By including in his State of the Union address an appeal for payment of America's delinquent dues to the United Nations, President Clinton has signaled his determination to rescue the organization from congressional adversaries who would enfeeble or abandon it. He faces a tough but winnable fight.
The warm atmospherics surrounding Kofi Annan's first visit to Washington as United Nations secretary-general have already begun to dissipate. Hard-line House Republicans have denounced Speaker Newt Gingrich's call for payment of UN dues. Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina is vowing to condition the president's proposed payment toward our $1.3 billion UN debt on "reform" that he promises to spell out in legislation.
Who are all these others?
Annan had to remind his Washington hosts that the United Nations has 184 stakeholders besides the United States. A critical mass of countries must agree on the direction of reform, and they will not simply accept an American diktat.
Unfortunately, the language of "UN-speak" seems to have two dialects - one in New York and the other in Washington - that are mutually incomprehensible.
To nearly all other member states in New York, "reform" means redeploying resources to strengthen UN performance and enhancing the UN's capacity to act. In Washington, "reform" - even for an assertedly Democratic administration - now translates as reduction in staff resources and budgets.
Reform specifically of the Security Council is assumed in Washington to mean adding financial heavyweights like Japan and Germany as permanent members. For most other member states, it means limitations on the permanent members' use of the veto, not expansion of their number.
In New York, reform of the formula for apportioning UN dues means a fairer measure of ability to pay. In Washington, it means a substantial reduction in the US share - which for regular expenses is already below America's share of world income - by shifting costs to Europeans and others who already pay at a higher rate of their income.
The UN's crisis will be resolved when America's politicians are prepared to do with our international partners what they do with each other all the time: Find common ground on principles and divide the difference on interests. In short, compromise.
On the UN's special assessment scale for peacekeeping, for instance, the Congress has declared that the United States will not pay the 31 percent share assigned to it by the United Nations General Assembly, decreeing unilaterally that it won't pay a dime more than 25 percent. (Its actual payments fall far short of even that.) By pressing a case based on shared principles of equity, not on just cutting its own bill, America can win agreement on assessment-scale reform that puts its share at 26.6 percent. Will Washington take a fair compromise, or insist on a confrontation over one or two percentage points?
Fair compromise does not mean paying the overdue bills to the United Nations in New York by cutting payments to the UN's specialized agencies dealing with disease, food production, or nuclear weapons control. Nor does it make sense for the United States to withdraw from such agencies, as some suggest may be Capitol Hill's price for payment of part of what we owe to the United Nations in New York. The various agencies of the system should be seen as parts of an integral whole. Disbanding them piecemeal is not reform.
Their eyes glaze over
Many in Washington repeat the mantra of UN reform without much thought to what it means. The Clinton administration presented a number of useful suggestions for streamlining some offices, but administrative housecleaning leaves most congressmen's eyes glazed over.
Mr. Helms's prescription is far more dramatic: a halving of United Nations staff and an 80 percent reduction in assessed expenses. This is a classic "killer amendment" that may just serve as a pretext for US withdrawal: The rest of the UN's members resolutely reject the notion that its "reform" means cessation of many of its functions.
Just ask the public
So does the American public. Opinion research shows that majorities of Americans favor increased funding, not less, for UN activities such as disease and drug control, and even favor maintaining or increasing current funding levels for development aid. By a substantial margin, they see the United Nations as becoming more important, not less, for dealing with international problems. By more than a 2-to-1 majority, they favor payment of United Nations dues in full without conditions.
America's private-sector voluntary organizations turn out to share the same basic views on these matters as do those of the rest of the world. In a survey of "civil society" organizations worldwide, the United Nations Association of the United States found that American and foreign groups rank the new secretary-general's priorities virtually identically.
First, he should be an advocate for the global interest; next, a diplomat and mediator; third, a strong administrator and manager. For Americans as well as non-Americans, reducing overall budget and spending - Washington's fixation - comes in dead last.
Public embarrassment is growing over cavalier congressional hostility to the United Nations, and editorial calls are mounting for Washington to meet America's obligations. President Clinton needs to mobilize this public sentiment in his campaign to restore UN funding. While Washington's ingrown foreign policy elite may not see such success as exciting, saving the institutions of global community from dissolution will secure a place for Mr. Clinton in world history.
* Jeffrey Laurenti is executive director of policy studies at the United Nations Association of the United States.