Two overriding concerns shaped Waldheim's secretary-generalship: concern for the preservation of the peace and concern for the evolution of world economic arrangements that would effect a more equitable distribution of the world's wealth. Two other issues were also of special concern to Waldheim: the financial position of the UN and terrorism. The financial position of the UN had been rendered precarious by the practice of some member states, including the USSR, France, and the US, of withholding or threatening to withhold their share of UN funds for activities that they questioned. When Waldheim took office, the crisis had become an emergency, and he dealt with it vigorously throughout his tenure. In September 1972, he placed the question of terrorism on the agenda of the General Assembly against the wishes of many member states. It was the first time a secretary-general had ever placed a substantive item on the Assembly's agenda.
Peacemaking. In 1972, on his own authority, Waldheim under-took a number of missions on behalf of peace. Visiting Cyprus, he temporarily calmed the Turkish community's concern over reported arms shipments to the Greek-dominated government. He visited the island again in 1973 in pursuit of reconciliation. After the hostilities in 1974, he was able to bring Greek and Turkish leaders together for negotiations, and he presided over the Geneva talks regarding Cyprus.
Waldheim's efforts to conciliate in the Vietnam War were rebuffed by both sides in 1972. He then tried, without success, to end the war through action by the Security Council. He visited the two Yemens to try to mediate a border dispute in 1972, and in the same year, he tried to mediate between India and Pakistan.
In the long-standing Arab-Israeli dispute, Waldheim made many efforts toward a satisfactory settlement and organized the UN Emergency Force as a buffer between the armies of Egypt and Israel at the request of the Security Council in October 1973.
Striving for a New International Economic Order. The sixth special session of the Assembly, in the spring of 1974, and the seventh special session, in September 1975, resulted in a number of decisions and proposals for bridging the gap between the rich and the poor nations and building a "new international economic order." The seventh special session was, in Waldheim's words, "a major event, even a turning point, in the history of the United Nations and showed a new and highly promising capacity of the organization to achieve practical results through consensus and through negotiation."
Financial Status of the UN. Waldheim acted both to reduce the costs of running the UN and to bring in contributions from member nations.
The US contribution to the UN, historically the highest single assessment, by the early 1970s stood at 31.5% of the budget. In October 1973, the US Congress reduced the US share to 25% of the UN budget; 116 other nations also had their contributions reduced by the UN. The difference was made up by increasing the assessments of Japan, China, and 10 other members and by admitting to membership the two Germanys. Waldheim helped to bring these changes about, fostering the notion that any country paying more than 25% of the UN's expenses could wield excessive influence.
Terrorism. Incidents of terrorism increased in the early 1970s. In September 1972, during the XXth Olympiad in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinians of the Black September group. Waldheim expressed himself strongly about the event and put the question of terrorism on the agenda of the 1972 General Assembly. A number of Arab and African countries took exception to his initiative, arguing that attention should be focused on the causes of terrorism. Although the Assembly had earlier condemned aerial hijacking, the resolution that it adopted on terrorism did not condemn the practice but called for a study of its causes. After OPEC officials were attacked by terrorists in 1975, the sentiment for more ample UN action against terrorism grew among third-world countries.
Waldheim's Second Term. Waldheim entered his second term of office in January 1977 with few illusions about the United Nations. To some extent, he wrote, it was still in search of its identity and its true role: "It tends to react rather than foresee, to deal with the effects of a crisis rather than anticipate and forestall that crisis." The history of the UN since its founding, he wrote, "has essentially been the story of the search for a working balance between national sovereignty and national interests on the one hand and international order and the long-term interests of the world community on the other." He said he was not discouraged, however, and he urged governments—particularly the major powers—to turn away from the age-old struggle for spheres of influence and to honor and respect their obligations and responsibilities under the Charter.
In 1978, Waldheim called for an effort to improve and streamline the workings of the UN, beginning with the General Assembly, the agenda of which should be reviewed, he said, and items of lesser interest removed. He noted that the Assembly had grown in three decades from a body of 50 members with an agenda of 20 items to a gathering of some 150 members and an agenda of more than 130 items.
Waldheim traveled extensively in East Asia in early 1979 and again in 1980 to get a firsthand view of developments in that area, particularly Indo-China, where, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, there was an exodus of refugees, by land and sea, from that country. With the tide of these and other refugees from Laos and Kampuchea rising daily, Waldheim convened a meeting in Geneva in June 1979 to help alleviate the problem.
In May 1979, pursuing a "good offices" mission in Cyprus, Waldheim convened a high-level meeting calling for a resumption of intercommunal talks. The talks were subsequently resumed but broke down shortly thereafter. Waldheim again exerted his best efforts beginning in late 1979, as did the UN itself, in search of solutions to unexpected crises touched off by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the taking of US diplomatic personnel as hostages in Iran. From the outset, his efforts were directed at freeing the hostages and settling relations between Iran and the US, and, for this purpose, he went to Tehran himself, as did a UN commission of inquiry. Waldheim noted that the war between Iran and Iraq, which began in September 1980, had resisted all efforts, both within and outside the UN, at finding a peaceful solution. He offered his own good offices for this purpose and appointed Olof Palme, former Swedish prime minister, as his special representative. In regard to the Afghanistan crisis, he appointed Javier Pérez de Cuéllar of Peru as his personal representative.