The United States and the United Nations have not been the best of friends lately Now it's up to Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina to play the pugilist or the peacemaker.
The new United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, is living up to his pledge to work with the GOP-run Congress on UN reforms. In return, he hopes it will agree to pay some $1 billion in arrears owed to the UN by the US.
But it remains to be seen if Senator Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been swayed.
Helms is now drafting a bill setting down specific reforms, or benchmarks, the UN would have to fulfill for the US to pay its debt.
Depending on how far the conditions go, the measure could either win some reforms or provoke a fierce anti-US backlash by the 184 other members. Such a reaction could erode Washington's influence in the organization it helped found in 1945.
"If Helms goes for radical reforms, nobody can go along," warns a diplomat at the UN.
While many UN member states agree with Sen. Helms and his fellow American critics that the UN has become bloated and corruption-prone, they are also becoming increasingly indignant with Washington for withholding what it legally owes in order to strong-arm the multinational body into adopting its agenda.
Says the UN diplomat: "Everyone sees the need for reform. But what we don't support is the US using its payments as blackmail."
Mark Thiessen, a spokesman for Helms, says that UN officials "don't like the idea of ... the US Congress mandating reforms. But most of the significant reforms that have taken place at the UN [previously] have taken place only because the Congress mandated them."
The bulk of the US debt to the UN - about $700 million - stems from differences over the US share of peacekeeping costs. The UN says the US should pay 31 percent of these operations; but two years ago, the US unilaterally cut its share to 25 percent. The remaining funds constitute unpaid UN membership dues.
The Clinton administration is proposing that Congress approve funds to cover the debt, but withhold most of them until fiscal 1999 to give the UN time to reform.
But some UN officials are concerned that Helms may advocate the kind of radical overhaul he promoted last fall in an article in Foreign Affairs, an influential foreign policy quarterly.
In his article, Helms called for a 50-percent cut in the main UN budget and a 75- percent cut in its 53,700-strong workforce. He also proposed allowing the US to opt out of funding and participating in UN peacekeeping missions it did not deem necessary.
Should his bill be based on that plan, officials say, Helms will exacerbate the intense resentment already felt by many states over US non-payment of its debt, triggering retaliatory moves that could hurt US interests.
Warns a senior UN official: "Helms will ratchet up an entirely new level of unhappiness if those benchmarks are completely unrealistic."
Annan has also let it be known that there are limits to what he can support.
"I do not accept that the objective of the reform is to downsize," the Ghanaian diplomat told the British Broadcasting Corp.
UN officials and other experts say changes that might pass the General Assembly could include some agency consolidations, an end to new UN world conferences and additional corruption-fighting powers for the UN inspector general, an office recently created under US pressure.
The General Assembly might also agree to reduce from 25 percent to 20 percent the US share of the UN budget, experts say.
But in return, the US would have to agree to compensate states that made up the shortfall - most likely Japan and Germany - with veto-wielding permanent seats on the Security Council. Currently, permanent seats are held by the US, China, Britain, France and Russia.
That would severely restrict the UN's ability to stage such operations because the US is their largest underwriter.
Helms and other critics contend that UN peacekeeping missions have multiplied in recent years without regard to costs or objectives and are often of no value to US interests.
Helms warned in his article that if his changes were not accepted, he would lead a campaign to have the US withdraw from the UN.
Mr. Annan's staff has held talks in New York with 11 Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffers.
Annan himself paid a courtesy call on former GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole, underscoring his desire to reach out to Republican critics of the UN.