Seizing the U.N. Moment

Ann Florini
Ann Florini Former Brookings Expert, Professor of Public Policy - School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University

June 27, 2005

The U.S. House of Representatives appears determined to miss a golden opportunity to get what it wants. On June 17, it passed the U.N. Reform Act of 2005, ostensibly aimed at bringing about reform of the United Nations—an institution that celebrated the 60th anniversary of its charter yesterday and that is sorely in need of an overhaul. But it would be difficult to design legislation better suited to derailing hopes of such reform. Although congressional outrage over recent U.N. shenanigans is more than understandable, the House could not have picked a worse time to let its emotions get the better of its common sense.

There is plenty to be angry about. The U.N.’s member states have never allowed the institution to have effective and efficient systems for programming, budgeting, personnel or oversight, flaws that became all too obvious in the grotesque mismanagement of—and likely criminality in—the Iraq oil-for-food program. For decades, too many democracies have acceded to the election of vicious dictatorships to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the body supposedly responsible for monitoring global compliance with human rights standards. The U.N.’s most important responsibility—maintaining international peace and security—regularly falls victim to squabbles among member states, as it has in Darfur.

All this led House International Relations Committee chair Henry Hyde, R-Ill., who proposed the U.N. Reform Act, to demand scores of sweeping reforms throughout the sprawling U.N. system. If the Secretary of state cannot certify that the U.N. has complied with virtually all of these reform demands, the U.S. must withhold half of the dues it owes the United Nations.

That threat to withhold U.S. dues undermines newly empowered pro-reform forces at the United Nations. Although some bureaucrats and diplomats in New York are happy with business as usual, most staff and member states are far more open to change than ever before. This is partly because of the scandals and even more because the United Nations obviously and desperately needs reinvigoration if it is to cope with its mushrooming mandates to keep the peace and protect the helpless around the world. Already, heads have rolled in response to the scandals and new and far more appropriate policies are emerging from the Secretariat on everything from whistleblower protection to information disclosure. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is pushing the member countries to replace the dysfunctional Commission on Human Rights, rethink the outdated Security Council and reform the ineffectual General Assembly.

Into this frenzy of U.N. revitalization efforts, the U.S. threat to withhold half of its 22 percent share of the U.N. regular budget (based loosely on the U.S. share of the global economy) will fall with a loud thud. It is a threat the U.S. has made before. In the 1980s, the threat was intended to force “weighted voting” on budgetary matters—i.e., giving larger contributors more of a say than poorer countries. It failed, although the U.N. subsequently began adopting budgets by consensus so that larger contributors would not feel railroaded. The more important consequence was a lasting bitterness among the other member countries, compounded when the U.S. failed to pay its full share throughout most of the 1990s. Only recently has the U.S. paid off the accumulated debt, restoring a modicum of credibility to U.S. claims to leadership at the world body. That leadership is now essential to seize the current golden opportunity to remake the United Nations into what the U.S., and the world need it to be. But leadership requires effective diplomacy, not ham-handed threats.

If the U.S. did not need the U.N. to function well, the Hyde legislation could be dismissed as harmless politicking—bashing the U.N. plays well to a small but hard-core constituency of confirmed U.N.-haters. But the vast majority of the American electorate, although appalled by the recent scandals, recognizes that the United States needs the U.N. to carry out increasingly vital missions on security, human rights, development and humanitarian assistance around the world.

Fortunately, calmer voices may prevail. Two days before the Hyde bill passed, a bipartisan commission—chartered by Congress but ignored in the Hyde bill3released detailed recommendations for how the U.S. should deal with the U.N. That commission, chaired by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and including members renowned for lack of sympathy with the U.N., saw no need to threaten withholding to achieve the scores of U.N. reforms recommended in its report. Both Senate staff and the administration have indicated they will rely heavily on the Gingrich-Mitchell report. But the fight is not over yet. Its outcome will do much to determine whether the U.S. role in the revitalization of the U.N. over the next few months is that of leading partner in a necessarily cooperative effort, or ineffectual bully.