Just when you thought that the circus that is the U.N. General Assembly could not possibly get more ridiculous, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez demonstrate that there are yet depths to be plummeted. If a majority of Americans are ready to wash their hands of the whole thing, who could blame them?
The buffoonish assault on President Bush by Mr. Chavez in his speech to the General Assembly actually made Bill Clinton and Nancy Pelosi come out in the president's defense. That's how bad it got last week. Among the memorable quotes from the opening of the General Assembly was this from Mr. Ahmadinejad: "Some seek to rule the world relying on threats, while others live in perpetual insecurity and danger," which is pretty ironic given that he himself has called for the destruction of another U.N. member, Israel.
Mr. Ahmadinejad's rant, however, seemed positively reasonable by comparison with the crazed raving of Mr. Chavez, who stated, "Yesterday, the devil came here. Right here ... the president of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as the devil came here." And to snickers from the somewhat sparse audience in the hall, Mr. Chavez went on to say that the stink of sulphur was still hanging around the podium. How witty of him.
To these shenanigans can be added the failure of the United Nations to deal with Saddam Hussein, Iran's nuclear program, the genocide in Darfur and the conflict in southern Lebanon, where the U.N. force is tied hand and foot in what it can do -- as well as the general tendency at the U.N. to pass anti-Israel resolutions at the drop of a hat.
It is tempting indeed to want to wash our hands of the whole thing. A poll released last week, conducted by pollster Frank Luntz for the Hudson Institute, reveals that 75 percent of Americans believe that the United Nations is no longer effective and needs to be held more accountable. Almost as many believe it needs to be reformed, and 67 percent believe that "there are too many undemocratic nations in the UN that do not care about promoting democracy and freedom." Half of the respondents found that the United Nations is not effective in preventing wars and conflicts, as opposed to 37 percent who do. Furthermore, 71 percent of Americans want to cut U.S. contributions to the organization.
Unfortunately, leaving the United Nations would take the United States out of a global conversation and be a sign the United States is abdicating its leadership role. But there are other ways to exert influence other than picking up our toys and going home. We should work to influence the election of a new secretary-general next year, for instance.
One of the persistent problems at the United Nations is its regional rotation system, which dictates that the next secretary-general come from Asia. The only country somehow excluded for that post is -- interestingly -- the United States. Candidates this time around hail from South Korea, Afghanistan, Thailand and India, but others like the president of Estonia have also declared interest. Many believe that Vaclav Havel would make a great secretary-general.
Though Asia undoubtedly can come up with a competent candidate, regional rotation is a system that generally encourages tokenism and even corruption and discourages competence. It is what gave Sudan a seat on the Human Rights Committee and Iraq under Saddam Hussein (briefly) the chairmanship of the U.N. Disarmament Committee.
Or we could predicate American dues to the organization, the vast majority of which are voluntary, on improving its functions as congressional reform advocates like Sen. Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican, have tried to do. While the United States pays 22 percent of the budget of the U.N. General Assembly in "mandatory dues," amounting to $317 million in 2004, total U.S contributions to the U.N system is some $3 billion, according to the State Department. There is plenty to cut from here.
It is tempting indeed to want to cut the moorings of the United Nations and send it down the Hudson River, as former U.N. Ambassador Chuck Lichtenstein dreamed of doing, but it won't work until there is a growing global disillusionment with the institution.
Perhaps we could take Mr. Chavez up on the offer to move the United Nations to Venezuela? Americans -- and New Yorkers in particular -- would not miss it very much.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times