At the UN: a 'leaks, rust, and cracks' tour

Meetings between US and UN officials aim to engender goodwill - and seek money for repairs.

As Jonathan Katz, a legislative assistant to Florida Congressman Robert Wexler, steps onto an elevator at the United Nations headquarters building, the car suddenly drops several inches - prompting short shrieks from others on board.

Mr. Katz's reaction is somewhat different. "I'm convinced!" he says, excitedly.

What he's referring to is the need for the UN headquarters on Manhattan's East River - including the signature turquoise-glass-sheathed tower with the troublesome elevator - to undergo a $1 billion modernization.

Katz and 18 of his colleagues from Washington - including Democrats (such as Katz) and Republicans - are on what one UN official calls the "leaks, rust, and cracks" tour of the 53-year-old complex. The UN would like the United States, as the body's host government, to take the lead in funding the ambitious renovation.

Getting congressional approval will be key to the UN Capital Master Plan's success, which is one reason the staffers - many on their first visit here - are getting the shabby-red-carpet treatment.

But beyond the peeks at asbestos walls and sermons on below-code installations, the staffers are also hearing about the important role the world body plays around the world. It is already on the ground in Iraq, they are reminded. It has a vital presence in other security and humanitarian crises, and - always of interest to the US Congress - it has made strides in efficiency and reform.

The tour as well as the briefings on the UN's work are all part of an effort to increase Congress's understanding of the organization and to strengthen relations between the two. Organized by the Humpty Dumpty Institute (HDI) of New York, the visits come at a particularly low point in UN-Congress relations.

"You hear a lot in Washington these days about how the UN let us down on Iraq, so why should we deal with them and what good is it anyway," says Bob Van Wicklin, legislative director for Rep. Amo Houghton (R) of New York and another member of the delegation. "It's not the way my boss feels, but it's still good to have a little more insight so you can answer the irate constituent's questions."

The most recent delegation visit happened days after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan met with President Bush and congressional leaders in Washington - on issues including Iraq, African stability, and the headquarters master plan - and as Congress considers increased funding for UN peacekeeping operations.

Over five years of New York briefings, the Humpty Dumpty Institute has brought more than 200 members of Congress and staffers to the UN, with the thinking that a closer rapport between the two bodies will help the world.

"The purpose of all of this is to improve and strengthen - and sometimes even create - the bonds between Congress and the UN community," says Ralph Cwerman, HDI's president and a New York-based investment manager. "We think that leads to more informed decision making, and strengthens the idea that there are things we can do better together than we can alone."

Some staffers on the visit say congressional ire over Iraq is directed more at individual countries - at Security Council members that opposed the war - than at the UN itself.

But even some of those who say they see less overall opposition to the UN note a new wrinkle in opinion: a tendency to differentiate between the "soft" humanitarian issues where many the UN is useful, and the "hard" security issues where some in Congress have given up on the UN. "There are those members who think the UN is only good for the touchy-feely stuff," says Jennifer Simon, a staffer with Sen. Joseph Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

That kind of differentiation is not news to UN officials. "I think most members of Congress recognize and value the UN's humanitarian work," says Gillian Sorensen, the UN's assistant secretary-general for external relations. "What they don't always understand as well is how the UN can enhance what the US does, the sharing of the risks, responsibilities, and burdens" of international work.

A desire to "share the burden" in Iraq's reconstruction is already softening some of the recent rancor towards the UN, some staffers say.

Catherine Bertini, the UN's undersecretary for the Department of Management, was with Annan in Washington, and saw the "openness and obvious respect" between the UN head and President Bush, as well as Annan's good reception among congressional leaders. Others at the UN say it doesn't hurt with the current administration and Congress that Ms. Bertini is both a high-ranking UN official and a staunch Republican.

The nadir of relations occurred over the last decade, when the US was in arrears in its UN dues and "Get the US OUT of the UN" bumperstickers were more prevalent.

UN officials say the conversion that former Sen. Jesse Helms - the North Carolina conservative Republican and former powerhouse on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - underwent on the UN is emblematic of the "awakening" of many members of Congress who have little knowledge of the world body.

For years, Senator Helms blocked efforts to pay US dues. But then-US ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, arranged for Helms and his family to visit the UN, and Helms ended up inviting Annan to North Carolina.

"It broke a wall that had been there," says Ms. Sorensen. And Helms played a key role in having the back dues paid.

It's that wall between Congress and the UN that is gradually eroded with other examples of "personal diplomacy."

And then, there's the matter of the UN headquarters' physical state. "The building's a wreck," Bertini says, adding that the best sign of real understanding between the two institutions would be quick help by the US to provide the UN with a modern home where it can work.

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