THE relationship of the United States to the United Nations is at a turning point. The question is whether the US will abide by its treaty commitments and continue its assessed contribution to that organization, or whether it will unilaterally reduce that contribution, thereby weakening the UN at a time the world desperately needs it. If Congress reduces United States funding, the losers will include refugees in the Middle East, hungry people in Africa and other parts of the world, and the US itself.
Staff workers with independent international development and emergency assistance organizations like the American Friends Service Committee know that in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East the UN provides crucial humanitarian services in emergency situations, aid to refugees, and programs that encourage self-reliance and support a new status for women.
Private agencies can innovate, take risks, and set examples; they cannot, however, wipe out disease, feed the starving who are caught up in vast droughts, relocate millions of refugees, or give a fresh start to whole regions in search of development. They rely, as do their thousands of contributors, on the multiple capacities of the UN and its family of agencies.
Furthermore, the UN provides a stabilizing international presence that allows private agencies to reach out to victims caught up in political conflicts over which they have no control. For humanitarian service organizations in the Middle East, in South East Asia, and in Central America, the UN plays an indispensable role, enabling them to respond to the needs of those who would otherwise be outside the reach of their compassion.
Cutting back on US assessments and voluntary donations to the UN is, however, not just a problem for the world's poor and displaced; it is also a problem for the people of the US.
Although we frequently hear that the great powers do not need the UN, in fact the nuclear powers need the organization more than anyone else does. Unforeseen events can draw us into a vortex, leaving our governments very little they can do to get out. When worse comes to worst, the Security Council or the Office of the Secretary General provides an internationally acceptable setting in which nations can move away from rigid positions and toward solutions. The Congo crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, and the October 1973 Middle East war are examples.
In another area, the UN has been able to play a unique role in focusing world attention on critical needs of our day. Vitally important international gatherings that have been held on the environment, on women, and on the debt of African nations would be unimaginable without the UN. So would the internationally supported cleanup of the Mediterranean Sea -- one of the few projects on which Arab nations and Israel are cooperating.
The subject of current congressional debate is $210 million, the United States' share of the general United Nations budget. While vital to the successful operation of the UN, this amount is minor in comparison with the total US budget. The Pentagon spends in three months more than the whole world has spent on the UN in the last 40 years.
Looked at another way, each US citizen pays $1,254 yearly for the Department of Defense but less than a dollar for the work of the United Nations.
The US has achieved preeminent military power and a society of abundance. But is this the only face the people of the US want to put forward to the world? Or do we wish also to be recognized as an enlightened nation in the service of human dignity, human progress, and international cooperation?
If this seems an irrelevant consideration, remember that by the time the youth of today reach maturity, the US population will represent just 3 percent of the world population. Future generations of Americans will want to be recognized for carrying their fair share of international responsibility. US participation now in taking funds away from the UN would have the lasting effect of isolating these future generations from much of the rest of the world.
Certainly the efficiency of the UN system, like that of state or federal governments and other complex bodies, can be improved. The UN system deserves review. Yet it would be tragic if, as a result of congressional concerns for these reforms, the US were to withdraw support and undermine the ability of the UN to fulfill its essential mission for all of us.
Stephen Thiermann is former Quaker representative at the United Nations, N.Y., and now serves as vice-chairman of the American Friends Service Committee's board of directors.