Helms at U.N. is progress

February 08, 2000|By RUTH WEDGWOOD

IT WASN'T JUST whistling "Dixie." The "grand geste" of Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in recently staging a personal appearance by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina, before the U.N. Security Council seems to have lifted the mood in U.S.-U.N. relations. International lawyers initially were perturbed.

The Security Council is not Hyde Park Corner, open to anyone with an opinion. Delegates who appear are assumed to be stating national policy.

Yet the televised address by the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was surprisingly conciliatory. It was also a handy reminder of the two cohabiting regimes in Washington, scrimmaging at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is perhaps the first U.N. leader to appreciate that legislative oversight is a daily fact of American life and lucre, and that the United Nation's 38th floor must court the members of both houses of Congress. Filtering all contacts and information through overworked diplomatic missions frustrates everyone.

Mr. Annan has gained credit with Mr. Helms' colleagues for his open style of governance. U.N. staffers can talk to each other without filtering talking points through their agency bosses. Even Senate staff can pose direct questions on U.N. processes.

To be sure, Congress' promise in last year's legislative package to pay $924 million in U.N. back dues is fraught with conditions. Still, U.N. delegates are increasingly optimistic the most difficult provisos can be met. Reducing the U.S. share of regular dues from 25 percent to 22 percent -- required in the second year of the payment schedule -- would leave a $39-million shortfall in the regular U.N. budget. Countries eager for more influence at the United Nations might choose to make up the difference.

Diplomats from a host of countries turned up the following day at the Victorian hall of the New York City Bar Association to watch Mr. Helms conduct an unprecedented field hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Annan's political adviser John Ruggie and Undersecretary General for Management Joe Connor appeared informally as panel witnesses, gently telling Mr. Helms that his help was needed in emergencies such as Kosovo and East Timor. Mr. Helms offered to continue the conversation over bean soup in the Senate dining room.

President Woodrow Wilson doomed American participation in the League of Nations -- indeed, he doomed the League of Nations itself -- by refusing to compromise on the Senate's conditions for American membership. But it is hardly surprising that the House and the Senate want to be part of major decisions on budget costs as well as the use of armed forces. These concerns will not go away.

People who work inside the United Nations nowadays are second only to Capitol Hill Republicans in their criticism of the body's past performance. It is sensible to treat the interest of Congress as an opportunity for reform rather than confrontation.

Ruth Wedgwood, senior fellow for international organizations and law at the Council on Foreign Relations, teaches international law at Yale. She wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

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