Holbrooke's daunting task When newly confirmed UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke takes his post in New York, he will face not only the conspicuous issue of US delinquencies in UN dues but also the deep divisions between the US and most of the rest of the UN membership.
A substantial majority of UN member nations come from the third world. In varying degrees, they reflect attitudes that emerged from their colonial and post-colonial experiences: the importance of sovereignty; resentment of outside intervention, especially military intervention; suspicion toward major Western powers; and the consciousness of the North-South economic disparities. They resent US efforts at UN reform, which they feel threaten the prerogatives and patronage of smaller nations.
These attitudes have been reflected in General Assembly rhetoric and votes as well as in the diplomacy of Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his predecessor, Boutros Boutros Ghali. Both are from third -world countries.
Washington's problems with the UN are compounded by two of the Security Council's permanent members, Russia and China. They are not only sympathetic to these third- world attitudes, they share many of them. In addition, they oppose any UN action that might appear to establish a precedent of intervention which could be applied to them.
The result of these circumstances in Washington, and in at least some other Western capitals, has been deep frustration over the UN's failure to effectively address questions concerning weapons of mass destruction, considered by these capitals to be serious threats to world peace.
The most notable example has been Iraq's weapons program. A number of members of the UN are growing impatient with the effect of UN sanctions on the Iraqi population.
Many in the US find difficulty in understanding why the blame is placed on sanctions and not on their manipulation by Saddam Hussein.
This issue has been highlighted again in an article by Ambassador Richard Butler, former chief of the UN weapons inspection program in Iraq, published in the inaugural issue of Talk magazine.
He complains about the lack of support given his mission by Mr. Annan who, according to Mr. Butler, preferred "diplomacy" over acknowledging the facts of Iraq's actions. Butler notes, also, that Russia appeared more interested in ending sanctions against Baghdad and opening the way to collect $7 billion in debts than in pursuing the weapons inspection.
The US has worked effectively with the UN on many issues such as refugees, health, and relief.
It is the high-profile political issues involving places such as Somalia, Iraq, and Kosovo that cause problems with Washington.
US impatience with the slow pace of UN action in recent crises is understandable - although the US has not always been an advocate of action. But Washington cannot ignore the UN, its secretary-general, or the attitudes and perceptions of its member nations.
Unilateral actions, as appealing as they may be to some, are seldom a realistic option. Too many of today's critical problems depend upon the cooperation and understanding of nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America which make up the bulk of UN membership. In addition to weapons proliferation, these issues include population, narcotics, intellectual property, human rights, terrorism, migration, and the global economy.
Mr. Holbrooke's tasks will not be easy. His mission will be helped if the US can make up its arrears in UN payments. Patient listening and persuasive presentations will be required to convince skeptical UN members that the US is not seeking to impose its will upon the world, but that its concerns reflect dangers for all other nations as well. At the same time, he must convince Americans that an influential position in the UN is essential to the achievement of the nation's global objectives. Both are tall orders.
*David D. Newsom, a former US ambassador and undersecretary of state, lives in Charlottesville, Va.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society