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by Edward Marks

Ambassador Marks makes a compelling case for a more active, focused UN policy on the part of the U.S. government. A retired career diplomat, his experience in the halls of the UN New York headquarters lends weight to his recommendations.—Ed.

There are three aspects of the relationship between the United States and the United Nations, which are known to those who have any serious experience of the UN—and either unknown or ignored by everyone else. They are:

  • Nothing, but nothing, seriously dangerous to the United States can occur in the UN unless the United States agrees to it;
  • The United States can, if it wishes, obtain success on a healthy majority of policy objectives and desired actions in the UN;
  • As the United States only pays twenty-five percent of the UN’s operating budget, and twenty-seven percent of its peacekeeping budget, the rest of the world pays seventy-five percent and seventy-three percent respectively.

The last-named characteristic is called leverage in the private sector and generally considered to be A GOOD THING.

Yet despite these facts, criticism of the UN for its alleged failings and faults is widespread—among the general public but also among academics, journalists and pundits, civil servants, and elected officials who ought to know better. One important justification for that viewpoint was given, inadvertently I believe, by Senator and onetime U.S. Permanent Representative Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his book, A Dangerous Place.

Actually Senator Moynihan’s title referred to the world in general, although the UN locale was the particular focus he was discussing in his book. As he carefully explains, he took the job in New York because he felt that the tide in international politics and ideology had moved against us and it was necessary to respond with vigor. The UN was then, in the mid-1970s, well into its Third World phase. The early U.S. and Western dominance of the UN had faded with the dramatic expansion of membership as the European colonial systems disappeared. By 1970 membership was over 140, as compared with the original fifty-seven or so, and the vast majority of the new member states were poor, politically unstable, and heavily influenced by the state-centered ideology of Moscow and the European Left. At least their by-and-large undemocratically selected leadership was so influenced. Their world view was also anti-American, even those who depended heavily on American economic assistance, and they felt free to espouse anti-American and, in Moynihan’s view, anti~democratic views in UN forums. So Senator Moynihan went to New York to “do battle for the Lord.”

But as his book makes clear, his unhappiness with the mood in the UN was based on his view that the UN was important to the United States and to truly progressive interests such as human rights. He quotes approvingly James Reston of the New York Times, who noted that the United Nations “has a limited but important role to play in a hungry and divided world. . . .” In discussing one of the voting battles he fought and lost, due at least partly to lack of a willingness of the U.S. government to mix it up in the General Assembly, Moynihan quoted Leon Gordenker, who complained that “The United States cannot influence a body in which it takes a retiring role.” This is an important point, still valid today and worth reiterating to those who complain about a recalcitrant and ungrateful United Nations.

Senator Moynihan in his book makes two other important observations about the UN. First, that “for some half the nations in the world. . . the United States’ multilateral relations were distinctly more important than bilateral relations.” Building on that insight he recommended a restructuring of American diplomacy, which would place American diplomatic relations with a large number of countries on a strictly multilateral basis. In his approach, we would identify those countries whose bilateral importance to the United States (in security, economic, or political terms” was minimal and focus on how they behave in the UN. Direct U.S. government support and assistance to those countries would depend upon their behavior in the UN with respect to American interests. Moynihan suggested that a very large number of countries, possibly over half, would fall into this category. His recommendation has been ignored by the traditional foreign policy establishment (official and academic), which continues to emphasize bilateral relations with everyone, regardless of whether there is much substance in the relationship. To name any particular country which falls into the senator’s “multilateral only” category would be invidious, but the number is probably larger in today’s post~Cold War world and the proliferation of transnational issues ranging from HIV/AIDS to globalization via terrorism.

This insight is matched by another, that the importance of the UN to a given country is in almost inverse relationship to that country’s importance in world politics and economics. For many countries, the UN is the only place they have a voice and a seat at the table. Countries with only a handful of embassies play their few diplomatic cards in New York. The successful domestic political career of many permanent representatives from small countries is striking. For many countries, in other words, the UN is the only diplomatic game available. If the UN is important to others, as it demonstrably is, should the United States not take cognizance of that fact instead of basing our approach on the relatively low priority we give to UN affairs?

Senator Moynihan also noted that there is a sharp difference of attitude towards the UN between those living in Manhattan or inside the Beltway and the rest of the country. That difference continues to exist as witnessed by the public opinion polls conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) of the University of Maryland. Over the decades of the 1990s, PIPA’s polls show a consistent public interest in and support for the UN and, mirabile dictu, UN peacekeeping. The so-called public reaction against peacekeeping because of the tragedy of Somalia was and remains a figment of the imagination of Washington dignitaries and pundits. The public, according to PIPA’s polls, consistently approves of the UN and of UN peacekeeping and would like to see the U. S. government play an important and leadership role. Senator Moynihan noted this fact in 1975, and PIPA confirms that the American public’s attitude has not changed.

Despite this show of widespread support, many Americans at the same time have a problem understanding the UN—of differentiating between what it is and what it isn’t. Many Americans, especially those whose opposition seems largely visceral, appear to be under the widespread impression that the UN is some sort of global government with real resources, power and authority. This impression is at least partially fostered by the structure of the UN—a chief executive, a legislative body, a court, and a bureaucracy—which parallels of the U.S. government with its president, Congress, Supreme Court, and bureaucracy. Seeing this structure many Americans see a global version of their own government and therefore tend to consider it an equivalent form, not as powerful or rich of course, but still a government. This impression feeds an anti-UN attitude among the isolationist and unilateralist elements of American society while encouraging multilateralist and world federalists to expect too much of the UN.

But the UN is not a world government in any respect, as anyone who has any real knowledge of it is fully aware. It has no autonomy, no authority, and no sovereignty. It cannot raise revenue, levy taxes, raise armies or police, or pass laws. In governmental terms, there is no there there.

The UN is instead a conference of nation-states, a permanent diplomatic meeting. The General Assembly resolutions are not binding. The Security Council’s resolutions are binding in theory, but only to the degree that the members of the Council, and most especially the Permanent Five big powers, agree in an exercise of their sovereign authority to actually put muscle into enforcement of the resolution in question. They enforce the resolutions, not the “UN.” Even Security Council-authorized Blue Berets, Stabilization Forces, and sanctions only bite when the nations who voted for the resolution in question put their influence, treasure, end blood on the line.

When dealing with the UN, therefore, it is vitally important to distinguish between what is discussed and decided upon in the inter-governmental bodies (Security Council, General Assembly, etc.), which is the business of governments, and any business conducted by the UN organizational bureaucracy. As noted above, the organization itself is merely an agent of the Member States and has no initiative authority or resources of its own.

A recent Foreign Affairs review by G. John Ikenberry of The Paradox of American Power by Joseph S. Nye describes the book as an astutely argued case for American multilateral engagement. America’s paradox, according to Nye, is that it is too powerful to be challenged by others, but not powerful enough to achieve its goals by going it alone. The sovereign state still matters, but it will not be what it used to be. If this is true, then there is no choice between unilateralism and multilateralism, merely between effective and ineffective multilateralism. In the case of the latter it ought to be obvious that the UN is an important, although not the only, field of operation for the pursuit of American interests. In that sense, the UN becomes a useful instrument of U.S. national policy. It may be ethnocentric to identify the UN in this manner, but in fact other countries do so quite openly. Viewed as such, rather than as some sort of moral or ideological crusade, an active U.S. role in the UN might be acceptable to those who consider multilateral activity as somehow un-American.

It should also be clear that an active role must obviously be a leadership role. The current “War on Terrorism” and the twenty-year-old “War on Drugs” indicate that the United States is not loath to take up a leadership role when important American interests are threatened. Although admittedly reflecting a largely unilateralist instinct, both of these campaigns have adopted at least a multilateralist tinge. The existence of a whole range of transnational issues, such as terrorism and drugs, requires a multilateral approach—however unpalatable that may be to many. If so, there is an old military saying which applies: lead, follow, or get out of the way. Americans like the thought of being leaders and throughout the past century often have done so.

Active leadership in the UN can be presented therefore as both good for you and enjoyable. Given the propositions that opened this article—that the UN is in fact fundamentally a friendly venue for the exercise of U.S. diplomacy—it should also be presented as a bargain too good to pass up.End.

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