U.S.-UN Relations

Key Problems

  • UN operations are crucial in saving and improving lives throughout the world, especially in the development, social, health, and education arenas.
  • The U.S. is, and has been, the dominant power at the UN. U.S. campaigns for UN reforms have masked efforts to undermine the UN.

The responsibilities of the United Nations are worldwide, cross-border, multidimensional, and enormously difficult. Its clients are the 5.7 billion inhabitants of planet earth. Its operations include health campaigns against infectious diseases, human rights monitoring, environmental protection, agricultural training, food assistance, emergency help in crisis zones, care of refugees, and improving access to education, clean water, and safer childbirth. The UN has eradicated smallpox, engineered the passage of major human rights covenants, and created Agenda 21 to pose long-term environmental goals for industrial and developing nations alike. Its staff provides development assistance to disempowered peoples and nations throughout the global South. UN staff members brave battlefields to provide food, water, tents, medical care, and other assistance in the wake of dozens of conflicts and wars raging around the world.

As post-cold war conflicts have erupted, the UN has also been assigned the tasks of peacekeeping (often when there is no peace to keep), peace enforcement (meaning military force aimed at imposing an externally determined end to fighting on unwilling combatants), and nationbuilding in shattered states, largely (though Bosnia remains a vital exception) in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere in the impoverished global South.

Since the UN’s founding at the close of World War II, the U.S. has been its preeminent power. Even before the UN was officially created in 1945, Washington had relied on a top-secret wiretap program known as “Ultra” to ensure that the new organization was structured to maximize U.S. influence.

U.S. activism at the UN has ebbed and flowed. After early years of intense involvement, the U.S. sidelined the UN in its foreign policy because of the U.S.-Soviet competition paralyzing the Security Council—where each of the two superpowers (along with France, Britain, and China) held permanent seats and veto rights. In the mid-1970s the U.S. again began to pay attention to the global organization—this time largely to quash the nonaligned activism of the decolonization-expanded General Assembly. By the early 1980s Washington’s attacks on the UN had escalated, and the Reagan administration withdrew the U.S. from several UN agencies and called for a halt in the payment of UN dues.

Then in 1990-91, just as the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse and the cold war was essentially over, Iraq invaded Kuwait. George Bush reengaged the UN to provide a multilateral coalition framework to legitimize the essentially unilateral anti-Iraq mobilization of Desert Storm. The UN again became a major tool of U.S. foreign policy.

When President Clinton was first elected in 1992, his administration came into office committed to “assertive multilateralism.” The United Nations, its popularity riding high, was cast to play a starring role. UN involvement was crucial in U.S. interventions (or in legitimizing U.S. decisions not to intervene) in places as diverse as Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, and Bosnia. But after high-profile peacekeeping disasters, especially the killing of 18 U.S. Rangers in the Pentagon’s own non-UN Somalia operation (see In Focus: Peacekeeping and the United Nations), White House and congressional support for the UN dropped dramatically.

The UN role shifted from being an instrument of foreign policy activism to becoming a scapegoat for U.S. policy failures. Ignoring the U.S. veto power, President Clinton announced that “the UN must learn to say ‘no’” to peacekeeping operations. Calls for UN reform, often thinly veiled attacks on the organization itself, escalated. In fall 1996 the Clinton administration suddenly announced its intention to prevent, at any cost, the reelection of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Dues continued to be withheld, and the U.S. arrears reached $1.6 billion—well over half the total debt of the severely strapped UN. U.S. influence in the UN remained intact but was somewhat more difficult to impose.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • Failure to pay dues ensures the UN’s inability to carry out its responsibilities.
  • Linking demands for reform with the refusal to pay dues actually undermines U.S. influence in real reform efforts; many “reforms” covertly aim at destroying UN agencies or arenas viewed as unnecessary or hostile to U.S. interests.
  • Staking out early opposition to Boutros-Ghali hardens his supporters, rendering the challenge of finding an appropriate candidate more difficult.
  • Focusing on Security Council decisions and the UN’s peacekeeping role as paramount undermines the ability of the General Assembly to attempt nonmilitary solutions to global crises.
  • Defining the UN’s value solely in terms of its implementation of U.S. national interests denies the UN’s worth in democratizing unfair global power relationships.

The UN faces a serious threat of bankruptcy. The primary cause is Washington’s failure to pay $1.6 billion in back dues. The financial crisis has led to massive instability within important UN program areas (development, health, human rights) and has stimulated global hostility toward—and loss of diplomatic influence by—the United States.

It is significant that all other debtor nations, including some of the world’s poorest, link their UN debt to economic difficulties. The U.S. is the only country that asserts its right to withhold dues as a matter of principle and political power. It claims the legitimate right to use the money, legally owed under international law, as a hammer to enforce unilateral, U.S.-chosen reforms on the world organization.

It should be noted that the UN—with U.S. support—established a dues structure designed to prevent exactly this kind of financially driven power play. Specifically, the UN dues system is one of equal sacrifice that recognizes it is equally difficult for Chad to come up with $103,000 a year as it is for the U.S. to pay several hundred million dollars. Washington’s position is the equivalent of a line-item veto held by every taxpayer in the U.S.—the right to withhold whatever taxes one chooses in order to ensure reforms in the IRS, the Pentagon, the White House, or whichever government agencies or programs one wishes to punish.

Additionally, many of the U.S.-orchestrated “reforms” actually aim to terminate specific UN projects or agencies. The popular reform call for avoiding duplication, for example, sounds like a good, neutral approach. But it is being used to stop funding for the staffing of the UN’s Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), a little-known (in the U.S.) agency devoted to providing developing countries with often unobtainable documentation on trade patterns, economic trends, etc. The claim that the corporate-oriented World Trade Organization is “also involved in trade” and thus renders UNCTAD unnecessary serves only to diminish the access of low-income countries to UN assistance.

When the Clinton administration, in the summer of 1996, announced suddenly and publicly its intention to use a veto, if necessary, to prevent a second term for Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, it set the stage for an ugly scene. Many in the international community viewed the move as clearly electorally driven and thoroughly inappropriate. Those in the UN with serious criticisms of the Secretary-General refused to divulge them to avoid appearing to be in Washington’s pocket. African nations, many quietly dissatisfied with Boutros-Ghali, withdrew their criticisms and were rendered unable to freely debate the issue, again out of fear of acceding to U.S. domination. Numerous allies, most notably France, viewed the U.S. move as provocative and hegemonic, setting the stage for a deadlocked Security Council.

When Washington rehabilitated the UN in the context of the Gulf War, it focused on the world body’s value in strategic and military terms. The Bush administration, therefore, turned to the Security Council as the driving force behind a newly legitimized UN. Five years later Washington still assesses the UN’s credibility largely on the basis of its military/peacekeeping prowess, thus denigrating the significance of other, far more consistently successful programs in the economic and social realms. Reflecting the U.S. emphasis on peacekeeping, UN military operations continue, despite severe cutbacks, while health, development, humanitarian, and other arenas face unmitigated budget shortfalls and disastrous program cuts.

Although recent polls indicate that the U.S. population continues to hold the UN in high regard, repeated assaults on UN credibility in policymaking and official circles undermine that support. Without support from its most powerful member-state, the UN will face not only financial ruin but also a crisis of political capacity.

As long as Washington continues to support the UN only on a tactical, instrumentalist basis, the organization’s true importance as a global entity will continue to erode. And as long as Washington insists on using the UN as a convenient scapegoat for its own foreign policy failures (especially in peacekeeping and crisis response), every U.S. failure will further weaken the world body’s credibility in the U.S., and undermine the UN’s capacity to continue its work.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recomendations

  • The U.S. should pay its UN dues in full and on time.
  • The U.S. should refrain from using its Security Council veto, should encourage other veto-holders to do the same, and should promote the ending of permanent seats on the Security Council.
  • The U.S. should initiate a discussion about reforming the selection process of the Secretary-General with an eye toward democratization and openness.
  • The U.S. should support the strengthening and democratization of the UN’s social and economic policy organs.

The U.S. should immediately institute a payback schedule for the entire amount of regular and peacekeeping arrears, and should revamp the current payment scheduling system to conform with the needs of the UN’s fiscal year. Washington’s support for proposals to cut current U.S. assessment levels should be based on the assumption that all arrears would be paid in full before such adjustments take effect.

Current U.S. funding cuts to the voluntary assessment funds (UN Development Program, World Food Program, and other agencies) should be reversed to reflect those organizations’ importance in world health and stability. Money to meet the restored assessments should be taken from the bloated U.S. military budget.

The veto power and permanent seats on the Security Council represent the least democratic aspect of the United Nations, and in this post-cold war world the U.S. should take the lead in effecting their demise. In the immediate future, Washington should voluntarily refrain from using its veto in anything other than Chapter VII (use of force) decisions, and encourage the other permanent members to do likewise. In the longer term, efforts should be aimed at complete elimination of the veto, and ultimately, at complete abolition of permanent Security Council seats.

The Clinton administration should withdraw its electorally driven and premature decision to veto a second term for Boutros-Ghali. While the current Secretary-General is far from the ideal choice, the U.S. should avoid imposing its will on the entire global community without hearing arguments for and against each candidate. Washington should honor its stated commitment to support an African Secretary-General for the coming term, whether Boutros-Ghali or another candidate, and should voluntarily agree to give up use of the veto in selecting the Secretary-General.

The U.S. should initiate a process of democratization and openness of the entire Secretary-General selection procedure, which is currently informal and hidden behind closed doors. Washington should take the lead in crafting a selection process characterized by openness and transparency, aimed at finding the best candidate the entire world can produce. Reforming the selection process should also include future expansion of the current five-year term to seven years and the elimination of second terms.

The U.S. should support the strengthening and democratization of the UN’s social and economic policy organs. These agencies–including both those within the UN Economic and Social Council and the specialized agencies such as the World Health Organization, Food & Agriculture Organization, World Food Program, the UN Development Program, UN Children’s Fund, and UN Refugee Commission–should be provided with sufficient funding and the political support needed to assure their ability to perform difficult tasks around the globe.

Finally, the U.S. should encourage a process of democratization, to incorporate the international financial institutions, currently operating largely independent of the UN, under the aegis of the UN Economic and Social Council, as mandated in the UN Charter. Those institutions (the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization) now wield vast economic, political, and social power in the world (see In Focus: International Financial Institutions), and yet operate largely in secret, with voting power determined by wealth, rather than by any democratic criteria. The goal should be to place the job of broad international economic coordination under the auspices of the most democratic of the international organizations–the United Nations–rather than the least democratic, the IMF and World Bank.

Written by Phyllis Bennis, IPS Fellow and author of Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN .