UNITED NATIONS -- This month, the United Nations will start what is supposed to be a year of happy 50th anniversary celebrations. But the incoming Republican Congress is casting a pall over the party with promises to shrink U.S. financial and political support for the world body.
The Republicans' plans alarm supporters of the United Nations because they seem to go beyond instituting what the supporters concede may be needed reforms.
"There are some legitimate concerns about the U.N. But we're hearing the kind of vitriol that cannot be explained rationally," says Jeffrey Laurente, an executive director of the United Nations Association, a pro-U.N. lobbying group. "They are motivated by a combination of traditional isolationism and xenophobia."
In the past few weeks, diplomats at the U.S. mission to the United Nations have been nervously receiving visiting aides to GOP congressmen known to be sharp critics of U.S. policy at the United Nations.
So far, they are merely asking questions, said one diplomat. But, according to interviews with some of the GOP staff members, there is no mystery about what they plan to do. The "Contract with America," incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich's road map, speaks of reducing peacekeeping support and promises "No U.S. troops under U.N. command."
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, and Mr. Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, wrote to President Clinton in December, urging him to block Security Council action on current or future peacekeeping missions "until there is agreement with Congress on funding such operations."
The new Republican Congress' plans to put the brakes on U.N. peacekeeping operations marks a reversal of a trend that started just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Mikhail S. Gorbachev and former President George Bush teamed up in using the United Nations to usher in a new world order.
Annual U.N. peacekeeping costs, nearly a third of which are charged to the United States, soared from $800 million in 1990 to more than $4 billion this year.
But disillusionment among Americans set in when U.S. troops began to die last year in an ambitious U.N. operation in Somalia that stretched the concept of peacekeeping to nation-building. With public opinion turned, Congress last spring ordered the Clinton administration to reduce the U.S. share of peacekeeping costs to 25 percent starting at the end of the coming year.
Undersecretary-General Kofi Annan, who oversees peacekeeping operations, recently warned that a retreat in U.S. support would severely hamper the United Nations' ability to cope with deteriorating conditions around the world. He and his aides say that, if anything, there should be more support to meet needs in the growing number of poor countries plunging into chaos and ethnic strife, especially in Africa.
The Republican plans do not come as a surprise. "It would be a mistake to think that it was just after the election that Republicans started U.N. bashing," said one Republican congressional staff expert on the United Nations, asking not to be identified. "This goes back at least a year."
Mr. Dole proposed a virtual congressional veto over U.S. participation in peacekeeping operations last January in his Peace Powers Act. Democrats embraced two other parts of the proposal -- scaling down U.S. financial support to 25 percent and conditioning the delivery of U.S. dues on the establishment of an independent U.N. inspector general's office. But Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali managed to infuriate congressional Republicans by watering down the office's powers.
Some U.N. officials are deriving faint hope from statements by Rep. Benjamin Gilman, a New York Republican and the incoming chairman of the House International Relations Committee, that he does not have the same view of the United Nations as incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms. Mr. Helms, a North Carolina Republican, has called the United Nations a "longtime nemesis of millions of Americans."
But in an analysis of seven key votes on U.N.-related issues in the last Congress, Mr. Gilman got a rating of 25 percent from the United Nations Association. Mr. Dole, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Helms got ratings of zero.
The prospect of Mr. Helms as chairman is spreading gloom at the U.N. Population Fund, which lost U.S. aid from 1986 to 1993 because of conservative claims that it was supporting forced abortions and sterilization. The Clinton administration restored U.S. support, which had been expected to reach $50 million of the agency's total $300 million budget next year.
Some Americans at the United Nations fear that the new congressional hostility will diminish U.S. influence here, shifting it to countries such as Japan and Italy, which are driving hard for seats on the Security Council. Now the second- and fifth-largest financial donors at the United Nations, respectively, they may come up with money to replace U.S. cutbacks. The Nordic countries also may increase their contributions, as they did when the Reagan administration withheld large portions of U.S. dues during the 1980s.