US owes UN more than dues

When the United States Senate resumes its normal business after the current impeachment trial, it will still confront the question of dues the US owes the United Nations.

At the end of 1998, the US paid about $250 million in dues, just enough to avoid losing its vote in the UN General Assembly. About $1 billion is still owed.

The issue is more than a matter of money. The delay in payment reflects a starkly diminished US interest in the international organization. This lessened interest is not confined to the legislative branch; a draft of an International Affairs Strategic Plan circulating for approval in the State Department makes no reference to the United Nations. A similar State document in 1997 called for the payment of UN arrearages and listed "effectiveness of UN peacekeeping structure" as important to US national interests.

Efforts to gain support for further payments to the international organization are not helped by recent UN setbacks: the withdrawal of its peacekeeping mission from Angola and the stalemate in the Security Council over Iraq.

But Washington's disillusionment with the UN is more fundamental than disappointment over recent events. It stems from frustration over the loss of a controlling influence in the international body that goes back many decades and from a basic misreading of the nature of the organization and the role of its secretary-general.

Some comments in the US press and congressional rhetoric give the impression that the UN is another foreign country - and an adversary at that. Few voices remind the nation that the US is a member of a body of sovereign states in which, like any legislature, objectives must be achieved through politics and diplomacy. While some US states that fail to achieve their total will in the US Congress would like to turn their backs on Capitol Hill, such a move is not possible if the nation is to be preserved. The US sees no problem in turning its back on the UN when its diplomats are unable to gain unqualified support for US objectives. It would like to look, instead, to NATO to keep the peace and support US objectives, but the new "global policeman" concept of NATO is not popular with many members of the alliance.

In its criticisms of the UN, Washington tends to concentrate almost totally on the organization's political role, ignoring aspects of the organization of importance to others. Miguel Albonez, Ecuador's UN ambassador, was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle on Feb. 5: "In the developing countries, the UN doesn't mean frustration, confrontation or condemnation. It means environmental sanitation, agricultural production, telecommunications, the fight against illiteracy, the great struggle against poverty, ignorance, and disease."

Related to American attitudes is a serious misunderstanding of the role of the UN secretary-general. Kofi Annan is not the first in that position to be seen by Washington as a sort of president of an inimical force responsible for the world's disasters and for the frustration of US objectives. The US engineered the removal of the last secretary- general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Throwing support to Mr. Annan, Washington believed the new secretary-general would better understand and advance US goals. As recognition of the limits of a secretary-general's position and the need for him to devise a consensus among 180 diverse nations dawns, Washington has become less supportive and enthusiastic. As Annan wrote in a New York Times commentary on Jan. 19, he should be judged by friends and critics alike by a "sense of reality" and "appreciation of the promises, limitations, and responsibilities of the organization and the officeholder."

Without doubt, the UN is in crisis. Responsibility for the crisis rests with no single nation, but the possibilities of strengthening the organization could be immeasurably enhanced if the principal organizer and sponsor of the UN took the international organization more seriously.

*David D. Newsom, a former ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.

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