There can be no dispute about the right of the United States to insist that the staffing of the missions of the Soviet Union to the United Nations not exceed "what is reasonable and normal." But the clumsy way in which Washington has sought to reduce the present levels of Soviet staffing will not make it easy to reach an equitable solution.
Once again the American government seeks to set itself above the norms of international behavior and the agreed standards for working out differences. This truculent approach can please only those on the radical right who want the United States to abandon all international organizations.
The demand of the U.S. government is that the Soviet Union reduce its U.N. mission staff from its present level of 275 to 170 by April 1, 1988, beginning next Oct. 1 with a cut of 9%. The stated reason for the reduction is the finding of American officials that the Soviet mission is used for espionage.
There is substantial evidence that the Soviet mission is actively engaged in espionage. This is not unique to this particular diplomatic post. Virtually all diplomatic posts of all nations are engaged, among other things, in intelligence-gathering. A staff of 275 does, on the face of it, seem beyond the "reasonable" number implicit in the Vienna Convention of 1975 dealing with international organization--a convention, incidentally, that the United States has yet to ratify.
But U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar insists that this is not the kind of issue that should be decided unilaterally. He is right. The United States bears a special responsibility as host to the world organization. The headquarters agreement itself does not stipulate ceilings for mission staffs. But it proposes a procedure of consultation, to include the United States as host nation, the secretary general and the aggrieved nation. Those consultations have not taken place. Furthermore, there is provision within the United Nations for resolution of the dispute, if consultations fail, through arbitration by three persons selected separately by the United States, the Soviet Union and the secretary general.
Respect for those procedures would enhance the fragile construction of a world ruled by law that is an aspect of the United Nations. Furthermore, it would reemphasize the commitment of the United States to that rule.
Unfortunately, both the Reagan Administration and Congress are demonstrating a disregard of the structures of international law. This has been evident in the President's defiance of the World Court and in the decision of Congress to reduce American monetary support to the United Nations itself in breach of treaty obligations.
The sense of disappointment about the United Nations is shared by many. But the failures and the weaknesses of the organization call for a new commitment to strengthen, not to destroy, these structures.