Sulking and Embargoing, America Sits Alone

Two recent votes in the United Nations provide evidence of the growing isolation, declining influence, and diminished stature of the United States in the world.

The UN Security Council voted 14-1 to give Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt a second term as secretary general. The single vote in opposition was cast by the United States.

The UN General Assembly voted 138-3 for a resolution urging an end to the US economic embargo against Cuba. The negative votes were cast by the US, Israel, and Uzbekistan. Rarely has a putative world leader assembled a less impressive coalition.

The US has a veto in the Security Council. The General Assembly resolution has no legal force. But both the Council and Assembly have dramatized American isolation.

Being in a lonely minority is not a subject for ridicule in a matter of high principle. On the contrary, it becomes a source of pride: It enhances moral stature and, over the long run, influence. But this is not what we are dealing with.

The US case against Mr. Boutros-Ghali is that he has not moved vigorously enough to reform (and mainly reduce) the overgrown, overpaid, underachieving UN bureaucracy. The case is unassailable. But US tactics have been ill-chosen and counterproductive.

Aside from exhortation, the principal tactic has been to withhold properly assessed dues from the UN. The arrearages now amount to $1.5 billion. This is like saying, "We think you're spending too much money, and we don't like what you're spending it for anyway; so we're not going to pay our dues until you shape up."

If an individual made that argument with the local Rotary Club, he would be expelled. If he made it with the Internal Revenue Service, he would go to jail.

But the US, which has perhaps become too accustomed to getting its way, seemed to think the other 184 members of the UN would yield to this clumsy pressure. Instead, they think this makes the US the all-time champion deadbeat: The country best able to pay its dues sits on its checkbook and sulks.

The vote against the Cuban embargo is becoming a tradition at the UN; this is its fifth consecutive year, and each year it becomes more one-sided. The US has abandoned hope of persuading other nations to support its position; it is satisfied if they abstain. Even that modest goal is eroding. Last year there were 38 abstentions; this year, only 24. This year's abstentions did not include any of the 15 members of the European Union (among them such powers and erstwhile US allies as Britain, Germany, France, Italy), all of whom voted against the US. So did Canada. Japan abstained but spoke against the embargo.

What makes the embargo particularly infuriating to our major trading partners is a new feature added this year. Under a piece of bipartisan foolishness passed by the Republican Congress and signed by the Democratic president, foreigners who have bought expropriated Cuban property are now denied entry into the United States. Some citizens of Mexico and Canada have already been excluded.

Between them, the Boutros-Ghali and Cuban issues mutually reinforce an escalating anti-American sentiment - not only in the third world where we are more or less used to it (or at least to its rhetoric in political discourse), but in the industrial world where we have heretofore been accustomed to finding partners with shared values. There is even worse news. The US policies that have brought these issues to the fore are themselves reflective of a changing US political climate.

A significant body of opinion in Congress and the country does not like foreigners in general (witness the popularity of immigrant-bashing) and the UN in particular. In its baldest terms, the confrontation over the secretary general has Boutros-Ghali as hostage to the US Congress. If Boutros-Ghali goes, Congress appropriates the money - maybe - to pay the US back dues. If he stays, the UN goes bankrupt - maybe. There are some in Congress who would not be upset if this happened.

That is probably too dark a scenario. A compromise could be reached about the secretary general. It is hard to see the outlines of a compromise about Cuba, but we can always hope that a ray of sanity will penetrate US policy. In any case, the United States has maneuvered itself into a no-win situation. It will emerge weaker and less respected than before, and it did not need to.

Pat Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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