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Issue Date:  March 18, 2005

The United Nations under siege


The United Nations today is an institution under siege. The Republican president and his leading colleagues in Congress are directing a steady torrent of fire against U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan over an array of problems -- the so-called oil-for-food imbroglio, a recent sexual harassment scandal involving the High Commissioner for Refugees, the abuse of minors by U.N. troops in the Congo and, most of all, the Security Council’s refusal in 2003 to endorse America’s invasion of Iraq. Now, with President Bush’s appointment of John Bolton, an angry neoconservative critic of the United Nations, as the new U.S. envoy to the body, the administration is acting directly to punish the organization for its actions.

This assault on the United Nations was part of the concerted hostility the Bush administration displayed toward internationalism from its first days in office. The White House made clear as early as the spring of 2001 its indifference or outright disdain for global treaties such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, the Kyoto pact on global warming, the land mines treaty, the international criminal court, the nuclear test ban treaty and others. In turn, to emphasize America’s absolute self-reliance, President Bush pushed for the largest defense buildup since the Reagan era, authorizing a military budget greater than the combined sum of the entire defense spending of all the other nations on earth. To the extent any of President Bush’s men evinced concerns about the rest of the planet, they opted for unilateral acts, especially after 9/11 -- most notably, of course, the U.S. invasion of Iraq (the one exception being the U.N.-blessed attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan). As Peter Beinart wrote in The New Republic in January: “Conservatives are fascinated by American power, but they are not all that interested in the world.”

This mindset is especially poignant in our modern era, for just 60 years ago, at a crucial turning point in American history, Republicans as a party almost unanimously stood up to endorse American membership in the United Nations. In response to the losses of 100 million lives in World War I and World War II, the conservatives ensconced in the Senate discarded their isolationism and embraced the globe’s newest international security body. Leaders such as Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan praised the United Nations as “the world’s only chance” to stop World War III. New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, the Republican nominee for the presidency in 1944 and 1948, observed: “There is a clear mandate from the American people” for the United Nations. John Foster Dulles, later Eisenhower’s secretary of state, asserted that the United Nations would help “promote human rights and liberties.” Other iconic figures of the party at that time such as Nelson Rockefeller and Harold Stassen lauded the establishment of the body.

Throughout the next 50 years, despite occasional differences with the organization, both Republican and Democratic administrations regularly dealt with the United Nations as a matter of policy -- and usually got their way. For example, the United Nations backed the dispatch of U.S. forces to Korea in 1950 to thwart a communist attack, into Kuwait in 1991 to turn back Saddam Hussein and into Haiti in 1994 to reinstall Jean-Bertrand Aristide and also helped America to settle the Suez crisis of 1956 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The United Nations even reformed itself at our urging. When the United States has made up its mind at the United Nations, it almost always called the tune.

In 1994, however, American history took a drastic detour. A new brand of Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives on a right-wing platform calling for a more nationalistic and anti-U.N. foreign policy. This Republican class included many legislators who did not possess passports. In 1998, then House Majority Leader Dick Armey stated proudly, “I’ve been to Europe once. I don’t have to go again.” In 2000, America elected a Republican president, George Bush, who himself had barely traveled abroad. And, after a Republican takeover of the Senate, the ultraconservative Jesse Helms, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, barred further payments of U.S. dues to the United Nations as “wasteful.”

Still, even under these hard-right stewards, it remains questionable today why the Republican Party continues to be so dissatisfied with the United Nations. The record is quite favorable to the United States.

First, the United Nations annually saves America taxpayer dollars by helping to share the burdens of keeping the peace with other nations. Right now, the United Nations oversees 18 peace operations in war-torn nations around the globe. Would America wish to pacify and pay for all those problematic hotspots all by itself?

Second, the United Nations takes over rescue missions when natural disasters strike, as happened recently with the tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Would Washington want to assume the responsibility alone to clean up after such horrific calamities?

Third, even in Iraq, where the United Nations once balked, it has since then aided the United States in setting up an interim government, supervising recent Iraqi elections and assisting those elected to write a new constitution. Would the Bush administration prefer no involvement by the United Nations?

Fourth, for its internal flaws, the United Nations has usually acted to remedy itself. Most recently, it created an investigative body under the direction of a leading member of the American establishment, Paul Volcker, to probe the oil-for-food scandal.

Perhaps it is time for the Republican Party to consider casting aside its animus against the United Nations and re-pledging its 1945 allegiance to the organization. Regrettably the appointment of John Bolton, an avid unilateralist, suggests that Washington is not ready to take that step.

Stephen Schlesinger is director of the World Policy Institute at the New School University in New York. His book, Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations, won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award.

National Catholic Reporter, March 18, 2005

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