Learning UN-Speak? Reform Means Better; No, Reform Means Less. Dues Are to Pay; No, Dues Are to Owe

Article excerpt

By including in his State of the Union address an appeal for payment of America's delinquent dues to the United Nations, President Clinton has signaled his determination to rescue the organization from congressional adversaries who would enfeeble or abandon it. He faces a tough but winnable fight.

The warm atmospherics surrounding Kofi Annan's first visit to Washington as United Nations secretary-general have already begun to dissipate. Hard-line House Republicans have denounced Speaker Newt Gingrich's call for payment of UN dues. Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina is vowing to condition the president's proposed payment toward our $1.3 billion UN debt on "reform" that he promises to spell out in legislation.

Who are all these others? Annan had to remind his Washington hosts that the United Nations has 184 stakeholders besides the United States. A critical mass of countries must agree on the direction of reform, and they will not simply accept an American diktat. Unfortunately, the language of "UN-speak" seems to have two dialects - one in New York and the other in Washington - that are mutually incomprehensible. To nearly all other member states in New York, "reform" means redeploying resources to strengthen UN performance and enhancing the UN's capacity to act. In Washington, "reform" - even for an assertedly Democratic administration - now translates as reduction in staff resources and budgets. Reform specifically of the Security Council is assumed in Washington to mean adding financial heavyweights like Japan and Germany as permanent members. For most other member states, it means limitations on the permanent members' use of the veto, not expansion of their number. In New York, reform of the formula for apportioning UN dues means a fairer measure of ability to pay. In Washington, it means a substantial reduction in the US share - which for regular expenses is already below America's share of world income - by shifting costs to Europeans and others who already pay at a higher rate of their income. The UN's crisis will be resolved when America's politicians are prepared to do with our international partners what they do with each other all the time: Find common ground on principles and divide the difference on interests. In short, compromise. On the UN's special assessment scale for peacekeeping, for instance, the Congress has declared that the United States will not pay the 31 percent share assigned to it by the United Nations General Assembly, decreeing unilaterally that it won't pay a dime more than 25 percent. (Its actual payments fall far short of even that.) By pressing a case based on shared principles of equity, not on just cutting its own bill, America can win agreement on assessment-scale reform that puts its share at 26.6 percent. Will Washington take a fair compromise, or insist on a confrontation over one or two percentage points? …

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