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With the selection of Butros Ghali as its sixth secretary-general, the United Nations made history this week.

An expert in international law who speaks three languages and played a key role in the 1979 Camp David treaty between Egypt and Israel, Ghali gives both Arabs and Africans their first U.N. leader.Fine. There are limits to how much longer Africa could be passed over without alienating Third World countries that tend to vote in the U.N. as a bloc.

But, at 69, Ghali is expected to serve only one five-year term. There's still room for doubt that the top job at the U.N. should be filled on the basis of geographical rotation, as the Third World has long contended. Rather, the post is important enough to be filled strictly on the basis of a world-wide search for the most qualified person.

Moreover, the history that was made with Ghali's selection by the Security Council - which is expected to be rubber-stamped by the 166-nation General Assembly - is anything but the most important kind.

Instead, all that really matters is the kind of history, if any, that Ghali and the U.N. can make in seeking to come to grips with the challenges confronting the world body. Among the most pressing of those challenges are U.N. efforts to negotiate the release of the remaining western hostages in Lebanon, possibly send a peace-keeping force to war-ravaged Yugoslavia, deal with the massive foreign debts of the Third World and de-escalate the ancient conflicts of the Middle East.

Though the challenges are staggering, don't under-estimate the potential prowess of the U.N. In recent years, it has expelled Iraq from Kuwait, helped form a transitional government in Cambodia, arranged talks between Greece and Turkey over long-disputed Cyprus and won the 1988 Nobel peace prize for the work of its peacekeeping forces.

Ghali and the U.N. can master the challenges confronting them - but only to the extent that the member-nations of the world body learn to replace their deeply-entrenched penchant for confrontation with new habits of cooperation.