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The UN: Pay As You Like It?

Will John Bolton's latest UN reform effort strengthen those working for the status quo?

December 8, 2005

Will John Bolton's latest UN reform effort strengthen those working for the status quo?

After promising less unilateralism and more international cooperation in its second term, the Bush Administration is floating a radical pay-what-you-wish scheme for the UN budget.

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton’s proposal for UN member states to pick out the items they will fund threatens to turn the UN budget into a chaotic bazaar, with potentially crippling consequences for the world body’s effectiveness.

The proposal comes just as diplomats from the UN’s 191 member states are negotiating over strengthening measures, many of which the Bush Administration claims to favor. Unless Washington works more constructively to find workable compromises, they will have missed a major opportunity to make the world body more effective.

Ambassador Bolton debuted his UN financing scheme in an early October 2005 speech at Yale University, where he presented it as his own personal view — rather than official U.S. policy. However, by the time he testified in the U.S. Senate just two weeks later, the Bush Administration had taken the significant step of establishing an interagency working group to consider the idea.

Those proposing to let governments vote with their wallets for their favorite UN line items would likely turn the premier forum for global cooperation into a Darwinian jungle.

Under Bolton’s plan, the offices of the UN’s administration would compete with each other, with only the fittest surviving. The losers in this popularity contest would presumably wither away — even those that performed vital, if unsexy, functions.

That may be all well and good for the world’s wealthiest nation. But such a financing system would leave little room for the interests of smaller and less wealthy nations.

And the message conveyed by Ambassador Bolton’s proposal — as well as his threat to hold the UN’s upcoming budget hostage — will only reinforce fears that the United States seeks to dominate the United Nations, rather than work cooperatively with its other members.

Abandoning the UN’s financing system of member state dues paid into the general budget would be devastating to the world body. The UN is the only global forum where 191 countries — friend and foe, speaking in six official languages — can meet and work to resolve their problems.

A system under which nations pick and choose line items could raise some draconian — and strange — choices.

Should they fund the World Health Organization’s bird flu preparations — or the investigation of former Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri’s assassination? Which is more important, feeding refugees from the genocide in Darfur — or inspections of nuclear facilities by the UN’s atomic watchdog agency?

And should the UN’s AIDS programs take priority — or its assistance in organizing Iraqi elections? Should countries only pay for language interpreters for their own languages?

These trade-offs undermine the fundamental organizing principle of the United Nations — members of the world community pooling their efforts and tackling the full range of today’s challenges, even though these problems have different priority for different nations.

That isn’t to say there aren’t UN programs and offices that have outlived their usefulness. I support the review of old mandates that was called for at the September UN summit. But as with everything else at the UN, this will be doomed if the United States pushes it too hard, rather than diligently building support and addressing concerns.

While member states are the prime movers of the United Nations, the organization’s professional staff maintains and applies the various tools the UN puts at the disposal of these governments.

The organization’s central headquarters serve as the vital connective tissue to transmit the political decisions made by member states — and also to give on-the-ground input for those decisions. These essential functions are prerequisites to a working international system — and cannot be funded on a whim.

Bolton’s scheme would move much of the UN to a less secure source of funding. But its real danger is the fodder it gives to those members of Congress who are already looking for a means to distance the United States from the UN.

Legislation has now passed twice in the U.S. House of Representatives that mandates withholding 50% of U.S. dues to the UN — unless member states agree to implement 39 demands. The Senate version of this legislation, introduced by Senators Coleman and Lugar, would give the Bush Administration and Ambassador Bolton discretionary authority to hold back dues payments.

Mr. Bolton’s proposal holds appeal for isolationists in Congress as a way to cut the UN’s budget and gut its capacity to perform. It is a no-brainer for the 83 members of the House who voted to withhold all U.S. UN dues as a way of forcing the United States to withdraw from the organization.

Many legislators not radical enough to seek a U.S. pullout will still embrace “cut and gut” financing to score points with the Republican party’s right-wing core constituents. And Ambassador Bolton must know that his plan plays to base instincts on Capitol Hill.

Sadly, Congress is not following the advice of eight former U.S. ambassadors to the UN (including conservative icon Jeane Kirkpatrick). They said that withholding funds once again and so soon after the United States already did so in the 1990s would “create resentment, build animosity and actually strengthen opponents of reform.”

These former ambassadors understand the political price the United States paid the last time it used funding to strong-arm the UN — and are wise enough not to want to do it again.

Since Ambassador Bolton’s recent statements have undoubtedly added to international suspicion of the United States, the first step toward a more constructive U.S. stance would be to withdraw the threat to hold the UN budget hostage.

Ambassador Bolton has also been complaining that, as just one vote in the 191-member General Assembly, the United States lacks a voice commensurate with its financial contribution. He seems to have a rather crude idea regarding the relationship between financial contribution and political influence.

First of all, such a comment would sound strange from any of the five permanent member countries with vetoes on the Security Council. But as a description of the sole superpower’s influence at the UN, it is patently fanciful.

Ambassador Bolton’s famous combative style drew a great deal of attention and concern in the U.S. Senate debate over his confirmation. Although he has claimed that the UN culture needs his blunt and provocative approach, thus far, it hasn’t won over new support from other nations for President Bush’s stated goal to update and strengthen the United Nations.

In fact, we have seen this movie before when Ambassador Bolton tried to strike references to the universally accepted Millennium Development Goals weeks before the September summit. As a result, President Bush himself had to reassure the world of his commitment to development and poverty reduction.

There is a serious reexamination taking place within the UN, at the instigation of the Secretary-General himself. The heart of that effort is to make the UN more effective in tackling urgent world problems, like extreme poverty, terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. But for this to become a reality, the United States must play a constructive role.

The changes at the UN still under negotiation after the summit — such as management reform, a new Human Rights Council and Peacebuilding Commission — are controversial.

To overcome skepticism and achieve agreement on these critical matters will require not just the patient diplomacy of the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, but certainly also the capital-to-capital involvement of the U.S. Secretary of State — if not the President himself.