A Time for Leadership

The United Nations is an indispensable partner?and one we cannot afford to lose.

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Article created by The Century Foundation.

Last week, before a conference sponsored by our two organizations, the U.N. Deputy Secretary-General, Mark Malloch Brown, delivered unusually candid remarks calling for greater U.S. leadership in strengthening the United Nations—leadership that is clearly needed. Noting his long history as a “friend and admirer” of the United States, Mr. Malloch Brown said that the “U.N.’s ability to respond is being weakened without U.S. leadership.” Mr. Malloch Brown went on to say that although the United States is constructively engaged with the United Nations in a wide variety of areas (which he cited), this engagement is not well known in Middle America because much of the public discourse about the United Nations has been “largely abandoned to its loudest detractors such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.”

In responding, John Bolton, “acting” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, apparently saw the speech as yet another opportunity to undermine the institution that a U.S. representative is supposed to help lead. He distorted Mr. Malloch Brown’s remarks by calling them an attack on “the American people,” and by calling it “the worst mistake by a senior U.N. official that I have seen.” By conflating Rush Limbaugh and Fox News with the American people, Mr. Bolton’s approach seems only to confirm the concerns reflected in Mr. Malloch Brown’s remarks. In strong terms, Mr. Bolton went on, as well, to respond with a veiled threat: “To have the Deputy Secretary General criticize the United States in such a manner can only do harm to the United Nations.”

Other speakers at the conference, from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Congressman Jim Leach (R-IA), echoed the view that the Bush administration has shown consistent ambivalence—and occasional antipathy—toward international institutions. This is so noncontroversial as to almost go without saying. It seems particularly strange that a professed skeptic about international law and institutions such as Mr. Bolton could find much to quarrel with in Mr. Malloch Brown’s characterization of the American position. The attack on Mr. Malloch Brown for having the temerity to call American unilateralism what it is only underlines the frayed state of this country’s relationship with the community of nations.

Thoughtful and objective readers who review the complete text of the Deputy Secretary-General’s speech will agree that Mr. Malloch Brown’s remarks do not merit the over-the-top invective emanating from our nation’s current “diplomat” to the United Nations. Surely this sort of reaction only underscores Mr. Malloch Brown’s point. The unfortunate truth is that there has been an absence of constructive leadership by this administration in supporting and guiding the premier multilateral institution—an institution the United States helped to create in order to achieve greater international peace and security.

By threatening to withhold U.S. funding for the United Nations, by first opposing and then not participating in the recently created U.N. Human Rights Council, by slowing down the reform movement, and by generally undermining multilateral processes, the policies of this administration weaken rather than strengthen an institution that has been—and continues to be—instrumental in helping to achieve U.S. national security goals.

Since 1948 the United Nations has conducted 59 peacekeeping missions, 18 of which are still in operation, with over 70,000 troops currently deployed abroad, from the Congo to Haiti, Sudan to Sierra Leone, southern Lebanon to Liberia. A RAND Corporation study has concluded that U.N. peacekeeping missions have helped maintain the peace more effectively than comparable U.S. operations—and at a fraction of the cost.

Moreover, the United States has not shied away from asking the United Nations to do its bidding. The United States asked for and received the backing of the United Nations for our attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan. The United States sought a U.N. resolution legitimizing the U.S. occupation of Iraq as well as for U.N. help in supervising three elections in Iraq. In addition, the United States has requested the assistance of the United Nations in helping resolve the crisis in Darfur. Ironically, as Bolton continued to attack the United Nations, he was conspicuously absent from a U.N. delegation (which included the U.N. ambassadors from Britain, France and China) visiting Sudan to lay the groundwork for a U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur. And the United States asked the United Nations to handle tsunami relief in Asia and earthquake relief in Pakistan. The United Nations was central in forcing withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Moreover, the United Nations helps prevent nuclear proliferation through its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and works to eradicate poverty, hunger, and disease through the UNDP, UNICEF, and its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. For all of this, the world’s sole superpower pays only one-fifth of the cost.

As Mr. Malloch Brown was quick to concede, the United Nations is in serious need of reform. The organization is unnecessarily bureaucratic and the Oil for Food investigation prompted sensible calls for greater accountability. But the great mistake of the United Nation’s most ardent critics—and Mr. Bolton is among them—is thinking that genuine reform can be achieved without any meaningful American engagement beyond threatening to withhold dues.

The United States benefits when the United Nations succeeds. The United Nations cannot succeed without U.S. leadership and Mr. Malloch Brown had to break with the niceties of diplomatic tradition to plead for such leadership. On one point Mr. Malloch Brown is surely correct: the people of the United States deserve better leadership and diplomacy to represent their interests in the world’s most important international body. Whether we like it or not, the United Nations is an indispensable partner in achieving America’s goals—and one we cannot afford to lose.


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