The standing ovation that greeted President Clinton at the opening of the 53rd United Nations General Assembly this week hardly reflected the United States' standing within the imposing edifice on New York's East River.
Quite the contrary.
While the applause confirmed Mr. Clinton's enduring personal appeal as he grapples with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it concealed the anger - and eroding influence - the US faces because of its failure to pay a debt to the UN of more than $1.5 billion. And things could get worse.
The issue has become a political football in a struggle between Clinton and the Republican-run Congress over geopolitics and abortion rights. Unless they can strike a deal to pony up all of the 1998 US contribution to the UN by the year's end, the world's richest country will be stripped of its vote in the General Assembly in January.
Saying the General Assembly is little more than an international talk shop, some experts insist such a loss will not really hurt. They point out that the US would retain its permanent seat and veto in the more powerful Security Council.
But many critics of the UN agree with the Clinton administration that a loss of the US vote would be a humiliating blow to American prestige and leadership at a time of seething global economic and political crises. Also at stake would be Washington's ability to use the UN to defend its interests and advance its foreign policy through collective actions and the appointment of Americans to key posts in the world body and UN agencies.
"What kind of example would be set for the most powerful country in the world to potentially lose its UN General Assembly vote over the issue of arrears?" asks an administration official rhetorically. "It undercuts our leadership and ultimately undercuts the UN."
The administration is now negotiating with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on paying the 1998 contribution of $560 million by Dec. 31. Officials are cautiously optimistic.
But they warn that because the US in 1995 unilaterally cut its contributions to UN peace operations from 31 percent to 25 percent, its debt is growing at a rate that may make it almost impossible to avoid losing its General Assembly vote in 2000.
"We are not out of the woods," concedes a US official.
UN's financial woes
The US failure to pay its debt is a major cause of the UN's fiscal crisis. To remain solvent, the organization has had to delay reimbursing European allies, Japan, and other nations for peacekeeping troops. The anger at the US has been compounded by what is seen as Washington's arrogant expectations of support for its positions on issues like Iraq and Kosovo while it remains the organization's largest scofflaw.
Under Article 19 of the UN Charter, of which the US was a primary author, a member can be stripped of its General Assembly vote once its debts total more than twice its annual assessment. Sixty percent of the US debt is for peacekeeping.
The arrears began mounting massively in 1994 after an enormous growth in UN peacekeeping operations. Then, in 1995, congressional Republicans pushed through the unilateral cut in US contributions to such operations, and set conditions for payments on regular UN dues whose fulfillment the president must approve before the debt can be repaid.
The GOP actions reflected opposition to the administration's policy of working with other nations to advance US security, a philosophy that conservatives see as tantamount to a surrender of American sovereignty.
The problem is exacerbated by the nine-month gap between the start of the US and the UN fiscal years. The result is that US payments of regular UN dues typically arrive 18 months late.
With the problem mounting, the administration last year began pressing Congress to approve legislation to pay the arrears. After hard bargaining, they hammered out a bill in April to fork over $926 million - the amount reflects a dispute over how much the US actually owes.
But the legislation adds 38 new conditions - including cuts in the UN budget, personnel, and annual US dues from 25 percent to 20 percent of the organization's regular budget.
While advocates say the conditions are levers to force the UN to implement badly needed reforms, critics say they are new traps set by conservatives to undermine the US role in the world body.
Complicating the issue
The issue was further complicated when conservatives added to the legislation a provision restricting US aid to international family-planning programs. Unwilling to risk his support among pro-choice and women's groups, Clinton has threatened to veto the measure.
"All that stands between paying the UN arrears today is a decision from the president," counters Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, a leading conservative. "What matters more to him: pandering to militant women's groups or paying the UN?"