REVIEW: Article

United States-United Nations Relations

The increasingly complex world of the post-Cold War era and September 11 have made it clear that one can value the United Nations (UN) or deplore it. But it is equally clear that no one can ignore it. Reciting the UN’s inability to deal with critical issues such as genocide in Darfur, Lebanon, the Oil-for-Food Program, or the urgent threat posed by Iran draws the headlines. Conversely, the UN’s achievements in a large number of non-Security Council areas don’t make news. Adding fuel to the critical fire has been the serial drama surrounding John Bolton’s appointment as United States (US) Permanent Representative and, at this moment, the politicking over Kofi Annan’s successor as the UN Secretary-General.

Understandably, then, calls for UN “reform” have prompted many UN critics as well as supporters to share their advice in op-ed pieces and on TV talk news. Having served as Secretary-General of the World Federation of UN Associations from 2000-2004, an organization of 100 nongovernmental organizations around the world who could agree on very little, I can sympathize with both critics and proponents.

But, I have been troubled by the absence of a fundamental question that should take priority for Americans concerned about the UN’s problems: Is the UN of critical importance to the United States? 

So I suggested to Dr. George D. Schwab, President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, of which I am a Trustee, that he consider devoting a special issue of his quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, to the topic of US-UN Relations and offered my support. As a result, distinguished American authorities on the UN, both pro and con, were invited to contribute. They were asked to address the following questions:

  1. How do US-UN relations fit into the basic mission of the US government to provide for the security of its people? 


  1. Is there a UN factor in the US’s security equation? 


  1. What benefits accrue to the United States from its participation in the array of multilateral operations subsumed within the UN system?


  1. How should the United States deal with the resentment toward it that exists within the UN system?


  1. Can the United States enhance its foreign policy interests without the UN? Can the UN system provide support for US foreign policy?  How? 

These questions and many others provide the context within which essays were written by 11 leading practitioners and scholars to constitute a written symposium on US-UN relations.

What were the conclusions of the respondents?  I will quote selectively from their essays.

John R. Bolton, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations:

“The United States has joined with others to launch an ambitious agenda of reform—reforms we think are vital to putting the United Nations back on track and fulfilling the goals outlined by President Bush during his address before the General Assembly last September where he noted, “meaningful institutional reforms must include measures to improve internal oversight, identify cost savings, and ensure that precious resources are used for their intended purpose.”

“To be sure, we do not agree with every single reform produced by the Secretary- General, but we certainly agree with his diagnosis of the problem. We are prepared to engage seriously with both the Secretariat and other member states, to pass a number of ambitious reforms that we think would help revitalize the United Nations.”

“The United States is pushing ahead on these reforms with an unprecedented seriousness of purpose, one might even say revolutionary zeal. Not to do so would be to invite failure of the world’s most important international institution and to do a grave disservice to the people the United Nations was established to protect in the first place.”

Joseph R. Biden, Jr., United States Senator and ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

“In their 2005 task force report on UN reform, former House Speaker [Newt] Gingrich and former Senate Majority Leader [George] Mitchell summed up their recommendations by arguing that an effective United Nations is in the best interest of the United States. Maybe the best way to understand its profound value and ongoing relevance is to pose the “It’s a Wonderful Life” test:  If the UN didn’t exist, what would have become of the people and countries whose lives it has touched?”

“Article I of the United Nations Charter states that the purposes of the organization are to maintain international peace and security; address international social, economic, and cultural problems; and promote fundamental human rights and freedoms. Today although tremendous progress has been made, we still need the UN, perhaps more than ever, to realize the vision of the founders.”

Edward C. Luck, Director, Center on International Organization, Columbia University:

“Why, then, do US policymakers keep coming back to the UN? In 2006, as in 1945, the answer lies both in strategic realities and in domestic politics. Even superpowers need partners….But World War II and the fateful events that led up to it had demonstrated the strategic value of alliances and of collective action to deter, prevent, and, if necessary, defeat aggression. The United States could not do it alone then, anymore than it could today win the struggle against terrorism, curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, resolve regional disputes, or secure respect for human rights and democratic values through unilateral action alone. There never was a choice between a strong national defense and a robust commitment to building international law and organization. America needs both if its values, economy and security are to prosper in an otherwise unpredictable, competitive, and sometimes hostile international environment.”

Lawrence S. Finkelstein, former aide to Ralph Bunche, later Vice President and Director of Studies for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

“There is good reason to regret that we seem unable to have a longer perspective about the place of law in the international system. We avidly pursue rules that we believe serve our interest in the short term. One scholar charges that the United States seeks to modify international law to accord with its interests by claiming a right of self-defense against terrorists and enunciating the doctrine of ‘preemptive self-defense.’”

“We believe in the rule of law at home. The world now is as much a part of our environment as the 50 states are. The notion that we would benefit from a more orderly neighborhood should appeal to most Americans. Why do we not understand the long-term national interest in an orderly world ruled by law? The FDR-Churchill image of policemen patrolling their international beats and enforcing the rules is very appealing. Certainly we’ve had enough experience of policemen who believe they don’t need rules.”

Thomas G. Weiss, Presidential Professor, Graduate Center of the City University of New York:

“Today there are two world “organizations,” the United Nations (global in membership) and the United States (global in reach). Critics of US hegemony argue that enforcement decisions should be based on UN authority instead of US capacity. But the two are inseparable.”

“Military overstretch and giving priority to strategic concerns to the virtual exclusion of humanitarian ones is the sad reality of the post-September 11 world…. [The United Nations’] repeated failure to come to the rescue mocks the value of the emerging norms and ultimately may further erode public support for the United Nations in spite of the 60th anniversary celebrations.”

Nancy Soderberg, Trustee, National Committee on American Foreign Policy, and a former US Ambassador to the United Nations:

“Despite its shortcomings, the UN is an essential partner in today’s global challenges—simply because those challenges are just that—global. By definition, no nation—even the great, lone superpower—can meet them on its own….Whether the UN is up to the task depends less on the UN Secretary-General than on the willingness of capitals to work with Washington. It is far from clear that the world is prepared to do so.”

“After five years of trial and error, the Bush administration is beginning to recognize where and how the UN is central to US interests. The cases of peacekeeping, Iran, and Iraq are perhaps the most vivid examples of the new more constructive relationship.”

“Is the shift from UN bashing to cooperation real?  Is the UN up to the job?  Only time will tell. But success will depend less on who is the next Secretary-General than on whether the member states are willing to accept the deal Kofi Annan put forward to them on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations last September.”

Stephen Schlesinger, Director, World Policy Institute, New School in New York:

“American Presidents have always regarded the United Nations with a mixture of hopefulness and skepticism. Some of our leaders have openly championed the organization; others have downplayed its role….In any event, as the sole superpower on the planet, the United States exerts extraordinary influence over what decisions are made by this association of states, making it always strategic from Washington’s point of view….The current government in Washington, however, has carried the historic ambivalence of our leadership over the United Nations to considerable extremes.”

“Would America be able to survive today without the United Nations?  Perhaps for a time it might—but over the long run our country would surely risk its survival. For without the UN, all states would eventually be thrown into a totally different kind of world—a world of hegemonic powers, lawless and borderless nations, chronic conflagrations, planetary despoilment, rampant and uncontrolled diseases, burgeoning populations of refugees, and nuclear-armed warlords and terrorists.”

“One of the signal facts of life today is that the UN, for all of its responsibilities and undertakings, remains a relatively cheap organization to finance. The United States, as its biggest annual donor, now contributes 22 percent of its budget. That American contribution equals only about two days’ worth of our yearly Pentagon outlays. In face of figures like those, once could well argue that the United States gets excellent value for its money.”

William H. Luers, President, United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA):

“The real global problems facing the United States and the international community are entirely different from those that faced the world when the UN was founded. Global warming, infectious disease, natural disasters, terrorists threats, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, genocide, collapsed states, illicit drug trade, and trafficking threaten to undermine international trade and order. Not one of these issues can be dealt with by the United States alone, and the American public and leadership are slowly realizing this fact. There has never been a time when the demands for global teamwork have been greater. The United States can expect much from a strengthened United Nations as a partner in meeting these global challenges.”

“Although the workings of the UN may continue to frustrate the United States, it is hard to imagine how America—and Americans—can think about a better world without reengaging with the UN. With ever more bold subnational groups threatening US security, we need friends, allies, and common ground on which to mount our defenses. Most important, we need a common commitment to work with any and all nations that share our vision of a more orderly and peaceful world.”

Shepard Forman, Director, Center on International Cooperation, New York University:

“The answer—inevitably yes—raises a more fundamental question about how the United States should think of the UN as one and perhaps a central strand of an essential multilateral strategy going forward. It is clear that the administration has recognized the utility of Security Council action with regard to both the Iraq and Iran confrontations, albeit in the latter instance after placing initial hope in the ad hoc ministrations of its European allies and Russia. But if it is to have the UN remain a viable alternative—even as a venue of last resort—the United States must cede it a greater measure of trust and support. If the United States wants to relay on the Security Council with regard to matters of nuclear nonproliferation, it will need to have the institutional capacity to make informed, independent decisions about the nuclear state of play, something it was clearly unprepared to do in the face of the US information blitz regarding Iraq’s supposed nuclear ambitions.”

“But getting the UN to where it should be simply cannot be done without genuine leadership from the primus inter pares. If the United States wants to keep the UN ready as a viable and effective actor, it cannot continue to alternate between hectoring and selective use. Certainly it should not act in ways that deliberately weaken the institution. Rather it must take the lead in defining the UN’s role and building its capacity to act in areas in which national and global interests coincide, a return to ethical utilitarianism in an otherwise dangerous and fragmented world.”

Fereydoun Hoveyda, Senior Fellow, National Committee on American Foreign Policy:

“At any rate, even with its many shortcomings, the UN is an indispensable tool of international diplomacy, and the United States should continue to use this venue to advance its goals and to protect its interests as well as those of other democracies. Indeed the resentment of the United States manifested at the UN by many member states is, at least in part, a remnant of the intense ‘anti-imperialist’ propaganda conducted by the defunct Soviet Union and picked up by old leftists who have acceded to power in some countries under the guise of ‘populist” leaders.’”

“The United States should shelve whatever remains of its cold-war policies, particularly its support of authoritarian regimes in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and back the drive for human rights and democracy in the UN, as well as in the world at large.”

William J. vanden Heuvel, Chairman, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and Vice Chair of the World Federation of United Nations Associations:

“Most Americans are fair-minded and are willing to listen and learn, but in the complicated field of international relations where the President has primary power, it is the President and his spokesmen who must explain American interests in our participation and leadership of the UN. Absent that powerful advocacy—and it has long been absent—the enemies of the UN, well financed, well organized, and unencumbered by any need, desire, or responsibility to make balanced presentations to their audiences, have changed the political landscape of our country.”

“What is so frustrating is to know how eager the world is for America’s leadership—and how incapable we seem to be of responding constructively….We will deserve the harsh judgment of our grandchildren if we fail to use this extraordinary time and opportunity to create a better world organized on the rule of law with the United Nations as part of that historic achievement.”

* * *

What are my conclusions?  The UN will always be imperfect and frustrating. This is inevitable given the divergent views of its members, their varying political and cultural histories, the relative tolerance of some for corruption and inefficiency, and the natural inclination to oppose, in principle, the one superpower. At the same time, American administrations have too often sent mixed signals regarding their views of the UN’s role and potential for enhancing American security.

Nonetheless, I believe the US commitment to the United Nations is vital, and does not impinge on our freedom to act unilaterally, if we must. The alternative to the United Nations, a series of regional or political alliances based solely on national interest, would be an enormous step backwards. In short, the United States must make even greater efforts to make its positions clear, on a consistent basis, to the UN membership, while demonstrating a readiness to at least acknowledge other points of view. The United States should, to borrow a currently popular phrase, exercise “tough love” towards the United Nations, both in our present and future generations’ national security interests.

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