February 6, 2002

February 6, 2002 | Lecture on International Organizations

The United States and the United Nations

I was raised to believe that there are three subjects that should not be broached in polite company: sex, religion, and politics. I have no reason to raise the first two, but I was asked here today to present my thoughts on a subject that falls squarely within the third: the likely developments in the relationship between the United States and the United Nations in the coming year.

To do this, I must give my impression of the principles guiding the Bush Administration's foreign policy. As important as the United Nations may be, it is only one component of U.S. international relations and is subject to broader concerns.

This fact is illustrated by the dramatic swing in America's relationship with the U.N. in 2001 thanks to the remarkable compromise forged by former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke in December 2000. Working with the U.N., Ambassador Holbrooke succeeded in lowering America's assessment for the U.N. regular and peacekeeping budgets--a change long resisted by the other nations of the U.N.1

Soon after that agreement, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives passed legislation to pay the second--and largest at $582 million--of three scheduled arrears payments to the U.N.

Unfortunately, the spring and summer of 2001 saw a steady decline in U.S.-U.N. relations. The arrears payment legislation was captured by domestic politics and was not sent to the President until after September 11.


The Bush Administration was roundly chastised by U.N. officials, domestic critics, and some of America's allies for being "isolationist" or "unilateralist" because it disagreed with the prevailing international opinion on several key issues, such as the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and the urgent need to erect a missile defense system.

Many pundits interpreted America's ejection from the U.N. Human Rights Commission and the International Narcotics Control Board as punishment for the Administration's position on these issues.

If so, that punishment did not chasten the Administration or bring it into line with prevailing international opinion.

In July, the Administration objected to the U.N. Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects because conference recommendations would have, in the opinion of the Bush Administration, violated the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Administration also sent a low-level representative to attend the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance as a protest to objectionable language in the draft declaration, including the "Zionism is racism" proposition and issues surrounding compensation for slavery.

Many critics of President Bush spun these events into examples of his wanting America to go it alone. They argued that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon forced him to realize this was impossible and led him to recognize and appreciate the value of international organizations like the United Nations.

For instance, former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, said that President Bush has succeeded "in part because he has simply discarded almost everything he said on foreign policy prior to September 11."2

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote "It's hard to see the president restoring the unilateralist tinge that colored so many of his early foreign policy choices. Winning the battle against terror required an end to unilateralism and the construction of a broad international coalition."3

I have to wonder whether these folks are living in the same world as I am. These comments are either uninformed or a deliberate misinterpretation of the Administration's policy, because the Bush Administration was never isolationist or unilateralist. For instance:

  • During his campaign, President Bush supported payment of arrears to the United Nations if its bureaucracy was reformed and America's assessment was reduced4 --a position consistent with the bipartisan Helms-Biden legislation on arrears payment and U.N. reform. Both of these goals were largely met by Ambassador Holbrooke's December 2000 deal with the U.N. and President Bush upheld his side of the bargain by signing the arrears payment legislation into law. I expect him to support the third arrears payment as well, provided the U.N. meets the requirements in Helms-Biden.
  • President Bush has been consistently pro-trade before and after September 11. He vigorously pushed for Trade Promotion Authority (fast track) since being elected to the White House, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick was critical in successfully concluding the World Trade Organization ministerial meetings in Doha last November. This was done over the opposition of trade protectionists on the right and the left.
  • Candidate Bush favored intervening abroad if the mission was "in America's national interest."5 When asked what his threshold for national interest was, he defined it as "Whether our territory is threatened, our people could be harmed, [or] whether or not our defense alliances are threatened."6 The war on terrorism in Afghanistan meets this pre-September 11 definition.

These campaign promises do not reflect an "isolationist" or "unilateral" foreign policy. Instead they represent a foreign policy that is worldly, but without the Clinton Administration's excessive emphasis on multilateral acts. The previous Administration seemed eager to intervene only when the American interests were minimal and only with international approval.

That is not to say that the measuring stick of unilateral action is useless. In my mind, national interests select themselves by passing the unilateral question: Is this important enough to do unilaterally? This does not mean that unilateral action is the preferable course, but if push comes to shove is it important enough to do without the support of our allies or over the objection of an organization like the U.N.?

The terrorist attacks on September 11 clearly meet that threshold and tragically underscore the need to fight the war on terrorism regardless of international support.

Once the national interest was clear, President Bush acted and would have acted even if the U.N. had not supported him. To the credit of the member states, however, the U.N. strongly supported America's war on terrorism.


I see the Bush Administration's foreign policy as the mirror image of the Clinton Administration's foreign policy--both containing the same elements, but with the order of priority reversed. The Bush Administration's foreign policy is a realist foreign policy, what Richard Haass, Director of the Office of the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State calls "hardheaded multilateralism."7

Most of the audience should be familiar with the policy because every nation--aside from the U.S. under the Clinton Administration--practices it. But in the interest of thoroughness, "hardheaded multilateralism" dictates that a nation should seek out international support, provided that support does not undermine its national interests. Stated differently, a nation should support multilateral initiatives that serve its interests and oppose those that do not.

The war on terrorism is a case in point. Since September 11, America's preeminent national security priority is winning the war on terrorism. In order to effectively curb terrorist groups that act globally, America must gain the support and assistance of other nations. In addition to extending the war on terrorism to areas that might otherwise be beyond U.S. influence, a multilateral coalition against terrorism provides America with basing and overflight permission for its armed forces, human intelligence to complement its extensive electronic capabilities, logistical support, cooperation in criminal investigations, increased effectiveness in ferreti ng out and freezing the financial resources of terrorists, and greater security for American facilities and troops in other nations.

With these benefits in mind, the U.S. forged a coalition of willing allies in the war on terrorism and welcomed U.N. support through Security Council resolutions and General Assembly declarations. Though not strictly necessary, this support provided valuable diplomatic and economic support for America's war on terrorism. It also defused embryonic charges of neo-colonialism when the time came to establish a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan.

However, the Administration also clearly rejected a wider coalition that threatened to hobble efforts to win the war on terrorism in general and the conflict against the Taliban in particular.

The war on terrorism illustrates the pragmatism of the Bush Administration. Global problems like international terrorism cannot be solved unilaterally. The Administration recognized this and, despite its awareness of the weaknesses of multilateral efforts and coalitions, decided to forge a temporary coalition to respond to that transnational problem.

That willingness to utilize multilateral institutions when necessary does not, however, signal a sea change in Administration policy. It will continue to reject ill-conceived treaties and agreements regardless of their noble intentions or international popularity. Supporting ineffective treaties based on empty rhetoric is poor foreign policy and ultimately undermines the goals of the treaty or agreement. As noted by Richard Haass:

We are willing to listen, learn, and modify policies when we hear compelling arguments. But we will not go along simply to get along.... By the same token, we do not take lightly the costs to ourselves and to others when we forgo participation in some multilateral initiative. In the future, we will give consultations every reasonable chance to produce an acceptable compromise. And if we conclude that agreement is beyond reach, we will explain why and do our best to put forth alternatives.8

You will notice that the Administration has not modified its opposition to the Kyoto Protocol one inch. On the contrary, the Administration has since been joined by Japan, which has decided to indefinitely postpone plans to implement the Kyoto Protocol due to the treaty's onerous economic costs.9 President Bush has similarly announced his intention to abandon the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and erect a missile defense system. These decisions have elicited less reaction in the press and in diplomatic circles than predicted.

I believe the relatively minor reaction is a sign of the times. In the aftermath of September 11, people in the U.S. and abroad understand the necessity of elevating "national interests" over secondary or tertiary issues like the Kyoto Protocol. As noted above, the Bush Administration has always been actively engaged with America's allies and international organizations on national priorities. Thus, Administration has not changed its tune as much as September 11 altered the perception of the music being played by the Administration.

In a nutshell, America should and will employ the full spectrum of the tools of statecraft to protect its national interests, including working with the United Nations, but be willing and capable of acting alone when necessary.

Multilateralism is a tool that America should use to achieve a useful objective. It should not be the objective.

So what does this mean for U.S.-U.N. relations in the near future? I think it portends a rocky relationship, but one in which both parties clearly understand the other's position.

Realism is about prioritizing. The major flaw of the Clinton administration's foreign policy is that minor issues were given the same weight as priority issues--in essence rendering nothing a priority.

The Bush Administration has been very forthright in its foreign policy and can be expected to stand by its statements. This is a sharp deviation from the Clinton Administration, which often failed to stand by or support its rhetoric. This should be welcomed by other nations, even if they may not like what they hear.

Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Center for International Trade and Economics (CITE) at The Heritage Foundation. He spoke in Washington, D.C., at the "International Symposium on the United States and the United Nations: Exploring the Future of U.S.-U.N. Relations," sponsored by the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace, the University of Bridgeport, and. the Washington Times Foundation.

1. On December 23, the U.N. member states agreed to reduce the amount paid to the regular budget by the United States from 25 percent to 22 percent, beginning in January 2001, and the amount paid to the peacekeeping budget from 31.4 percent to 27.58 percent, beginning in July 2001. See Brett D. Schaefer, "Keep the Cap on U.S. Contributions to the U.N. Peacekeeping Budget," Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 714, January 29, 2001, at http://www.heritage.org/library/execmemo/em714.html .

2. As reported by Ramesh Ponnuru, "Get Realist," National Review , Vol. 53, No. 25 (December 31, 2001).

3. E. J. Dionne Jr., "A New and Improved George W.," The Washington Post , October 12, 2001, p. A33.

4. "George W. Bush on Foreign Policy," Issues 2001: Every Political Leader on Every Issue, at http://issues2000.org/Celeb/George_W__Bush_Foreign_Policy.htm#Internationalism .

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid .

7. Richard N. Haass, "American Foreign Policy After September 11th," Director of the Office of the Policy Planning Staff, Remarks to the World Affairs Council of Northern California, San Francisco, CA, November 16, 2001, at http://www.state.gov/s/p/rem/index.cfm?docid=6310 .

8. Ibid .

9. According to the BBC (January 3, 2001), the Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun reported: "The Central Environment Council, a government advisory body, has said in a report that, for now, industries will not be given any regulations to follow and, instead, will be allowed to combat gas emissions on a voluntary basis." See "Japan Gets Cold Feet," January 9, 2002, at http://www.globalwarming.org/polup/pol1-9-02.htm .

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: International Organizations