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While all of this activity is undoubtedly worthy, one can still ask whether the question of administrative reform is not a red herring. As the New York Times has pointed out, it seemed at one time that legislators were demanding reform as the price of restoring some part of the United States' … arrearages. But it became clear that they wished to dispense with these much criticized instruments of American leverage. If so, then did the recent Clinton Administration make a serious tactical error in adopting administrative reform as a central element of its UN policy?

To repeat, the question is one of tactics, not strategic or policy perspective. The Clinton Administration outlined a sensible redefinition of the UN in terms of today’s real needs and real possibilities. That administration called for a focusing of the UN efforts and resources on four core functions:

  • maintaining peace a nd security;
  • ensuring a rapid response to humanitarian emergencies;
  • establishing and monitoring the observance of international legal and technical norms;
  • promoting sustainable development.

While this perspective calls for serious "reengineering" of the UN as an organization, too often this is taken to mean merely "downsizing" or cutting back on people and resources. Downsizing, however, should be an option not a solution, a means not an end.

Nevertheless, this position could constitute the beginning of a more serious effort to redefine the UN for today. Unfortunately, the such efforts fall short in several ways. First of all, while the above recommendations make obvious good sense to the U.S. Government and certain other Western or developed (rich) countries. It is sadly deficient in meeting the needs of much of the Third World. Sustainable development is viewed by many of them as a rich country cop-out on serious expansion of Official Development Assistance (ODA), and there are too many implications for what they view as interference in their internal affairs contained in the first three points. That these Third World concerns may not be fully justified is beside the point; as long as they have them they can and will obstruct serious reform of the UN. For them, the U.S. position smacks a bit too much of the old "What’s good for General Motors…" perspective.

Secondly, the tactical ploy of leading the charge on organizational reform only encouraged U.S. opponents of the UN. While the Congressional attitude towards paying our contributions to the UN is obviously not solely due to this situation, certainly the Clinton Administration’s trumpeting of UN character flaws makes the Congressional attitude more understandable, at least to the general public. The cry that we will pay our arrears only after the UN is reformed is superficially attractive. The late Administration’s approach was that the Helms-Biden Act was a successful bit of executive-administrative cooperation that would save as well as reform the UN. Many believe, however, it was a bad bargain to buy off Senator Helm's opposition to the appointment of Madeleine Albright to the position of Secretary of State in exchange for effective control of U.S. policy towards the UN. Many observers found the Helms-Biden compromise a seriously flawed agreement in several ways; it focuses on the wrong, or at least secondary, questions. In August 2000, the UN Association of the United States published a critical analysis of Helms-Biden. It pointed out the essential requirement that the legislation conditions the availability of funds (the ostensible primary purpose of the compromise) on the UN complying with a series of U.S. Government-determined benchmarks, and even then raised a number of issues that "ultimately could jeopardize further America’s standing in international organizations," as well as threaten th e viability of UN programs such as peacekeeping. Among the Association's concerns were:

  • The plan does not provide nearly enough funding to cover America’s total indebtedness.
  • The plan would require the UN to consign any unpaid balances to a special account that would not count against potential loss of U.S. votes in the General Assembly, an exception unavailable to other countries.
  • Of the more than three dozen conditions contained in the plan, many were already impossible to achieve as crucial deadlines had passed.
  • In return for the promised partial p[payment of arrears, the plan would impose new conditions that could lead to a new round of arrears;
  • The plan imposed limits on U.S. assessments to all international organizations, regardless of developments.
  • The plan failed to distinguish between administrative reforms which can be implemented by the secretary-general and those that must be approved by member states;
  • Several of the plan’s provisions are vague (e.g., "certification of the maintenance of unabridged US sovereignty in the UN"), yet failure to certify any of the more than three dozen conditions could lead to a suspension of all arrears’ payments.

Not surprisingly, many of the other members of the UN looked somewhat askance as we demanded reform on our conditions while withholding a significant amount of our assessments. There is a natural reaction on the part of many UN members to argue that our financial obligations are independent of questions of reform; that we have no right to hold our contributions hostage to our view of reform. Who is right or wrong in this argument is beside the point: reform requires cooperation.

In any case, as the year 2000 and the Clinton Administration both came to a close, the essential elements of Helms-Biden had not be implemented. The U.S. Government remains in arrears on its assessment, even in terms of its own estimates. This development only increases the feeling among many nations that the United States is not even serious on the subject of reform, but rather is using it as an excuse not to pay. To paraphrase Jessica Mathews in the New York Times, the United States specifies financial and management reforms in the UN as the price of support and, when they are adopted, moves the goal posts farther back.

The Brahimi report on UN peacekeeping, referred to earlier, asks the question about U.S. intentions in a more subtle manner. While the body of the report outlines a comprehensive series of recommendations for reorganization and strengthening of the UN’s capability to perform peacekeeping missions, the essential message calls upon Security Council members to adopt greater responsibility with respect to peacekeeping mandates and resources. Given the prominence of the United States in the Security Council (not to mention the current assessment problem), this message is obviously directed primarily to Washington.

The general American public has not been seriously enough engaged on the issue of the UN and its role in American foreign policy. The country’s leadership elite has bought on too quickly to the argument that the public does not care, despite the persistent evidence of public opinion polls to the contrary. In any case, American history is replete with evidence the public is often not engaged until asked to be so. It has not yet been seriously asked; and that means more than the equivalent of one Saturday morning Presidential radio talk.

Where this leaves us all at the moment is hard to tell. Reform is on the agenda, and some progress is being made. But significant reform requires more than grudging formal agreement from the other members of the global organization and that is proving hard enough to get.

What is To Be Done?
Reform of the UN may be viewed as a passing question of little real interest. But the world’s problems keep occurring, and the United States often discovers it cannot opt out: Haiti, Kosovo, East Timor, and Sierra Leone are only samples. Obviously each administration must deal with these problems as they occur, and will wish to be equipped - militarily, politically, and financially - for unilateral action when necessary. But equally obviously, it would be desirable to have the option of multilateral action in cooperation with other countries. NATO is the most prominent example of this type of capability, developed in another era, but proving to be of continued utility today and possibly tomorrow.

Working with and through the United Nations falls into that category of potential options, but only if both the UN's image and its capability are refurbished. That refurbishment remains ostensibly the objective of U.S. reform efforts in the UN, but in pursuit of its reform program the U. S. Government has joined in trashing the UN, thereby lending aid and comfort to its political opponents and the UN’s ideological enemies. The failure to achieve meaningful reform through the end of 2000 was at least partially due to the Clinton Administration's "devil's bargain" with Senator Jesse Helms. The administration traded control over UN policy to him in exchange for his support for senatorial consent to the nomination of Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State (plus some T-Shi rts with cozy photos of the two). The Brahimi Panel Report on UN Peace Operations offers a new opportunity to review, revise, and reinvigorate the U. S. role in the United Nations. A failure to reinvigorate the UN will produce one clear result: a diminution of U. S. Government policy options in the future. A review of broader reform tactics for consideration by the current administration might also be in order.

To be effective, national strategic policy and tactical political concerns must be combined. This would require, however, the sort of bipartisan consensus which so characterized much of the long period from 1941 to 1990. The arrival of the Bush Administration offers an excellent opportunity to seek such an agreement, if only one limited to the relatively narrow question of the United Nations. While it has been conventional wisdom for some time now that the public lacks interest in foreign affairs, public opinion polls and the persistent need for the administration to address foreign policy problems - from the Middle East to Haiti through Bosnia to China, with occasional stops in Korea and other points - indicates the conventional wisdom may be wrong. Grabbing the issue of a responsible, bipartisan U.S. Government policy towards the UN (a persistently popular institution in American public opinion polls) just might be an effective way for someone to claim the mantle of responsible leadership in the tradition of all successful American presidents.

The first step in formulating a bipartisan, publicly supported policy towards the UN is the presentation to the public of the reasons why such a policy is desirable. The arguments are many and need not be repeated in detail here. They can be summed up in the following major points:

  • Nothing that can seriously affect the United States can occur in the United Nations system against American opposition.
  • At the same time, most American initiatives - from the Gulf War to attempting to control the internal traffic in narcotics - are adopted by the UN system.
  • The United States finances twenty-five per cent (thirty per cent for peacekeeping) of the activities of this organization, which means obviously that the rest of the world pays seventy-five per cent.In the private sector this is called leverage, and considered to be a good thing.

The presentation of a support policy must be thorough, sober, and persistent. It must include a vision of the UN we wish to see develop, focusing on the future. It must be explicitly tied to U.S. national interests and to ongoing problems such as Haiti, Bosnia, and Korea, as well as the new transnational threats such as narcotics, crime, migration, and the spread of violence against civilians. It must be based on the clear understanding that support for the UN is based on a sober calculation of how to best pursue American’s real national interests over the long term. The adoption of such a national policy towards the UN would quickly resolve the funding problem. Public opinion polls consistently reveal broad (if not deep) public support for the UN and a willingness to finance it. In fact, the public seriously overestimates the actual amount of American money which goes to the UN.

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