BOSTON — It is ironic that at the very moment that the United States and its allies are victorious in their stand against tyranny and "ethnic cleansing," the leadership of the US is being challenged on another vital front.
If the US does not pay a large portion of its financial arrears to the United Nations by Dec. 31, it will automatically lose its vote in the UN General Assembly, rendering it part of a club of 31 other ostracized countries.
War and famine have shattered many in this group such as Somalia and Rwanda. Dictators ruthlessly lead others such as Iraq. Nearly all are too poor to pay their debts.
The United States, by contrast, is among the more prosperous, stable and law-abiding countries in the world, yet it still has not paid the $1.6 billion it owes to the UN. As seven former secretaries of State representing both Republican and Democratic presidencies wrote recently in an open letter to congressional leaders: "We are deeply concerned that our great nation is squandering its moral authority, leadership, and influence in the world. It is simply unacceptable that the richest nation on earth is also the biggest debtor to the United Nations."
Unlike other challenges to national security leadership, this one requires no threat of air strikes, no talk of ground war, no military mobilization. It requires of the US nothing more than the political will to make good on its promises - and legal obligations.
Many people unfamiliar with the issue might wonder why the US has not settled this question before.
After all, the UN has undergone extensive reform - at US insistence - from slashing budgets and personnel rolls to electing the US's choice for the post of secretary-general. Furthermore, the need for international cooperation in peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, children's health, drug control, and economic development has never been more urgent.
The UN is not without its weaknesses, but it is the best tool there is for engendering worldwide cooperation in these areas of vital concern to the US.
The reason it has not paid its arrears is pure and simple: The question of UN dues payment has become a political football. Both Republicans and Democrats have stalled UN funding in order to pursue other unrelated partisan issues.
Further UN reforms of special concern to the US could be halted if it is marginalized. The reform process can only continue if Congress and the Clinton administration assure the UN that it will remain a member in good standing.
In the Senate, a serious debate on UN reforms has borne fruit. We commend the bipartisan work of Sens. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and Joe Biden (D) of Delaware as an important step in paying off a portion of our debt this year.
The position in the House remains optimistic. Just last week it voted to restore funding to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), significantly altering the political landscape on UN-related issues. UN arrears legislation must be adopted before the end of the federal government's fiscal year in September, when expiring budget authority and presidential politics will make a compromise nearly unachievable.
It is our hope that both sides will consider the big picture and avoid partisan considerations.
More than 50 years ago, the UN was founded to help avert the war and deprivation that had consumed the entire world. The US, which played a leading role in establishing the body, made a legal and moral commitment to support the UN and join with other nations in using this vehicle to promote peace, cooperation, and opportunity around the world.
Without the UN as a primary system of influence for US foreign policy, the US' commitment to peace and stability throughout the world is undermined.
It would be a bitter irony to be disenfranchised under the very rules that we helped write as one of the UN's founding nations.
If Congress and the president fail to make a deal to pay the UN debt, history will judge their complacency and inaction and hold responsible those who chose the wrong course.
By withholding crucial financial support from the UN and its agencies, the US is abdicating its responsibility to effectively lead the world into the next century.
It's time to put this issue behind us. As the secretaries of State wrote in their letter to Congress, "Great nations pay their bills."
*Charles H. Percy and Paul Simon are former senators from Illinois. Mr. Percey, a Republican, was unseated by Mr. Simon, a Democrat, in 1984 elections. They now both serve on the Leadership Council of the Emergency Coalition for US Financial Support of the United Nations, a Washington-based organization.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society