Tough Love for the United Nations

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Tough Love for the United Nations

Jun 17th, 2005 3 min read
Helle C. Dale

Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy

Her current work focuses on the U.S. government’s institutions and programs for strategic outreach to the public of foreign countries.

U.N. reform is a hardy perennial. After all, an international organization as vast, sprawling and bureaucratic as the United Nations presents a great and inviting target. Proposals for how to make the United Nations more effective, more accountable, more democratic come around just about once a decade. This year, momentum has built again, and 2005 actually does show promise that U.N. overhaul and general housecleaning could take place. The U.N. Oil-for-Food Scandal and the genocide in Sudan have been among the issues that again brought to public visibility the real deficiencies of the organization. This week in particular will place U.N. reform front and center on the agenda here in Washington..

One of those reform efforts is the publication Wednesday of the report of the Task Force on the United States and the United Nations, a congressionally mandated effort sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf. Its intensive study of the United Nations has been under way since December. Under the extremely bipartisan chairmanship of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, and staffed by a number of Washington's major think tanks across the political spectrum, the Task Force has produced a 154-page document of recommendations for dealing with the numerous problems besetting the United Nations -- from corruption and lack of accountability to abuse among U.N. peacekeepers to the laughable record of the U.N. Human Rights Commission to the failure to handle vast humanitarian crises like the one in Sudan.

In the interest of full disclosure, the Heritage Foundation has been one of the six think tanks involved in producing the report, and it nominated two of the members of the Task Force, President Edwin J. Feulner and former Sen. Malcolm Wallop. The production of the report has been a major effort at engaging the United Nations, but the final result is definitely not as tough as conservatives would like to have seen. Such is the weakness of bipartisan efforts.

Other U.N. reform proposals take a stronger stance, unencumbered by compromise. Today, the House of Representatives will take up the U.N. Reform Act of 2005, introduced by International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, which proposes a series of tough budgetary reforms. One such is introducing weighted voting in the United Nations according to the size of each country's assessments. Another is shifting 18 programs of the U.N. to voluntary funding. Yet another cutting the U.N. massive fund for conferences, the largest single line item in its budget.

The Hyde bill also carries with it a powerful incentive - the threat of withholding of up to 50 percent of the U.S. contribution to the regular U.N. budget (a whopping $439 million for 2006) until the secretary of state can certify that at least 32 out of 39 proposed reforms have taken place.

Particularly encouraging about both the Task Force report and the Hyde legislation, though, is the fact that they in many ways focus on procedure and accountability. This is maybe not the most exciting of topics, but when it comes to large organizations it is the meat and bones of the operation. In the case of the United Nations, member states have often tolerated levels of corruption, lack of transparency in accounting, nepotism and abuse that no democratic country would tolerate in its government at home.

Indeed, too often U.N. reform gets stuck on the subject of Security Council expansion - a kind of international popularity contest for aspiring permanent Council members. Japan and Germany want in because they are the second and third largest donors; India and Brazil claim the size of their population. Security Council expansion has appeal as a kind of parlor game on the diplomatic cocktail circuit, though it is hardly likely to make the Council any more effective.

What will be needed to make any of this week's reform proposals stick is American leadership. As the country contributing 22 percent of the regular U.N. budget and 27 percent of the peacekeeping budget, the United States has a unique leadership position, though the noise of controversy and anti-Americanism in the General Assembly sometimes drowns out that fact.

American leadership will be particularly effective if we focus our efforts on working with other democracies. The Bush administration has signaled a willingness to take on the tough task of leadership, much to its credit. We will not be winning any popularity contest, of course, but it will be the right thing to do.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies of the Heritage Foundation. 

First appeared in The Washington Times