Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

9th January 2000

The US quarrels over its future in the UN

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NEW YORK When the 15 member UN Security Council was deadlocked in December 1996 over the election of a new Secretary-General, the US made no bones about its strong opposition to incumbent Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt.

Since the US was the only country to exercise its veto against Boutros-Ghali, Ambassador Francesco Paolo Fulci of Italy, then President of the Security Council, held a series of closed-door meetings to help resolve the crisis.

As Fulci would recount, all 15 ambassadors met late into the night one day trying to figure out how best to break the deadlock. The only potential rival for Boutros-Ghali was Kofi Annan of Ghana, then Under-Secretary-General for UN Peacekeeping Operations.

US Ambassador Madeleine Albright, currently Secretary of State, made it very clear that Washington was determined to block Boutros-Ghali from continuing as Secretary-General for another five-year term.

At one of the meetings, Fulci said, the discussions dragged on late into the night, with Albright looking weary by the hour, since she had spent a couple of sleepless nights that week. Looking visibly tired, she wanted to invigorate herself with a hot drink, and demanded: "I want coffee now."

And at her bidding, the ambassadors present at the meeting, clearly missing their cues, rushed into the Security Council chamber and cast their votes for Kofi (pronounced coffee, by most UN diplomats) Annan as the new Secretary-General.

As Fulci would recall, it was one of the best anecdotes circulating in the corridors of the UN. But he wouldn't vouch for its veracity.

The anecdote also symbolized one of the enduring facts of a post-Cold War UN: the growing political power exercised by the US. Although the Clinton Administration realizes the degree of influence the US wields at the UN, a Republican-controlled Congress in Washington DC apparently does not. Not only is Congress refusing to pay the $1.3 billion in outstanding arrears except perhaps with stringent conditions which most UN member states are not willing to agree to but it also wants the US to pull out of the UN, if ever there is such an option.

Last week US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke said the trouble with the US Congress is that it may be holding a romanticized view of the cash-strapped world body.

The US contribution to the UN, he said, isn't for padding the lifestyles of bureaucrats living in high-priced apartments on fashionable Park Avenue or even Fifth Avenue. "It's a down payment on American national security."

Making a case before a hostile US Congress, Holbrooke has clearly pinpointed how the US can advance American national interests both through the UN and also through its two sister institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, (IMF) where Washington is a dominant power because of weighted voting.

The message from Holbrooke to Congress is clear: Please don't hold up our payments to the UN because you guys don't realize how we manipulate the Organization.

Over the last few years, the US Congress has blocked payment of American dues on the ground that the UN is mismanaged, over-staffed, extravagant and works against the national interests of the United States.

The charges are mostly frivolous in a country where its leading legislative body is moving dangerously towards a policy of isolationism in international affairs.

Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who mistakenly thinks that the UN is a world government that threatens to take over American foreign policy, advocates sharp cuts in US contributions to the UN.

Helms has signalled his own message to the UN: Reform or Perish. "Giving funds to the UN," he says bluntly, "is like pouring money into a rat-hole."

But the rat-hole on New York's East River is surviving on the generosity of the world's developing nations, most of whom are paying their dues in full, on time and without any conditions. The Clinton Administration, however, has a totally different view of the world body far removed from that of Helms.

Holbrooke admits that throughout its 54-year existence, the UN has played a key role in advancing American security interests from Korea in the 1950s and the Gulf War in the early 1990s to the bombing of Kosovo last year which had the implicit blessings of a lop-sided Security Council. But since the Clinton Administration does not have a majority in Congress, it is unable to meet its legal obligations to pay the UN its rightful dues. Clearly, the Administration's spirit is willing but its purse is weak.

"Despite its many shortcomings," says Holbrooke, "the United Nations serves America's national interests. Eliminating the UN is not an option. Weakening it will only undermine our interests."

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