designated as a "safe area."

After President Clinton inflicted grave political damage on an already deeply wounded UN by blaming it for the Somalia debacle, he sought to "triangulate" his way out of the inevitable political consequences by issuing a presidential decision directive giving Congress a greater say in deciding which future UN peacekeeping missions the United States would support. Congress pocketed the concession, refused to pay for parts of the Bosnia operation and unilaterally cut the US share of the UN peacekeeping budget, further ballooning the amount of US dues owed. Largely to prevent the UN from becoming an issue in his own 1996 re-election campaign, President Clinton unceremoniously pulled the plug on Boutros-Ghali, thereby paving the way for Kofi Annan's election as secretary general.

That was the state of US/UN relations that Annan inherited when he took office in January 1997. He wasted no time in launching his "quiet revolution"–his term for reforming and repositioning the UN. So successful was the effort that the membership re-elected him to a second five-year term by acclamation in the summer of 2001, six months before his first term expired. News accounts of the Nobel Prize selection reported no competitors there either. "Kofi restored the UN," says Richard Holbrooke, President Clinton's last UN ambassador, whose own indefatigable efforts in Washington and New York brokered the deal that finally resolved the back-dues issue.

The first step was management reform. In May 2000, the US General Accounting Office surprised Senator Jesse Helms, whose Foreign Relations Committee had requested an assessment, by reporting "substantial" progress in areas controlled by the secretary general. In peacekeeping, Annan not only encouraged searing self-criticism of the UN's role in Srebrenica and Rwanda but also turned it into detailed proposals for improvement, while the lessons from past mistakes are being applied to nation-building efforts in Kosovo and East Timor. To establish clearer and more focused objectives for the UN, Annan convened 159 heads of state and government at a special Millennium Summit in September 2000, and got them to endorse a set of people-centered priorities, including specific targets for global poverty reduction. To supplement the UN's own limited resources and to embed it more firmly in the emerging global civic order, Annan has enlisted the business community and NGOs in promoting UN goals, creating new alliances in the battle against HIV/AIDS and for greater corporate social responsibility. All the while he has kept the UN on a zero-growth budget.

Annan's broader public appeal also reflects his ability to express, and to shape, the prevailing moral sentiments of our times. He has advocated universal human rights and enunciated the "doctrine" that sovereignty must not be allowed to serve as a shield behind which states butcher their own people. Long before September 11 he stressed that no country, no matter how powerful, is immune to what he calls problems without passports, and that most have root causes in bad governance, lack of economic prospects and insufficient global solidarity. He has championed the cause of poor countries while stressing that most suffer not from too much globalization, but from too little or the wrong kind. He has an uncanny ability in the face of conflicting interests and voices to avoid degenerating to the lowest common denominator or simply splitting the difference, as many of his predecessors did, striving instead to upgrade the collective interest.

Annan's accomplishments and attributes have paid dividends in US/UN relations. A public information campaign, funded by media mogul Ted Turner, has promoted the UN's work. Public approval has reached new highs. The press is enamored with him. Business groups took out full-page ads in the Washington Post and New York Times urging Congress to pay the arrears. Israel and the American Jewish community have been nearly as receptive as the Palestinians to having Annan involved in the peace process. Academic interest in the UN is the strongest in a generation. Even Jesse Helms confessed at a meeting with Annan, at which the Senator's granddaughter poured tea, "Let there be no mistake about it, Mr. Secretary, I like you."

So why hesitate to proclaim a new era in US/UN relations? One obvious answer is that though the instrumental cooperation we see today may well continue, it could also be easily reversed. A lot more things can go wrong in Afghanistan than are likely to go just right. And the next phase in the war against terrorism–especially if it involves a military attack against Iraq–will put strains on the American-led coalition, which are bound to reverberate in the UN.

But even if all goes well, the deeper problem is that the UN suffers from a lack of systematic engagement by the United States to help build the kind of UN that could live up to the aspirations expressed in the Nobel citation–which the UN cannot do today. In peacekeeping, for example, governments voluntarily supply troops, or not, once the Security Council adopts a mission. The different national contingents that show up in the field have never trained together. Their officers have never even met. The equipment they arrive with varies enormously in quantity and quality, and is typically incompatible. The UN also lacks the resources to do serious contingency planning before a mission begins, and the staff lacks the resources to fully support difficult military missions once they are launched. The US Congress has been a main impediment to even moderate efforts at rationalizing this state of affairs. For that to change would require a major shift in Washington.

Although public opinion now strongly and consistently supports the UN, including more robust peacekeeping, it has little bite because it lacks electoral consequences. Voters do not cast ballots based on their own or on candidates' views about the UN. As a result, a powerful anti-UN cohort in Congress, made up mainly of conservative Republicans, especially in the House, neither feels nor fears any push to alter its ideological antipathy toward the UN–an extension of their deep-seated antigovernment and anti-internationalist posture. On the contrary, among their political base back home that script still plays well.

In the long term, the national sense of vulnerability engendered by September 11 and the public's rediscovered appreciation of government, together with the widely acknowledged need for cooperative approaches to rooting out terrorism and the conditions in which it breeds, eventually may produce a different political configuration in Congress.

But in the short run, one of two things would have to happen to transform the political status quo. Either the House leadership would have to rise above its own predispositions for the sake of broader foreign policy goals–a sacrifice for which it has shown no enthusiasm–or President Bush would have to lean harder on House members to change their ways. Though he successfully resisted House pressure to add new conditions on repaying the arrears well after the deal was struck, the President has been exceedingly averse to crossing the right wing of his own party. Besides, his Administration has given no indication yet of having any wider UN agenda.

And so, for the immediate future a strictly à la carte multilateralism, to use State Department policy planning chief Richard Haass's term, is probably the most that Kofi Annan should expect from the US government. Which also means that significant progress in realizing the Nobel's noble aims will remain slow and modest.