IN THE EYE OF THE STORM; A Memoir. By Kurt Waldheim. Adler & Adler. 278 pp. $17.95.

IT IS perhaps symbolic that Kurt Waldheim, former secretary general of the United Nations, opens his memoir with an account of failure -- his unsuccessful effort in Tehran to negotiate the release of the American diplomats held hostage there -- for his two terms in office were by his own account years of almost unrelieved failure.

After his 10 years in office, the world body seems increasingly irrelevant to any effort to settle the major conflicts that preoccupy its membership -- namely, the Middle East and Southern Africa. The North-South dialogue is deadlocked. Major contributors like the United States and the Soviet Union are withholding their U.N. dues for political purposes. And a growing number of world leaders, including many key U.S. officials, display the kind of contempt for law and respect for force that led to the demise of the League of Nations.

In an exaggerated way, the psychological gap between Waldheim and the religious fanatics attempting to rule Tehran explains why the world body has come to this pass. Waldheim became secretary general because the United States and the Soviet Union like things the way they are. They want a secretary general who will defend the status quo and who will not surprise or embarrass them.

Waldheim fit the bill. His view of the world was understandably shaped by the postwar history of his own country, Austria, which has prospered by avoiding any step that will offend too deeply either of the superpowers and by taking advantages of any small opportunities that their momentary inattention offers. Like his countrymen, Waldheim was moved not by great visions but by small opportunities.

The approach is nonoble. It has enabled the Austrian people to enjoy greater security than at any other point in this century. And it enabled Waldheim as secretary general to gain some modest advances in the field of human rights or peacekeeping. But it is the mark of the continuing influence of the superpowers in the United Nations that such a man could remain the secretary general of an organization whose smaller members are moved primarily by large visions -- of a non- nuclear world, comprehensive peace in the Middle East or majority rule in South Africa or greater justice in economic relations.

This book is a disappointment because it does not help the reader to understand adequately this clash of cultures and values in international institutions. Secretary general during an age of virulent nationalism, mindless terrorism and economic chaos, Waldheim nevertheless believes that "it is personalities more than anything else which influence the destiny of the world."

This belief led him on a series of endless ravels to meet the leaders of the world. And the reader is provided with a brief account of the personal assessments Waldheim reached.

Unfortunately, one learns little from these vignettes. Before this book it was known that Henry Kissinger likes power, that Yasser Arafat has an unusual personality, that Helmut Schmidt has a large ego, that Cyrus Vance possesses a clear legal mind, that Andrew Young dislikes protocol and that Jeane Kirkpatrick can be "somewhat condescending."

Some of Waldheim's accounts are unintentionally humorous. We are told that Andrei Gromyko is the "shrewdest diplomat" Waldheim ever met, but then we learn that over many years Gromyko "never" entered into substantive discussions with the secretary general.

There are some relevations in the book. It is interesting that Deng Xiaoping encouraged Waldheim to urge the North Koreans to enter into direct negotiations with the South Koreans. It is also shameful that the Reagan administration successfully used Waldheim to negotiate a ceasefire between the Israelis and the PLO in southern Lebanon and then asked the United Nations not to take credit for its actions.

IN HIS discussion of the Middle East and Southern Africa, Waldheim passed up an opportunity to explore a central dilemma for the U.N. The world body has four roles in conflict situations -- facilitator, mediator, observer and whistle-blower. During negotiations the U.N. can facilitate or mediate the efforts of the parties in conflict to compromise. After agreement is reached, the U.N. can observe the agreement and blow the whistle on violations. All four roles require that the U.N. be accepted as impartial by both sides to the conflict.

Fair enough, but what does the U.N. do when one of the parties to the conflict is in flagrant violation of some basic U.N. norm -- such as not using force to acquire territory, or racial equality? The answer would appear to be that the membership should address such violations while the secretary general should be more discreet to preserve his credibility to play any of the four roles mentioned.

In recent years the secretary general's office has been able to maintain this distinction on such issues as the Spanish Sahara, Cyprus, Cambodia, Iran-Iraq or Namibia. But in the case of Israel and South Africa, the membership has been more determined in pressing the secretary general to side publicly with the majority. How long can he resist this pressure while maintaining his credibility with the membership? How useful is the credibility when to maintain it the secretary general in effect reduces the likelihood that the U.N. will be accepted as impartial in a conflict? Conversely, can the secretary general always be content with the role of neutral diplomatic agent. What about his role as the voice of the international community and defender of the U.N. Charter? Can he stand by in silence when a member state engages in particularly outrageous behavior, for example the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The reader would benefit from a candid discussion by Waldheim of the pressures he faced.

The book has one important merit, however. Waldheim's accounts of the innumerable times member states, including the U.S. government, asked him to take an initiative to pursue peace or further human rights reminds one that a skilled secretary general remains an important diplomatic resource for the world community. But what then can be done to protect the secretary general from some of the pressures that made Waldheim's 10 years in office a time of "almost unbroken" frustration?

Waldheim's answer is to create some form of executive council, which could share with the secretary general some of the political heat. Such a council, however, is more likely to be a new source of pressure, for none of the representatives would have any other interest at heart than carrying out to the letter the latest instruction from the home capital.

The answer probably lies in a single term of office. In the end the secretary general's most important tool is his capacity for independent action, which now is often curbed in an effort to gain enough votes for reelection. One reform that any permanent member of the Security Council could enact unilaterally would be to announce that it would henceforth veto all efforts at reelection.

Had Waldheim not run for secretary general three times, it is possible he would not only have saved himself many years of "bitter" disappointment, but he might also have been able to do more with the office while he had it.

It is worth noting that this book suffers from sloppy editing. There are several typographical errors in the text, and the index is not reliable.