Time for U.S. to pay up at the U.N. $1 billion deadbeat: Reasons for Washington's nonpayment have vanished.

January 29, 1998

WHATEVER REASONS the United States had in the early 1980s to withhold what it owed the United Nations have vanished. The Treasury has the money, which is peanuts in the U.S. budget. The demands that Washington made for U.N. reform are substantially met. The United Nations is an essential arena for U.S. foreign policy. Withholding dues and assessments as a bludgeon was successful for a period but backfired, and now diminishes U.S. influence.

The latest example of the world body caving in to reasonable U.S. demands was shown by a related agency, the World Health Organization. The United States pays one-fourth of its $420 million budget. Washington wanted its executive director, Hiroshi Nakajima of Japan, replaced by the former prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a public health physician with a Harvard degree. The executive committee of the WHO obliged.

This follows the action last year of the U.N. General Assembly in retiring the former secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, in favor of Washington's choice, Kofi Annan of Ghana. Critics argue that Mr. Annan has still not reduced all the waste in the bureaucracy. That is true. Bureaucracies resist cleansing.

The administration cut a deal last year with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to pay $819 million of the more than $1 billion the United Nations says is owed. Then Congress, in a last-minute maneuver on unrelated abortion policy, killed that.

There is an old cliche that if you owe the bank $1,000, it owns you, but if you owe $100 million, you own the bank. To some extent, this worked. For several years of nonpayment, the U.S. owned the U.N., getting what it wanted. But when time came to pay up in recognition, the U.S. did not. As a result, the General Assembly last month refused to reduce the U.S. share of the budget from 25 percent to 20 percent, as lawmakers had demanded. Should the U.S. pay up, the delegates may reconsider.

The worth of the United Nations to U.S. policy goals is immense. Without the United Nations, the United States would have no idea of Iraq's chemical and biological weaponry. As President Clinton said in his State of the Union address, it is time to get this issue over with by paying what this nation owes.

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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