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Leaders of the 15 countries that make up the U.N. Security Council this year held a historic meeting this week to take a fresh look at what the U.N. role ought to be and where the international body is going. It was the first meeting of its kind since the United Nations was founded in 1945.

While the goal was admirable and the meeting offered a rare chance for face-to-face meetings among heads of state, it was too much to expect the summit to produce dramatic new directions in a world suddenly altered by momentous political changes.The non-binding declaration adopted at the end of the session simply re-emphasized some old concerns, chiefly, collective security, arms control, nuclear proliferation, and the virtues of democracy and human rights. The latter items ruffled the feathers of China's delegation, but no vote was taken on the declaration, thus avoiding any confrontations.

Despite the lack of significant decisions, the Security Council summit took place in a refreshing air of optimism where world peace and progress seemed more real than at any time since the end of World War II.

All of this, of course, is a direct result of the unexpected end of the Cold War and the rapid disintegration of the despotic Soviet Union.

As Russian President Boris Yeltsin put it, "The new political situation in the world makes it possible not only to advance new, original ideas, but also to make even the most ambitious of them practicable."

Yeltsin noted that his Russian Republic - and the other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States - no longer consider the United States and the West as enemies. In fact, he said, they are seen not only as partners, "but rather as allies." Those words would have seemed incomprehensible three years ago.

What future role for the United Nations? It has been successful in the past couple of years as a mediator between warring factions and for providing peacekeeping forces in civil wars and other conflicts. But the Security Council hopes to be more effective in the future in heading off conflicts and working out peaceful settlements.

The Security Council summit, despite its vague generalities, marks a starting point - a place to begin defining the United Nations and what surely will be an increasingly important role for the world organization in the absence of superpower confrontation.

It's bound to take time for Americans and others to adjust to the new reality. But there is no reason to rush headlong into changing the function of the United Nations. That will have to evolve slowly and carefully. After all, the United Nations must operate by consensus since it is made up of independent states rather than being some kind of super world government. And that is the way it must remain.