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Insights: Politics

As the world's powerhouse, America must take its commitment seriously
Timothy E. Wirth
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

In New York last fall, the members of the United Nations gathered to chart a course for the future. With leadership from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, nations began working together to define an international agenda that is as bold as the new global era in which we live, and as successful as the framework created more than 50 years ago.

Founded in the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations emerged as the world's most important forum for dialogue, peace and progress. The U.N. alone provides the machinery to help tackle global challenges and to address pressing concerns of peoples around the world. In a world globally connected through economics, the environment, trade, transportation and communications, the U.N. is the vehicle by which nations come together to solve problems and promote progress.

Many Americans envision the United Nations to be little more than a place where world leaders meet to discuss matters great and small in the world's many languages. But while the U.N.'s central mission is to provide a forum for dialogue -- true to the original intent -- it is much, much more. The U.N. is an institution charged with tackling some of the world's most intractable problems: resolving conflicts and preventing the spread of
violence, eradicating diseases that respect no borders, addressing terrorism and its root causes, alleviating poverty, hunger and malnutrition, protecting the global environment, encouraging democracy and the respect for human rights. These are the issues that dogged the twentieth century, and they will define, in large part, the problems of the twenty-first.

The list of challenges and responsibilities to which we look to the U.N. for leadership is extensive. And against long odds, the U.N. has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments. In its pursuit for peace alone, the U.N. has negotiated 172 peaceful settlements, from helping to end the Iran-Iraq war and the civil war in El Salvador, to gaining the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. In 54 peacekeeping operations, U.N. forces have helped to sustain cease-fires, monitored troop withdrawals and deterred violence, preventing millions of civilian casualties.

Beyond peace, the U.N. helps nations like the United States promote its core values and interests -- for freedom and human rights; opportunity and justice; peace and reconciliation. That is why, contrary to minority opinion, the U.N. is overwhelmingly popular with the American public. Bipartisan polling conducted over the past two years indicates that the U.N. enjoys a favorable rating with the American public that would be the envy of any politician -- 72 percent. Yet, year after year, the U.N. fails to receive the support it is owed and deserves from its American hosts.

A case in point is the payment of annual dues and assessments by the United States to the U.N. and its programs each year. The United States, the world's wealthiest nation and the only remaining superpower, accrued more than $1 billion in past dues and assessments to the United Nations when payments were held up due to an unrelated issue in dispute between the White House and congressional Republicans for several years. In the process, the United States became the U.N.'s biggest debtor, almost lost its vote in the U.N. General Assembly (under the very rules the U.S. helped to write) and jeopardized U.S. leadership at the United Nations.

Much of our billion-dollar debt has been connected to the U.N.'s primary mission -- promoting peace and stability around the world, sharing the responsibility and burdens of conflict resolution and peace so that no one nation (such as the United States) has to bear all of the risks and/or costs. More than $800 million of the U.S. debt to the U.N. is owed to other countries that contributed troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions. As one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the United States voted to support each and every one of these operations.

Countries large and small, wealthy and poor, NATO and non-NATO, went unpaid even after they willingly put their own soldiers at risk. Many of our closest allies around the world have borne the brunt of the U.S. failure to pay its peacekeeping assessments. And some of those same allies have picked up the slack as political pressure has caused the United States to withhold troops from U.N. peacekeeping missions since 1999.

(The U.S. does contribute civilians to peacekeeping missions to act either as civilian observers or police. As of September 30, there were 865 Americans serving in this capacity -- some 2.3 percent of the total serving in peacekeeping missions.)


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