US mulls possible reaction to UN slights

Future payments of back dues to the UN are in doubt after US loses two key seats.

For more than 10 years, the US has been virtually unchecked in its power. It has signed treaties only when it wanted to, fought unpopular wars, and imposed sanctions to wide swaths of the globe.

It's part of being the world's only superpower.

But all those privileges - and more - are increasingly coming under question by the rest of the world. The latest example: the United Nations, the global body with which US lawmakers have sparred on and off since its inception in 1945.

Last week the US delegation, perhaps lulled to sleep by the slow Bush administration transition, lost two valuable seats on UN commissions: one for human rights, the other for narcotics control.

Although neither seat carries the power to make policy, both commissions deal with issues close to America's moral heart - issues which, in the past, have been important enough to provoke US military involvement.

The human rights seat, held by the US for more than 50 years, was a valuable bully pulpit. The US used it to criticize some of its favorite targets, including China and Cuba.

"It's a distress and an embarrassment - to a degree," says a State Department spokesman. "But it's not the end of the world. We'll continue to be aggressive on human rights."

The important question now is how US lawmakers will react to the slight. One possibility is that they will learn from it and place greater emphasis on accommodating the world's governing body. Or, perhaps more likely, the recent spat could trigger a further deterioration of relations between Washington and the UN, which are already strained by the $1.6 billion the US owes in back dues.

"I'm afraid this could start a chain reaction that we can't stop," says William Luers, a former senior US diplomat who is now president of the United Nations Association of the USA in New York. "I worry that Congress will say, 'We'll show them. We won't pay the money we said over and over that we'd pay.' "

The friction between the US and the UN has deep roots. Especially in recent years, US officials have complained that the UN is inefficient and top-heavy with bureaucracy. They also have argued that it is not forceful enough with international rogues - and that strong US-sponsored proposals are often vetoed in the all-important Security Council.

"The machinations of international bureaucrats are irrelevant to the plight of the world's oppressed people," said Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, in a recent statement.

Also, lawmakers here say the US has had to carry too much of the UN burden - in funding and peacekeeping.

While Congress was expected to approve $582 million in back dues this week - based on a painstaking deal worked out in the final weeks of the Clinton administration - future payments are in doubt. Some conservative lawmakers have said they will approve next year's installment only if the US is voted back on the human rights commission.

Bush administration officials, however, have said that would be counterproductive.

A prolonged fight with the UN could make life difficult for the US. Analysts say the international body is becoming more and more important with each step the world takes toward globalization. The UN is now essential for everything from environmental issues to the containment of AIDS.

And while most of the rest of the world is increasingly embracing unity, Washington, and particularly the Bush administration, gives the appearance that it favors unilateralism, observers say.

One issue that has rankled the world has been Washington's desire to build a missile-defense shield, outlined in a speech by President Bush last week, which could essentially shatter the widely accepted Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 and create a new global nuclear balance.

The US also has angered the world by resisting or refusing to go along with treaties on issues like global warming, child

soldiers, land mines, and an international court to try accused war criminals. While the US shouts the loudest on human rights issues, it has fought bans on the death penalty for minors and the mentally incompetent.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, has yet to send its nominee for ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, to Congress for approval.

That lackadaisical attitude may have contributed to losing the seats on the human rights and narcotics control commissions.

The US-first attitude is by no means new to the Bush administration. In 1995, Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, made waves when she told a newspaper editorial board that "the UN is a tool for US foreign policy."

Today, a State Department official refines that slogan, but hardly tones it down. "I think [the issue of American unilateralism] has been overplayed," the official says. "The fact is that the UN and its bodies need the US more than the US needs them."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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