Americans either tend to hate to love it, or to love to hate it. But neither attitude toward the United Nations is appropriate to the situation today. Neither is the old, idealistic view on the far left that the UN eventually should develop into some kind of world government, nor the recent far right delusion that the UN is trying to take over Montana. What we need is realism.
The realistic policy choice becoming evident in Washington, D.C.this spring is this: The US either justifies or abdicates its leadership in the UN. As the one superpower we let the world body atrophy or we take charge of the reform forces and make the UN a more effective, though still limited, instrument of our foreign policy.
American policy properly seeks to advance American interests, of course. But that policy also is enlightened enough to converge with the legitimate post Cold War aims of most of the other 183 nations in the world. We seek, among other things, to advance free political institutions, free markets, the free exchange of ideas and the peaceful resolution of disputes worldwide.
The UN can’t do the job alone, or nearly so much as its early advocates believed. But it can help. For example,
When coca radication efforts dismay farmers in South America, it sometimes is better that anti-narcotics teams proceed under a United Nations flag, rather than coming in under the Stars and Stripes. There is less resentment and, in the long run, more willingness to trust proposals for crop substitution. Moreover, on narcotics issues the UN is just as resolute as is the US government.
When the winners of the Gulf War monitor Iraqi nuclear, there is no chance Iraq will allow an American agent to participate as such. But there is no problem if Americans participate on a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN special organization.
On balance, America gains much, and usually risks little, when it supports UN peacekeeping forces. There have been failures, especially when our own soldiers take part in misbegotten efforts like the one in Somalia. But we should not overlook UN contributions to success in places like El Salvador, Namibia, Angola and Cambodia.
Most of us probably are even less aware of other, more routine UN successes, such as the aviation safety and security standards secured by the International Civil Aviation Organization that benefit Americans more than any other people (we make up 40% of the world’s air passengers). The same goes for the labor standards of the International Labor Organization that help make American goods competitive overseas, or the trademark and copyright protections of the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Surveys show that Americans still overwhelmingly support membership in the UN, and having served as US ambassador to the UN organizations in Vienna, I believe that most of the nations of the world–now numbering 184–want the United States to exercise its natural leadership.
But the attitude of other countries to the US role in the UN is not totally friendly. Even many of the countries that have surrendered old antagonisms, such as Russia, India and the African countries, still resent America trying to dictate changes at the UN. And our best friends, including Canada and Britain, are privately derisive of our failure to pay our back dues, now amounting to more than one billion dollars.
Regardless, this year may be the best ever for advancing the US joints aims of reforming the UN and of expanding American leadership in the organization. The reason is that both the Democratic Administration and the Republican Congress seem willing–in principle–to swallow hard and cooperate in reaching these goals.
Much of the credit has to go to Madeline Albright. The new Secretary of State knows both the defects and advantages of the UN from having served there as US Ambassador.
Credit also has to go to Sen. Jesse Helms, who is the UN’s strongest critic and heads the crucial Senator Foreign Affairs Committee. Helms could stymie the US role at the UN altogether. Instead, he has been willing to support it on the condition that the UN implement zero budget growth and reduce redundant organizations and bureaucratic staffs.
The question is whether to pay the back dues first and then push for reforms, or demand enactment of reforms first and then pay the back dues. Helms, in contrast to the State Department staff, wants to follow the latter path.
The UN, even under its US-supported Secretary General, Kofl Anan, will protest this approach. Give us the money you plainly owe and then we will reform, the staff will promise.
But if the Administration operates skillfully with other nations and the UN secretariat–with Sen. Helms and his colleagues lurking behind as enforcers–it could put a package together that provides the UN all the money from the US that it needs. And the UN could show simultaneously that it is cutting down and cutting back, like all other institutions must do these days.The key is to link each US payment to another advance in UN reform–and stick to the plan.
It can be done by skilled diplomats. That includes the new UN Ambassador, Bill Richardsom, a former member of the US House of Represenatives with considerable international experience in human rights negotiations.
So let the Administration and the Congress work out a precise plan now. The time is right.