Choosing Engagement: Uniting the U.N. with U.S. Interests

William H Luers. Foreign Affairs. Volume 79, Issue 5. September/October 2000.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has pursued a successful international economic strategy through active engagement in the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Yet it has failed to make similar commitments in the areas of politics, security, and law. It remains deeply ambivalent about the United Nations and resistant to emerging international law for various reasons: its superpower status, its tradition of “American exceptionalism,” and its long history of insular attitudes toward other cultures.

Today, the United States considers itself the most powerful and the most democratic of states, committed to peace while standing ready to fight for what is right. As world powers go, it sees itself as the most benign in history. This self-image may be largely justified. Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear that U.S. interests are best served by working with other nations and international bodies to reduce the traditional security challenges. In addition, the United States must tackle the intensifying levels of brutalization against civilian populations, particularly women and children, due to ethnic conflict, mercenary leaders, and criminal gangs. Such civil strife creates millions of refugees and displaced persons and damages the health and economic well-being of many millions more. The gradual spread of these phenomena over ever larger regions will inevitably affect the United States, even if it does not directly seem to hurt American interests now.

The troubled peacekeeping efforts of recent years-from Kosovo to central Africa-signal an urgent need to improve our capacity for conflict management. A major obstacle is the current American posture. In most instances, such as Sierra Leone, the United States will not put its troops on the ground. Even worse, it wants to get by on the cheap-as amply illustrated by congressional resistance to paying the full American share of U.N. peacekeeping efforts. The next president and Congress must commit themselves to strengthening the United Nations system to handle these challenges. At the very least, they must stop scapegoating an institution that the United States is unwilling to support adequately.

Fixable Flaws

First, however, the United Nations must honestly assess its own strengths and weaknesses. Limits on its efficiency partly stem from its multinational character. The 188 member states reduce General Assembly activities to interminable speech-making, while their demands for a quota of U.N. jobs hamper the secretary-general and other agency heads in selecting staff according to merit. But there are signs of genuine reform. A recent report from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) gives high marks to Secretary-General Kofi Annan for improving the quality of staff and putting in place effective management practices.

The U.N.’s financial weakness severely limits its capacity to respond to new challenges and prepare for unanticipated ones. At American congressional insistence, for example, the U.N. Secretariat’s budget has been frozen at about $1.3 billion for the past four years. After accounting for inflation and delayed or defaulted payments by the United States and other nations, this means that the U.N. has far fewer funds to meet greatly expanded obligations.

Much of the financial weakness undermining the U.N. could be cured by a unilateral U.S. decision to pay its dues. Arrears in U.S. peacekeeping funds make up the lion’s share of Washington’s U.N. debt. These arrears largely result from the chronic skirmishes between the executive and the legislative branches. Both branches agree that a reduction in the U.S. assessment for peacekeeping must be achieved but differ on the strategy by which to achieve it. Despite recent efforts to improve coordination on peacekeeping needs, Congress has held up more than $200 million in peacekeeping monies for 2000 that was already in the budget that it had appropriated. Moreover, it seems likely to approve for the 2001 budget a sum substantially below what will be required for next year’s higher peacekeeping costs. A large portion of the arrears ($658 million) that a Senate agreement was to settle—provided that the U.N. members met American conditions-will go to reimburse other states for their troops’ role in peacekeeping operations.

The congressionally imposed conditions for payment are viewed as onerous and are unlikely to be accepted this year by many U.N. member states, despite the prodigious efforts of Richard Holbrooke, the American ambassador to the U.N. Moreover, Congress is resisting paying current funding requirements. The failure to pay all current assessments and some of the arrears raises once again the specter that the United States will automatically lose its vote in the General Assembly, placing the United States in company with “deadbeats” such as Iraq and “failed states” such as Somalia and Rwanda.

Beyond the funding issue, the most obvious shortcoming of the United Nations is its lack of standby capacity-which Congress opposes-for peacekeeping, policing, and administration in troubled regions. This has been underscored during the past year by the U.N. experiences in Kosovo, East Timor, and Sierra Leone. The Security Council must reconsider the deployment of lightly armed U.N. peace—keeping forces into civil wars, a function not foreseen by the U.N. Charter. And the secretary-general should refuse certain tasks in war-torn countries unless he is empowered to raise-on short notice-adequately armed forces, trained police cadres, and a substantial body of civil administrators. Such a refusal would force member states either to provide the U.N. with the increased capacity to respond or to acknowledge openly that they intend to do nothing to manage the snowballing crisis.

The Security Council is only as effective in conflict management as the permanent members want it to be. In the Gulf War, strong U.S. leadership led to resolute action. In Kosovo, deep divisions led NATO to avoid the Security Council altogether. In other cases, ambiguous resolutions led to confusion in execution. Without some agreed strategy among the five permanent members on how to improve the staffing, structure, and purpose of peacekeeping, the Security Council will continue to issue ambivalent or contradictory resolutions.

The various U.N. agencies that address health, food, development, and the plight of refugees and disadvantaged children are the unsung heroes of the U.N. system. Yet in the field, they have duplicated efforts and indulged in turf battles that inhibit the efficient delivery of assistance. This complication can confuse nongovernmental and governmental organizations and contribute to the reputation of U.N. ineffectiveness. In part, this competitive behavior stems from the independent mandates and separate funding of these agencies. Still, the GAO report noted progress resulting from the secretary-general’s efforts to improve coordination among U.N. agencies and to establish a strategic framework for their field operations.

Another weakness of the U.N. stems from the often-cited lack of support for the institution by the American public. Yet public opinion surveys consistently show 6o to 70 percent support for the United Nations. To be sure, public affirmation is broad, not deep, leaving the congressional field of combat too often controlled by those with strongly negative views. And serious misunderstandings persist. For example, there is a widespread public impression that the United States pays zo percent or more of its federal budget for nonmilitary assistance programs around the world, when in fact the figure is less than 1 percent. Similarly widespread is the belief that the U.N. environment is hostile to the United States, when in fact countries voted with the United States 86 percent of the time in the General Assembly last year.

Another supposed source of weakness is the Washington mythology about “U.N. failures.” American legislative and executive officials employ Somalia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Kosovo as code words for U.N. incompetence. In most of these crises, there were U.N. management shortcomings, and the secretary-general has since published candid studies outlining some U.N. mistakes. But the Security Council’s permanent members, who wrote and helped execute the resolutions calling for the peacekeeping actions, have failed to make similar revelations of their own severe shortcomings in supporting the authorized actions. Both the failures and the successes of U.N. operations need full airing so that the United Nations and its member states will be better prepared for future missions.

It is irresponsible for U.S. political leaders to blame the U.N. as if it were an independent entity with resources to carry out military action on its own. A most extreme version of this canard, voiced by Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) last January before the Security Council, warned the U.N. not to aspire to “power and authority over nation states” with itself “as the central authority of a new international order of global laws and global governance.” No member state supports such “authority.” The truth is that the U.N. without its member states can do nothing. Its member states provide the military, money, and human resources that define U.N. missions. The U.N., simply put, has no power or way of its own to enforce its authority over others-least of all over its most powerful member, the United States.

Starting Afresh

The new president, unshackled from the burden of failed interventions and former political errors, can clear the air and address such issues as unsuccessful peacekeeping strategies and unpaid bills. A truly bold president could also launch fresh initiatives. An early order of business will be to determine with other states what assignments the U.N. should undertake (peacekeeping and humanitarian relief) and those that should be handled by others (wars). The U.N.’s peacekeeping capabilities should then be strengthened by such measures as the building of a command and control operation, standby police and military units, development of trained administrators and experts for nation-building, and training facilities. A special regime for enforcement-drawing on well-trained regional forces under U.N. authority—will be needed for regions where civil wars threaten to become chronic, such as Africa and the Balkans. The complexity of these tasks is daunting and unprecedented. It is little wonder that these issues have given rise to discord-all the more reason for strong American leadership.

With Congress, the next U.S. president should also develop a phased process for achieving payment of annual dues within 3o days of assessment rather than delaying them until year’s end. The United States would thereby set the norm for other nations (that have begun to imitate its ruinously bad habit of delaying payments) and greatly improve the U.N. system’s cash flow. As a quid pro quo with Congress, the president would pledge to work with the secretary-general to encourage reforms already instituted within the Secretariat and other agencies and to improve management training and coordination with nongovernmental organizations and the private sector.

Another innovative step would be to assign the policy and budgetary relations with the U.N. specialized agencies to their respective U.S. government departments rather than to the State Department. For example, responsibility for the World Health Organization (WHO) should rest with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which already has a highly developed relationship with WHO. The U.S. portion of the WHO’s funding would then be included in the HHS annual budget. The same model would apply to other agencies and departments. The resulting structure would strengthen the ability of U.S. government departments to improve the work of their international counterpart agencies. Closer collaboration also would provide incentive for prompt dues payments.

A parallel, if controversial, innovation would be to reassign major responsibility for U.S. support of U.N. peace operations from the State Department to the Defense Department. This switch would give priority to a professional military evaluation of when and how to enter a conflict or postconflict zone, while the Pentagon would form a closer working relationship with international partners doing the hard work of conflict management. The State Department, no doubt unhappy at such a change, would still retain responsibility for U.S. decisions in the U.N. Security Council. The Pentagon would be responsible for executing missions involving U.S. personnel and cover the U.S. share out of its budget.

The new president also needs to take a fresh look at sanctions. The applications of sanctions, as foreseen by the U.N. Charter, have been more effective when imposed for specific purposes, with support from all U.N. member states. Sanctions by the United States alone or in league with a few allies have for the most part only punished innocent civilians without deposing tyrannical rulers. Such sanctions have often contributed to corruption and bred popular hostility against the sanctioners within the targeted societies. U.S. leadership could contribute to a more refined and selective approach to this controversial means of exerting international pressure on offending or criminal governments.

In addition, the new president should lead a review of the major international treaties and conventions that the United States has thus far failed to sign or to ratify-treaties establishing an international criminal court, banning land mines, and approving a comprehensive nuclear test ban, and conventions dealing with children’s rights and discrimination against women, for example. A strengthened U.S. relationship with the U.N. does not imply complete agreement with everything U.N. member states do. But these global treaty regimes embody values and priorities important to Americans. Participation in them increases the pressure on retrograde governments to follow suit. The ideas of democracy, respect for human rights, and observance of international law are major contributions that the United States has made to the international community. They are the cornerstone of a peaceful world. Americans should encourage them further.

For more than a decade, the United States has been seeking a postcontainment strategy for dealing with a changing world. The United Nations, meanwhile, has become an institution that is far more complex yet more open than when it was founded. Today, the secretary— general envisages a world of partnerships in which the United Nations is the umbrella for a wide variety of groups from the private sector, civil society, and governments. He has been particularly active in engaging the business community and nongovernmental organizations. These various groups will work together in global networks to find solutions to world problems.

Despite chronic woes that threaten the sustainability of some of the U.N.’s most important work, the United States has a vital interest in strengthening the U.N. system. Acting alone is not a sustainable option. Political “realists” who oppose U.S. involvement in conflicts that do not directly affect American interests often fail to see the value in building the U.N.’s capacity to manage strife around the world. In fact, a healthy and creative United Nations will diminish the pressures for direct American intervention and allow for a much broader sharing of the costs.

The U.N. is the central organization through which the United States can pursue its national interests; encourage others to take on the new challenges of peacekeeping, development, and humanitarian relief; share the burden in paying for those tasks; continue to exercise leadership in shaping decision-making on these key issues; and tap into the American proclivity for generosity and idealism. The American people are far ahead of recent U.S. administrations and congresses on these urgent matters. The next president should reconnect these American instincts with American interests by strengthening the U.N. system.