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.)
In 1999, after a three-year impasse, Congress finally enacted and
the president signed into law the breakthrough bipartisan Helms-Biden
legislation that will repay much of our debt, but requires the United Nations
to meet certain benchmarks before each of three payments is made. This occurred only after seven former secretaries of state (Kissinger, Haig, Vance, Baker, Shultz, Eagleburger, Christopher), the editorial pages of more than
60 major daily newspapers, 18 deans of graduate schools of international affairs, the nation's three largest umbrella business groups (U.S. Chamber
of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Business Roundtable), 117 nongovernmental organizations, and countless others weighed in to encourage an agreement between Congress and the White House.
The Helms-Biden agreement goes a long way to putting the U.S.-U.N. relationship back on track. But, the precedent of using the U.N. as a political football must never be repeated. Recent events -- the fall of a dictator in Yugoslavia, unrest in the Middle East, the Asian financial crisis, the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa -- remind us there is too much at stake in the world to withhold our critical support to the organization best suited to address these issues.
In a shrinking global world where security risks include random acts of terrorism and local or civil conflicts that can quickly flare into regional wars, the U.N. is too important, too vital, to be given short shrift. Our strategic security and foreign policy interests are greatly enhanced by the United Nations and working with other nations. The U.N.'s support of U.S. objectives in the Persian Gulf war and its work to provide the civil infrastructure to support the NATO operation in Kosovo are just two examples.
The United Nations deserves our support, financial and otherwise,
not only because it is in our own best interests, but also because we have given our word. America has a treaty obligation and clear commitment to the U.N. As the world's leader and a nation dedicated to the rule of law, shouldn't we honor our commitment to the United Nations? It is the right thing to do.
Timothy E. Wirth is president of the United Nations Foundation and Better World Fund. He served the United States as undersecretary of state for global affairs (1993-1997) and was a member of Congress for 18 years (1974-1992).