NEW YORK -- After a meeting with President Barack Obama last week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon triggered a mild controversy in Capitol Hill when he unwittingly described the United States as a "deadbeat" donor which owes a staggering $1.6 billion in unpaid dues to the world body. The facts were unimpeachable but the remark apparently seemed misplaced -- particularly under the new US administration.
And so, when Congressional leaders expressed outrage over his choice of words, the Secretary-General sheepishly and speedily backtracked, pointing out that he did not mean to be offensive. As part of the damage control, he downplayed his remarks, not once but twice, in less than 24 hours.
Conscious that he had used the wrong word, he had to rush with a statement clarifying that the US "generously supports the work of the UN, both in assessed and voluntary contributions," and that "he (personally) enjoys an excellent working relationship with the US and appreciates the many ways that it supports the United Nations."
|US President Barack Obama (R) speaks to the media with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (L) in the White House Oval Office on Tuesday. AFP
In informal terms, "deadbeat" is a contemptuous word signifying an "unreliable person." But is the US, under Obama, going to be as unreliable as it was under the Bush administration? Hopefully, not -- judging by sentiments emanating from the White House and Obama officials.
A spokesman for the US Mission said: "The US is the largest contributor to the United Nations and while we are behind in some of our payments, those are not the words we would have chosen to encourage Congress address this problem."
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a senior Republican, was outraged: "We certainly contribute a whole lot of US taxpayer dollars to that Organisation. We do not deserve such a phrase."
Perhaps it was a genuine mistake -- and still, a particularly poor choice of words -- by a Secretary-General whose mother tongue is not English.
After a gruelling eight years with the Bush administration, which ignored the UN even when it went to war with Iraq, there is strong anticipation of a radical change in the relationship between the White House and the world body.
John Bolton, the former US ambassador, never had a cordial relationship with the UN. Perhaps he was best known for two irreconcilable statements. First, in a 1994 speech, he said that "there is no such thing as the United Nations."
And later, he was more specific, when he remarked: "If the UN Secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a difference."
That prompted one critic to describe Bolton as more qualified to be an urban planner in charge of building construction than a cautious diplomat. But eventually, the UN survived both Bolton and the Bush administration.
With the Obama administration, things may be moving in a different direction. When she appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last January, the new US Ambassador Susan Rice gave a clear indication of the future relationship between the Obama administration and the world body.
She said that to lead from a position of strength, the US must consistently act as a responsible, fully-engaged partner in New York. "To do so, we must fulfill our financial obligations while insisting on effective accountability."
"In the past, our failure to pay all of our dues and to pay them on a timely basis has constrained the UN's performance and deprived us of the ability to use our influence most effectively to promote reform. President-elect Obama believes the U.S. should pay our dues to the UN in full and on time," Rice declared.
That was certainly good news for the UN. The unpaid US dues, which have been accumulating over the years reaching a hefty $1.6 billion to date, have been a sore point in the relationship between the UN and the US.
The overwhelming majority of the 192 members pay their dues in full and on time. But not the United States -- and certainly not under the Bush administration (which exercised the power of its purse to keep the world body in a perpetual cash crisis).
Rice clearly articulated a totally new US approach to the UN while recognising the failings of the institution. "I know that the UN often frustrates Americans, and I am acutely aware of its shortcomings. But that is precisely why the United States must carry out sustained, concerted, and strategic multilateral diplomacy."
She said that many countries invest heavily in deliberations on what they view as the "world's stage." That in part explains why diplomacy at the UN can be slow, frustrating, complex, and imperfect. But that is also why effective American diplomacy at the United Nations remains so crucial.
Only time, and Obama, will tell.