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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Superpower stiff

Washington's refusal to pay its dues is imperiling America's influence at the United Nations

By Romesh Ratnesar

TIME magazine

November 8, 1999
Web posted at: 1:21 p.m. EST (1821 GMT)

There may not be many reasons to feel sorry for the United Nations--its marble-and-glass headquarters, after all, have occupied prime Manhattan real estate free of charge for nearly 50 years--but nothing justifies the degree of sheer pitilessness that the U.N.'s biggest, richest and most important member has shown toward the world body since the mid-'80s. That's when the U.S. decided to cut back on paying its U.N. dues, got serious about slashing the organization's bloat, held funding for the U.N. hostage to abortion politics and allowed the U.S. to begin accumulating well over $1 billion in arrears.

Now comes the reckoning: if Congress and the White House do not come up with at least $350 million by the end of the year, the U.S. will lose its vote in the U.N.'s 185-member General Assembly, joining the company of such scofflaws as Somalia, Iraq and Sierra Leone. American delinquency has sullied the U.S.'s prestige at the U.N., and may be gnawing away at American credibility overseas. How, foreign-policy types worry, can a nation lead if it won't even pay its bills? Late last week congressional Republicans remained deadlocked with the Administration over the arrears. Under one proposal, Congress would release enough money to allow the U.S. to retain its seat in the General Assembly. The nation's Security Council slot is not in jeopardy. But that would still leave Washington more than $1 billion in the hole, which the Administration finds unacceptable. And no one knows if the U.N.-bashing G.O.P.--which showed a willingness to play chicken politics with the White House over the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty last month--is really ready to compromise. "Having seen what's happened over the last couple of years," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told TIME, "I hesitate to hazard a guess."

The White House has ascribed the U.S.'s failure to pay its U.N. debts mainly to isolationist Republican kookery. In fact, Congress has passed two bills authorizing payment of the arrears. But President Clinton vetoed both because of New Jersey Republican Representative Chris Smith's insistence that U.N. dues be tied to legislation that would withhold money to any organizations that lobby foreign governments on abortion. Though they have watered down their antiabortion language, House G.O.P. leaders Tom DeLay and Dick Armey have also promised Smith that payment of the arrears will remain linked to his proviso. That's unacceptable to the White House and its supporters. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is blunt: "Petty, partisan, ideological, picayune politics are undermining the national-security interests of our country."

How? For one thing, failing to pay U.N. dues is actually costing the U.S. more money in the long run by jeopardizing efforts to reduce the U.S. share of the U.N. peacekeeping tab from 30% to 25%. (The U.S. expects a $320 million bill this year.) "Countries would have been willing to lower the U.S. portion," says U.N. information officer Jessica Jiji, "if they had paid their dues." And if the U.S. loses its General Assembly vote, it may also forfeit its moral strength in the battle to restrain the growth of the U.N. budget. Says U.N. Under-Secretary-General Joseph Connor: "Somebody sitting on the bench isn't throwing the balls."

Many Republicans don't care. They point out that the real diplomatic work at the U.N. takes place in the tight confines of the Security Council, where the U.S. cannot lose its vote. Assured of that, G.O.P. firebrands are practically daring the U.N. to try to remove the U.S. from the General Assembly, as U.N. officials say their charter requires them to do. "Do you honestly believe we're going to lose our vote?" asks DeLay spokesman Mike Scanlon. "I'd like to see that happen." Adds Smith: "I honestly can't wait. If we lose our vote, that will call for a reassessment, and there will be a big national debate...about much of what goes on at the U.N."

Comments like that--which reflect a belief that the U.S. can and should act unilaterally in the world--infuriate other countries, making them less willing to go along with the U.S. when it does try to accomplish things through the U.N. "U.S. leadership has been compromised by the nonpayment," Annan says. "And it has provoked both friends and foes alike." But U.S. arrears have run along even as U.S. power grew through the Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the war in Kosovo. It is easy to say the U.S. is losing prestige, but it is a sign of the U.N.'s irrelevance to most Americans that congressional politicos feel comfortable tilting at it.

Still, the current target practice comes at an awkward time. The U.S. needs the U.N. to help shoulder many of its foreign-policy goals--from getting rogue states like Iraq and North Korea to halt their weapons programs to keeping peace in places like Kosovo and East Timor--not to mention the humanitarian causes that the U.S. is increasingly reluctant to take up on its own. "If we're happy to see people float by the hundreds of thousands down the river, then fine," says I. William Zartman, of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "But we do so at a peril to what's important to us."

--Reported by Massimo Calabresi/Washington

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: November 15, 1999

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