Symposium

Article excerpt

Q: Should Washington pay its assessed dues to the United Nations?

Yes: Restore America's international credibility and its ability to pursue U.N. reforms.

BY JOHN C. WHITEHEAD

For all of the debate in recent years between the Clinton administration and Congress about America's role in the world, none has been the subject of as much controversy as the payment of the United States' long-overdue debt to the United Nations.

While this issue has proved to be the bane of Washington's policymakers, the fact is that the American public has been consistent in its support for meeting U.S. legal obligations to international organizations -- obligations, by the way, that constitute no more than one-tenth of 1 percent of annual federal-budget expenditures. Poll after poll confirms it. Yet, the U.S. government has failed to pay its U.N. obligations in a way that could restore its credibility overseas, along with its standing in the world body. In October, once again, Congress adjourned for the year without resolving the issue because of continued linkage of restrictions on the use of federal funds by international family-planning organizations to the payment of arrears.

On a positive note, the bipartisan congressional budget agreement assures that the United States will not lose its vote in the General Assembly next year as a result of nonpayment of arrears. Congress and the president agreed to contribute as much as $350 million in prior and current-year funding to the U.N. regular budget by year's end in order to avoid the Article 19 sanction. This penalty is applied automatically if a member state's arrears at the end of the year exceed the previous two years' assessment. With the world's largest economy by far, the U.S. historically has been the largest contributor to the U.N. system. But, the United States is responsible for some 60 percent of the debt of all member states -- arrearages more than double the U.N.'s annual regular budget -- which is crippling U.N. capabilities and paralyzing peacekeeping. Congress' willingness to to permit enough funding for the United Nations in the short term in order to avoid losing the U.S. vote in the General Assembly is a sign of the seriousness with which our legislators ultimately view our U.N. standing; however, the fact that the world's leader could be placed in such a position says much about the arrears controversy.

Those on Capitol Hill who contend that the United States does not owe arrearages to the United Nations point out that this country makes appreciable contributions to the maintenance of international peace and security in other ways, particularly through its defense commitments and refugee and other emergency-relief programs. They argue that the United Nations ought to reimburse the United States for those services. What they fail to acknowledge, however, is that when the U.S. government decides to launch such operations on its own, under its own control -- even if undertaken in conjunction with a relevant Security Council resolution -- other countries have no voice in implementing the mission and therefore are under no obligations to pay for it.

We would rightly object to paying through the United Nations for Russian troops under Russian command in Georgia or for Nigerian troops under Nigerian command in Sierra Leone, so we cannot claim that the rest of the world owes us money for U.S. operations. The Italians, who led a mission in Albania with very close Security Council oversight, acknowledge that they have no claim to reimbursement from U.N. members for the costs of that operation. With U.N. control goes U.N. financial responsibility, and with national control goes national financial responsibility. If a country asserts exclusive control over its deployments, it volunteers to pay the costs on its own.

The bottom line, then, is that it is long past time for the president and Congress to realize and accept the fact that our U. …