Why Clinton Should Lie Low at U.N. Powwow

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Forget the epic challenges of war and peace, poverty, technology and the environment... The main concern of the U.N. staffers in New York hosting this week's biggest-ever gathering of world leaders is that the building doesn't collapse on their esteemed guests. The cash-strapped global institution has long neglected maintenance on its First Avenue headquarters, and Monday's thunderstorm in New York City caused a section of the ceiling to collapse in the prime banqueting hall. Had that event occurred during Wednesday's scheduled power lunch, officials who've seen the seating plan concur that the wayward plaster and ceiling tiles would have landed on either President Clinton or his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin. Unable to repair the venue before then — and with signs of blistering evident elsewhere on the ceiling — U.N. officials are praying for good weather through Friday to avert an international incident.

The main purpose of the summit is to address the post-Cold War global challenges facing an institution set up to keep the peace in a Cold War world. The meeting is no more than a gabfest, but it aims to introduce discussion on vexing questions of peacekeeping, the impact of globalization and technology on a world beset by crippling poverty, and the urgent need to tackle the looming environmental crisis manifested in climate change.

But on a more prosaic level, it's a rare rubbing of shoulders among heads of state who don't exactly get along — imagine Fidel Castro, Vladimir Putin, Jiang Zemin, Bill Clinton, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, Iran's President Mohammed Khatami, Pakistan's General Parvez Musharraf, India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Israel's Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat all in the same room for two hours, and you'll have some idea of the atmosphere at Wednesday's opening session.

President Clinton, of course, has been scooting around to global hot spots in a frenzy of (not always exactly effective) peacemaking efforts that sometimes have him looking not unlike a post-presidential Jimmy Carter, and he plans to use the New York gathering to press Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab leaders to close a Mideast peace deal before he leaves office. But nobody's betting the farm that he'll succeed. And for most of the gathered powers, Mideast peace is something of a sideshow issue, anyway.

What's perhaps most striking is that Washington no longer appears to be even trying to set the international community's agenda with some overarching vision of the conduct of global affairs. Foreign policy, after all, has been distinctly out of fashion during the Clinton presidency. And as long as the roof doesn't fall on him, the current occupant of the Oval Office may be content to collect photographs for the wall of his presidential library rather than taking a lead in grappling with the troubling global issues of the next decade.