Two Cheers for the U.N.

September 23, 1992

United States attitudes toward the United Nations have changed from the suspicion of its leftist, Third World tilt during the Reagan years to current enthusiasm for its usefulness in solving international dilemmas. But U.S. policy has not caught up with U.S. rhetoric. Either the world body is not as useful as the administration says, or the U.S. is not supporting it sufficiently. 00 Choose one.

President Bush did not choose, however, in his annual address to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday. He hailed the U.N. role in keeping peace, reducing arms proliferation and promotion world prosperity. He praised Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's "Agenda for Peace," without contributing funds or troops to the standby force the secretary-general seeks. He announced that U.S. troops will be trained for peace-keeping, not that they will be assigned to it.

Most significant, where the U.N. lives week to week by a giant shell game of shifting funds, the president did not offer funding beyond previous commitments. The U.S. is $524 million in arrears on U.N. dues, $209 million for peacekeeping and $440 million for affiliated agencies. This is roughly half the arrearage that has made the U.N. one of the shakier institutions in Manhattan. The second biggest deadbeat is Russia, which is $420 million shy for regular budget and peace-keeping, more out of penury than cussedness. The U.S. has promised to pay $282 million of $299 million sought by the U.N. this year. The president promised in 1990 to pay arrearages in five years, and Congress the next year approved a program of winding them down. Mr. Bush did not repeat the pledge Monday.

U.S. nonpayments were deliberate responses in the 1980s to the profligacy and West-bashing at the U.N. Chastened members did start reforming abuses, though nobody really thinks all waste has vanished. (But where has it?) New York, losing private sector employment over the past decade, has switched from annoyance at the U.N. presence to desperation to retain it.

More important, with Russia withholding its veto, the U.S. finds the Security Council a great tool for a range of activities, not least of which was ordering Iraq out of Kuwait and legitimizing the gulf war. U.N. peace-keepers are used or proposed for ever more demanding tasks, from Cambodia to Yugoslavia to the Middle East to Central America. But not if they are not funded, as Mr. Boutros-Ghali keeps reminding the world.

Well, Mr. Bush had the unenviable task of addressing the world community and the American electorate in an election year simultaneously. He was greeted by polite applause and no enthusiasm, covering what may be sympathetic understanding for his plight. The rhetoric was fine, but the U.S. will have to put up substance where its mouth is, after the election, or watch the U.N. fail to deliver its potential usefulness.

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