IMAGINE a shutdown of United Nations operations during next fall's presidential campaign, with the rest of the world blaming America for failing to pay its UN obligations.
Hardly the image of United States leadership and responsible government that either party promises. Yet this is what the current budget battle in Washington could produce. Those up for reelection should consider the chances of UN insolvency, its potential political impact, and alternative actions.
Though the UN is only one of many secondary targets in the effort to curtail federal spending, there are important national interests at risk. The following are a few facts voters can use to spur this debate:
*The UN's annual operating budget of $1.3 billion, approved by the US and other governments, is equivalent to what the US Defense Department spends in less than 48 hours. As the world's richest country, the US is committed to contributing 25 percent of the UN's budget.
*Last year we provided only 12 percent, and we are paying less than 12 percent in 1996. Overall, the UN is owed $3.1 billion for both regular and peacekeeping operations. America alone accounts for more than one-half of this delinquency.
*The UN has been unable to reimburse 62 countries for troop and equipment costs expended during peacekeeping missions the US voted for.
*On April 1 the UN embarked on a 10 percent reduction in its worldwide staff over the current two-year budget cycle. With no other country eager to pay America's bills and the UN devoid of taxing or borrowing powers, the UN's chief financial officer, Joseph Connor, an American and a former senior executive at Price-Waterhouse, expects the UN to run out of money sometime in the fourth quarter. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali warns of a huge furlough for UN officials as the world body faces the worst cash-flow crisis in its history.
President Clinton and Republican leaders in Congress are aware of the seriousness of the UN's financial predicament. Their staffs have been meeting quietly, negotiating a "grand bargain" that would allow the president to pay off all US arrears in return for further reforms of the UN's administration, budget, and programs. This process broke down over reform issues and because of the larger budget deadlock.
Will Americans care if the UN shuts its doors, even for a few days? Jessica Mathews, senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, recently reviewed studies by Democratic, Republican, and politically neutral pollsters and found that while the United Nations is not a top concern among the public, it enjoys a consistently favorable rating of around 67 percent. Ms. Mathews concludes that popular reaction to a UN shutdown could produce a nasty surprise for the politicians deemed responsible.
What does prudent leadership require? There are three steps that President Clinton, Senate majority leader Bob Dole, and Speaker Newt Gingrich could take together that would serve their mutual interests.
1. They should ensure that any appropriation to keep the US government running this year has enough money in it to keep the UN open as well. The continuing budget resolution that the president must sign this week does include additional money for the UN. According to senior UN officials, however, this will only be enough to ensure UN solvency through July - when the secretary-general will again have to take money designated for peacekeeping operations to pay regular UN salaries in an effort to stave off a shutdown.
2. To break the political logjam over the terms for a "grand bargain" that would eliminate all US arrears while encouraging further UN reform, Clinton should appoint a special bipartisan panel, chaired by a respected Republican internationalist such as former President George Bush.
Such a panel could help tame the anti-UN extremists in Congress, ensure that UN-bashing does not pollute the upcoming presidential campaign, enter into a constructive dialogue on UN reform with the UN's High-Level Working Group that is already making important progress on these issues, and present the Congress a funding-reform package next year that would be subject to one up-or-down vote, much as is now done with fast-track legislation for foreign trade.
3. Political leaders of both parties must explain the US national interests at stake in ways the public can understand. In brief, these include:
*US refusal to pay its UN assessments violates treaty obligations and is thus unlawful. Under Article 19 of the UN Charter, the US could be stripped of its voting rights in the General Assembly and thereby lose its voice in the world's only truly global body.
*Washington has become a bad example for others. Last year 22 states made no payments and nearly one-half of the UN's members withheld part of their assessments.
*Not paying dues undercuts the effort we have championed for UN reform. The UN's financial situation is so precarious that it is no longer legitimate for Washington to demand, as a precondition for paying off old debts, that the UN make costly administrative reforms it cannot afford.
*If the UN becomes seriously impaired, this places an added burden on the American military. Washington depends on the UN as a cost-effective alternative to the unilateral use of force when pursuing national security objectives (such as the recent condemnation of Cuba), or when building necessary domestic and foreign support for a vital military operation like the Gulf war.
*US financial irresponsibility toward the UN unfairly jeopardizes the jobs of nearly 30,000 Americans who work for the UN and its accredited diplomatic missions. The UN pumps $3.3 billion a year into the US economy - an amount greater than the total arrears owed to it by the US and other countries. Pressures to relocate UN agencies to other countries are growing.
By stiffing the UN, we shortchange ourselves. For 50 years the UN has served US interests, not only in helping to avoid a nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis and other, lesser crises, but in a variety of areas that concern the American people, such as disarming Iraq, child survival, public health, and the environment.
Current US behavior toward the UN is increasingly unlawful, unfair, unfaithful, and downright un-American.