U.S. needs the U.N. more than we think

May 30, 2001|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON -- Ever since the United States got voted off the island at the U.N. Human Rights Commission three weeks ago, Congress has been hopping mad and the U.N.-haters have been on a tear.

So I have an idea: Let's quit the United Nations. Most of its members don't speak English anyway. What an insult! Let's just shut it down and turn it into another Trump Tower. That Security Council table would make a perfect sushi bar.

No? You don't want to leave the United Nations to the Europeans and Russians? Then let's stop bellyaching about the United Nations and manipulating our dues, and start taking it seriously for what it is -- a global forum that spends 95 percent of its energy endorsing the wars and peacekeeping missions that the United States wants endorsed, or taking on the thankless humanitarian missions that the United States would like done but doesn't want to do itself. The United Nations actually spends only 5 percent of its time annoying the United States. Not a bad deal.

The vote that got the United States booted off the Human Rights Commission was to the United Nations what Sen. Jim Jeffords' vote to leave the Republican Party was to the Senate -- a wake-up call, a signal that the world will push back against radical Bush policies just as Mr. Jeffords did.

When President Bush trashed the Kyoto treaty on climate change, the message the world got was that the Bushies will do whatever they please, on a range of issues, and if the world doesn't like it -- tough. So, not surprisingly, when the members of this U.N. commission got a chance to vote anonymously on whether the United States should be a member, they stuck it to us. People with power often don't think about it; people without power think about it all the time.(But it would be wrong to blame this vote entirely on anger with the Bushies. That lets the Europeans off too easily. As Nina Shea, a former U.S. delegate to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, wrote in the Weekly Standard, the fact that so many Europeans could participate in the United States being voted out "reflects the abandonment of their historical commitment to human rights." Repeatedly at the commission, the United States has had to break with the Europeans in order to vote its conscience on issues like slavery in Sudan and repression in China and Cuba.)

Nevertheless, maybe now that Mr. Jeffords has instilled some humility in the Bush team, and ensured that Jesse Helms will no longer be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- which he singlehandedly ground into irrelevance with, among other things, his juvenile anti-U.N. crusades -- we can get back to taking the United Nations seriously.

The fact is, the world is full of problems that touch America, that the United Nations handles -- problems related to childhood diseases, which UNICEF addresses; problems of poverty in Africa, which the UNDP addresses; problems of refugees, which the UNHCR addresses. Also, there are 16 U.N. peacekeeping missions.

For the past decade, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Fiji and Nepal have been doing U.N. peacekeeping that the United States wants done but doesn't want to do itself. These poor countries do U.N. peacekeeping to earn extra cash and have been paying the salaries of the U.N. peacekeepers themselves while waiting for years for the United States to pay its dues. So the world's richest country has been taking interest-free loans from the world's poorest, dollar-a-day economies. That's embarrassing.

All these problems would exist whether the United Nations were there or not. So what the United Nations provides 95 percent of the time is a body for coordinating our response to problems we care about. And it does it in a way that ensures that the burden of costs is shared, so that the United States doesn't have to pay alone, and that the burden of responsibility is shared, so that wars the United States wants fought, or the peace accords the United States wants kept, have a global stamp of approval, not made-in-U.S.A.

The dirty little secret of the Human Rights Commission vote is that it is precisely because 95 percent of the time the United Nations is simply a tool of the United States that a few countries, when they got a chance to stick it to us, did so.

But if we can't understand that on just about every other day the real vote at the United Nations, the vote that matters, is 95-5 -- 95 percent of the time it acts in our interests and 5 percent not -- then shame on us.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.

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