The Public and Foreign Policy

What is America's role in the world? This is a good question for August, since it was in this month six years ago that President Bush made his crucial decision to commit American power to the liberation of Kuwait. Back then, with the enormity of America's victory in the 40-year cold war still unfolding, it seemed so much easier to talk about "American leadership." Also, still quite natural to see that leadership exercised through the United Nations.

But what of today? Are Americans still committed to the costs and challenges, but also the potential huge improvements involved in engagement with the world outside? How do we see ourselves relating to the rest of humankind? And what role do we see for the UN in all this?

By most accounts, it seems as though the last six years have seen a strong rise in isolationist sentiment throughout the country. The American public, we are frequently told, is tired of paying the costs of American engagement abroad. In many regions, the airwaves resound with mean-spirited attacks on the UN and its controversial secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. And too many of our political leaders, whether influenced by these slurs or for other reasons, have pursued a campaign against him that looks shockingly vindictive to most of the rest of the world.

Of course, non-Americans feel obliged to point out that, while the Clinton administration throws its weight around on the issue of the secretary-general's reelection, we are also the country most deeply in arrears to the UN - to the tune of $1.5 billion.

Of what does the secretary-general stand accused? Of mismanagement? Well, London's Economist magazine, no apologist for slackers, wrote recently that, after a delayed start, his streamlining effort has already shown significant results. Or is it Mr. Boutros-Ghali's periodic exercise of his own judgment that upsets US policymakers, such as his decision to release the UN report criticizing Israel's actions in the Lebanese village of Qana?

But to oppose Boutros-Ghali for exercising some independent judgment is, surely, to miss the whole point of the UN. What purpose would the organization serve if it were only an extension of our own State Department? As such, it would lose all the credibility it has built up over the decades as a forum for all nations. And in the case of the Qana incident, only the United States and Israel wanted the report kept under wraps

Congressional and administration leaders' frenetic public hostility toward the UN leadership is only part of a broader "slash and burn" operation being waged today against any concept of a generous, and genuinely visionary, engagement with the rest of the world. Other parts have been launched, equally shockingly, against the tiny portion of the US budget devoted to foreign aid.

The tragedy in this is that, as a University of Maryland poll has shown, a majority of the US public actually thinks that an appropriate amount to devote to foreign aid would be a sum far, far higher than the US has ever allocated. So politicians don't have to pander on these issues to the mean-spirited lowest common denominator. A potential constituency exists for reversing the foreign-aid cuts, and probably, also, for reversing the mean-hearted policies toward the UN.

When will political leaders stand up to rally and mobilize this constituency? Is there anything we can do to tell them what we want? One suggestion is to write a check for $7 (the per capita amount of our arrears), naming the UN as payee, but mailing it to our congressional representatives with a letter that says we are prepared to pay our part but are looking to them for leadership on this issue. That looks a like a good suggestion for starters. Do readers have any others?

Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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