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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

April 1998

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THE STRUGGLE FOR THE UNITED NATIONS
by William N. Dale


President Wilson traveled the country in the fall to raise support for the Treaty, but isolationist opponents and political foes dogged his steps arguing against his message. The President refused to compromise and his health broke down. Three times the Treaty came before the Senate, twice in 1919 and once in 1920, and three times it failed to win ratification. The League of Nations had to do without the membership of the United States.

In contrast, the U.S. government was the major force leading to establishment of the successor organization, the United Nations, twenty-six years later. A struggle for U.S. support and continued membership in that world body devoted to global peace, a controversy faintly reminiscent of the 1919 battle, did not take place until the United States had been the UN's leading member for over fifty years. That controversy now exhibits itself in full force.

In 1946, President Truman vowed that America would support the UN with all the resources the nation possessed, not as a temporary expedient but as a permanent partner. A half century later, in October 1996, Senator Helms of North Carolina, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in Foreign Affairs that if the UN is not overhauled, he will lead the charge to withdraw the United States from membership. How could such an enormous change in perceptions -- back to some of the views of 1919 -- have come about?

This change is the product of several interacting developments that have occurred during the last decade. Since the end of the Cold War ten years ago, relations between and within nations have unfrozen, causing revolutionary changes all over the world that have affected the UN profoundly. In the peace keeping and disaster relief fields, it strains the imagination to focus on the number and severity of crises that have faced the UN in recent years. One need name only Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, Rwanda, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, and Zaïre to make the point. At this writing there are seventeen peace keeping operations underway worldwide.

Even though UN peace keepers have had some successes, the problems they ran into in Bosnia and Somalia have punctured a large hole in the balloon of euphoric expectations for UN peace preserving efforts in general. These problems have also given rise to extensive criticism among our legislators, along with demands that American forces on UN Missions always be under U.S. command. (This, by the way, is a non-issue because they always have been under U.S. command, including during the tragic incident in Somalia in which American soldiers were killed.)

A second development undermining U.S. support for the United Nations arises from the growth of America's strength relative to that of other countries. With the end of the Cold War, the United States has become unquestionably the world's preeminent military and economic power. Many people, including numerous congressmen, believe the nation can achieve its international aims without the need to cooperate on a global basis with anyone, including the UN.

The U.S. government is, in fact, dealing with several current trouble spots without resort to the UN. These include Israel and its Arab neighbors, plus Cuba, Taiwan, and Iran. The reasons for avoiding the UN are clear: In some cases, U.S. policies command little support beyond America's borders; in others, the countries involved will not deal with the UN. We might well have to alter our policies if they were to be acceptable as UN-sponsored operations In many areas, and the U.S. government -- particularly the Congress -- now prefer regional collaboration, action with a few like minded allies, or unilateral moves as means to maintain the peace.

As the strength of our country has expanded relative to that of other nations, an important domestic political change has occurred. Although World War II and the lessons it taught dampened isolationism for a generation, that attitude, which was so strong in the 1920s and '30s, did not die out. In the last decade, it has blossomed again, taking nourishment from the right wing of the Republican Party. In the national election of 1994, the Republicans took control of the Senate and with it the key post of chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. This new leadership appears to distrust the United Nations profoundly.

Yet another reason for a change in attitudes comes from reports of overstaffing, overlapping, and waste at the UN -- many of them true -- that have given U.S. lawmakers the impression that the UN is an inefficient organization badly in need of downsizing. Congressional critics demand more drastic staff cuts than the reductions and reorganization already being undertaken by Secretary General Kofi Anan. They have sought to enforce these demands by reducing funds for both regular and peacekeeping operations. Consequently, the United States is now about $1.4 billion behind in its contributions. As noted, Senator Helms has gone so far as to propose that the United States leave the UN if the drastic conditions he has set forth in detail are not met.

These conditions are now contained in the Helms-Biden bill. Under its terms, this country would pay $819 million of its arrears to all international organizations over a three-year period, in return for certification by the administration that the UN had met over three dozen conditions. This package languished for many months in a House-Senate conference committee; at last report, the Congress had taken no action on the measure, leaving the U.S. arrears as large as before.

Yet, in spite of opposition in the Congress and on America's political right, the basic situation in which the UN operates today is far from hopeless. Polls indicate that even in the United States two-thirds of the population support the world body. Moreover, worldwide improvement in communications and access to the news media may be helping to create a global village in a news sense. On recent trips to Europe, I myself have observed people watching the news on CNN and other stations much as we do. This exposes them to the same view of events in Bosnia and other trouble spots as are Americans, and they react in much the same way. That is, something must be done to correct the dire situations that they see depicted on television. Usually, this comes back eventually to reliance on the United Nations. If not the UN, who?

Another long term trend now underway is the development of a world mythology. I do not mean myth in the sense of an untrue story, but as a recurring theme that embodies the values of a community or culture. Joseph Campbell, the renowned scholar of myths, wrote, "Every mythology has grown up in a certain society in a bounded field . . . . But today there are no boundaries. The only mythology that is valid today is the mythology of the planet."*

Such a mythology is developing before our eyes. Everything we do, write or say that causes us to think of the world as a unit contributes to it. Space exploration encourages the perception that the world and its inhabitants are one -- not a mere heterogeneous collection of conflicting ethnicities and countries. Science fiction movies and books and TV programs like "Star Trek" enhance the same perception. NASA's project to detect the sounds of life from other planets and the exploration of Mars are still other examples of world-scale mythology in the making. Our science, our technology, and our imagination are creating it.

When the world's population begins to think of itself first as earth-dwellers rather than as Zambians or Americans, the UN will appear as a natural and necessary entity. It will be only a step then to begin considering its authority as fully legitimate, even though the organization continues to operate through nation states. At that point, individuals will be readier to lean on their politicians to increase their commitment to the world body, and the gap between the perception of a global village and the reality of a multistate system can begin to close. But first we shall have to surmount the crisis that we face today.


Amb. William Dale

Ambassador Dale, a member of this journal's editorial review board, contributed a major article about three Cold War American Diplomats to the inaugural issue of American Diplomacy in the fall of 1996.

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