U.N.'s trouble: the U.S. Washington has used deadbeat tactics, attacks to get its way

December 22, 1996|By Phyllis Bennis

Now that Washington has got its man to head the United Nations, it's about time the United States paid its dues. n n n nKofi Annan will likely be a very good secretary-general. His qualifications had little to do with the outpouring of U.S. support for the new U.N. chief. He won Washington's enthusiastic embrace simply because he wasn't Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the beleaguered Egyptian whose second term was derailed by an electorally driven and internationally condemned U.S. veto.

In fact, the soft-spoken and pragmatic Ghanaian is not likely to do any more drastic U.N. staff and budget cutting (what passed for "U.N. reform" in Washington parlance) than his predecessor.

Not because Annan will refuse - no U.N. secretary-general could survive by doing that - but precisely because, despite propaganda to the contrary, the much-maligned Boutros-Ghali was already doing everything the White House demanded.

During his five-year term, he imposed every budget cut (his was the first zero-growth U.N. budget in history), every layoff (he cut U.N. headquarters staff by more than 1,000 people) and every "downsizing" campaign (eliminating the U.N.'s Center on Transnational Corporations was one of his first actions) Washington wanted.

Even if he did talk back while he did it.

It was precisely because he had carried out those slash-and-burn "reforms" that Boutros-Ghali was, until the U.S. veto was announced, so very unpopular among so many U.N. member states.

Many African countries, of whose region Boutros-Ghali was the ostensible representative, cared little for the wealthy, imperious, Paris-educated Egyptian. It was simply because he had, on occasion, expressed rhetorical dismay at the impact of his actions that Boutros-Ghali became a convenient whipping boy for anti-U.N. forces in Congress and other policy circles in Washington.

Annan faces a formidable challenge. He will have little choice but to continue to implement extreme cuts in staff, resources and budgets in U.N. programs.

He will do so without any guarantee that Washington will cough up even part of the $1.6 billion or so it owes in back dues, peacekeeping assessments and other unpaid commitments to the United Nations.

Certainly, the discreet Annan will find a more pleasant reception in Congress when he comes to Washington to plead the U.N.'s case. But that has less to do with the sometimes impolitic style of his predecessor than with the fact that the new Congress may believe that its strident anti-U.N. rhetoric of the past several years, culminating with the xenophobic attacks on the world organization that characterized the Dole campaign, has gone as far as is prudent or useful.

If that is the case, the new secretary-general will offer Congress members a face-saving way to change their approach to the U.N. While it's true that Boutros-Ghali was a problem for the U.N. staff, he was certainly not a problem for Washington.

For the past five years, the besieged U.N. staff not only faced U.S. financial abandonment, Western media opprobriums and cuts in vital social and humanitarian programs, but they also had a secretary-general with little respect for, and less willingness to consult with, his hard-working colleagues.

The international civil servants are largely delighted with their new chief. Morale is likely to soar.

Kofi Annan, the first black African secretary-general, has risen to the top U.N. position from within secretariat ranks, and he is widely appreciated not only for his political acumen but for his respect for and willingness to work with and defend his colleagues against attack.

Washington didn't stop paying its U.N. dues because Boutros-Ghali was a problem -- the U.N. itself was the problem.

It was the Reagan administration, back in 1985, that first took the advice of the Heritage Foundation's counsel that U.S. power at the U.N. would be enhanced if the largest dues-payer, responsible for 25 percent of the U.N.'s regular budget, simply refused to pay up.

Holding the organization hostage to U.S.-imposed "reforms" would quickly bring the sometimes independent-minded U.N. to heel. And to a large degree, it worked.

But it was a deliberate and political - not accidental or budget-driven - decision to stop paying U.N. dues - Boutros-Ghali was merely a convenient afterthought.

So if the pragmatic Annan now succeeds where his predecessor failed, in persuading the United States to put its deadbeat past behind it and make good on its legally binding commitment to pay its U.N. dues, it won't be because he's a better diplomat.

In fact, he probably is. But if Washington decides to resume its place among law-abiding nations, it won't be because of the civility of the new occupant of the 38th-floor secretary-general's office.

It will be a decision far more rooted in shifting priorities and changing strategies for carrying out U.S. foreign policy.

It is a decision desperately needed if Washington is to begin to repair its eroded international reputation and to transform its power-imposed influence into a newly collaborative internationalism.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and author of "Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN."

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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