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A Love-Hate Affair

The United Nations and the United States have long been ambivalent about each other. But as the UN marks its 60th anniversary, the relationship is more complicated than ever.

By Daniel B. Schneider in New York


Last spring, President Bush nominated John R. Bolton to be the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. What should have been a simple Senate confirmation process exploded into controversy because Bolton, known for being outspoken and blunt, is famous for being critical, even mocking, of the UN.

"The Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories," Bolton said in 1994 of the UN headquarters. "If you lost 10 stories today, it wouldn't make a bit of difference. The United Nations is one of the most inefficient intergovernmental agencies going."

Many of Bolton's public statements reveal a deep disdain—his own, and that of many Americans—for the United Nations, and for the very idea that the U.S. should continue to pursue international treaties and partnerships there.

While Bush's choice may speak volumes about his administration's own ambivalence toward the UN, Bolton's defenders maintain that someone so skeptical of the UN is the best type of person to reform it. (To avoid a possible defeat of the nomination in the Senate, Bush made a "recess appointment" of Bolton in August while Congress was on break.)

'Ideological Disapproval'

Americans have long had a love-hate relationship with the UN, and for the past several years, love has been losing.

"This is the first time, in the most important country, the United States, there has been with people in power a serious ideological disapproval of the whole principle on which the United Nations is based," says Sir Brian Urquhart, a British-born former UN Under Secretary General.

This year marks the UN's 60th anniversary. It was founded in June 1945, in the aftermath of World War II, with the aim of promoting dialogue among nations and preventing war. There are still many Americans who support those lofty goals. But others see the UN as an affront to American independence and security, particularly since Sept. 11, 2001.

Strained Relations

Relations between the UN and the Bush administration became severely strained when the Security Council refused to endorse the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. And surveys indicate that the American public's support for the UN, which ran as high as 75 percent during the 1990s, has fallen steadily. In a 2005 Harris Poll, only 30 percent of Americans expressed trust in the UN.

"For some, it's a deep hostility to any international institution that could affect Americans," says Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch in New York. "Others object to an international body that criticizes U.S. foreign policy. For still others, it's a strongly felt fear and suspicion of non-Americans, which lies deep in the United States body politic."

Critics cite the UN's bloated bureaucracy and charge that it's disproportionately financed by U.S. taxpayers. Indeed, since contributions are based on a member state's gross national product, the U.S. pays by far the largest share, followed by Japan and Germany. In 2005, the amount the U.S. pays (including peacekeeping costs) is expected to top $1.5 billion—about 25% of the UN's overall $6 billion budget.

New Members, New Challenges

Critics also condemn the UN for giving a platform to tyrants and enemies of democracy. Its 53-member Human Rights Commission—notorious for having human-rights violators like Cuba, Syria, Libya, and Zimbabwe as members in recent years—is seen as a particularly glaring example.

"I think there have been many countries admitted to the UN that do not share our values," says Jeane Kirkpatrick, the Reagan administration's UN Ambassador from 1981 to 1985. "It's very important to keep in mind that the UN was conceived as an institution with limited membership, and the expectation that most of those members would be democratic states."

Instead, after a stalemate between Eastern and Western powers was resolved in the 1950s, new members were rapidly added to the original 50. Today, 191 nations (virtually every country in the world) belong to the UN. With the expansion, new voting blocs emerged, and the majority held by the U.S. and its allies disappeared.

The General Assembly has often served as a pulpit to condemn the U.S. and Israel. In 1975, for instance, it passed a resolution defining Zionism, the movement to re-establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, as a form of racism. "It was a totally stupid resolution," Urquhart says. "And it made the United Nations, almost overnight, into a non-serious organization in Washington."

Achievements

Still, the UN has much to be proud of. The Security Council helped defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and sent troops to secure a cease-fire in the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel. It sponsored negotiations that ended the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 and paved the way for the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. It has helped end civil wars in Southeast Asia, Central America, and Africa.

And few question the UN's humanitarian efforts. The World Food Program feeds 90 million people a year in more than 80 countries. The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) has reduced child mortality significantly, and the World Health Organization has orchestrated campaigns that have virtually rid the world of smallpox and polio.

Indeed, some feel the UN has good reasons to resent its most influential member-state. The U.S. has at times withheld its UN dues as a form of protest, and in 2003, it effectively thumbed its nose at the UN when it went ahead with the invasion of Iraq without the UN's support.

But a wave of scandals has since buffeted the UN, sullying its public image and triggering at least seven separate investigations. One scandal involves the UN oil-for-food program, which from 1996 to 2003 allowed Iraq to sell oil to buy food and medicine. It was later learned that Saddam Hussein had manipulated the program and stolen more than $10 billion. And UN officials are now accused of accepting bribes.

In the last two years, UN peacekeepers and staff gave food and money to local women and girls in exchange for sex in Congo. The High Commissioner for Refugees resigned in the face of sexual-harassment charges. Embezzlement, graft, and cronyism have been uncovered. Some critics have called for Secretary General Kofi Annan to resign.

U.S. Mistrust

As American interest in these scandals has shown, critics of the UN don't mistrust it on ideological grounds alone. Many consider the organization to be fundamentally unworkable and a waste of money. As John Bolton once put it, the UN "has been put in a position of hiring ineffective people who do ineffective things that have no world impact, and we [Americans] pay 25 percent of the budget."

Now, even longtime UN supporters are calling for reforms. "I think that corruption in the UN, from a fairly early time, has been more widespread and pervasive than Americans generally expected it to be, and than Americans generally have been willing to confront, and to deal with," Kirkpatrick says. "And I think we have to deal with it in order to make the UN an institution we can respect."

Annan has announced an ambitious reform agenda. He has proposed expanding the 15-member Security Council, which issues binding resolutions and is the real seat of UN power. Since 1945, the Security Council has had only five veto-wielding permanent members—the U.S., Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France—and 10 rotating seats. One proposal would add three rotating members and six permanent members to better represent global power today. Likely candidates are Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, Egypt, and either Nigeria or South Africa.

"This has been going on forever," says Urquhart, referring to the scandals and the calls for reform. "But the arrangement was the best they could do in 1945, and it's certainly much better than anything we'd put together now."