Hamstrung and half-broke it may be, but we need the UN

We may loathe the way Washington behaves. But without the US, the UN has no credibility
THE UNITED Nations, I suppose, should be thankful for small mercies. The place may be hamstrung and half-broke, thanks to the scandalous failure of its richest and infinitely most powerful member to pay its dues. But after a hiatus of a year, America does at least have a functioning ambassador to the UN, in the redoubtable person of Richard Holbrooke. And if his arrival this month in New York is harbinger of an improvement in the organisation's fortunes, then it comes not a moment too soon. For these are critical times indeed for the closest thing we have to a global mechanism to contain the lawlessnesses and iniquities of this Earth.

The recent history of the UN has been the history of the fraying ties between itself and the United States. Just nine years ago, an American President forged the unprecedented coalition under the aegis of the UN to defeat Saddam Hussein, conjuring the hope that after the end of the Cold War, the great powers could act in concert to create a better and safer world. Thereafter, however, relations between Washington and the UN turned sour and the disasters followed - Somalia in 1993, the Rwanda genocide of 1994, and the unhappy UN peacekeeping operation in Bosnia. Different circumstances and different continents, but each with a common thread: disagreement on how to handle each crisis between the UN and its reluctant major shareholder. A scapegoat was required, and was duly provided by the Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, forced from his job by sledgehammer American diplomacy, the scars from which have not yet healed.

Outwardly, relations have run more smoothly under his successor Kofi Annan. Yet the world body now faces two massive new challenges, where failure will not lightly be forgiven. Nato, led by the US, may have arrogated to itself the role of the United Nations with its decision to go to war with Yugoslavia over Kosovo. But a "liberated" Kosovo is a protectorate not of Nato but of the UN; if Kosovo slides into anarchy, the UN will be held responsible. And then there is East Timor, which voted yesterday in a referendum for independence. Having superintended the vote, the UN must now police what could be a protracted transition to self-determination. In both cases, success will depend largely upon the relationship between the UN and the world's lone superpower. And if strains over policy have lessened, those over money have gone critical.

Having been kicked off the UN budget committee, Washington now faces the ultimate indignity of being stripped of its General Assembly vote unless it comes up with a $350m (pounds 200m) down payment by the end of the year, on the $1bn ($1.6bn according to UN calculations) that it owes. It seems unthinkable that it could come to that; but then again, who would have thought a rational political system could take 14 months to fill the vital post of Ambassador to the UN, carrying Cabinet rank and second only to the Secretary of State in diplomatic importance? That was precisely the experience of Holbrooke, who was sworn in last week after surviving unfounded ethics charges and Congressional machinations that are too complicated to explain here, and which had nothing to do with his job.

Holbrooke may be America's greatest diplomatic celebrity, the man who bullied Milosevic and devised the Dayton accords that brought peace to Bosnia. But this time his task is arguably more difficult: to restore America's standing at the United Nations and, with it, a normal working relationship between Washington and the UN.

The UN may be repository of a lingering idealism that the world can find a better way to run its affairs than rivalry between nation states. But no one expects it to be an independent governing authority, able to compel its members to surrender what they regard as vital national interests. Nor can it function without the support of the major powers, the five permanent members of the Security Council who possess the right of veto. The UN and most of its member states may loathe the highhanded and hypocritical way in which Washington frequently behaves. They may sneer at Jesse Helms, the UN-phobic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and at the parochialism tinged with isolationism that passes for foreign policy in the Republican Congress. But they also fear them. For without the US, the United Nations simply has no credibility. Take last year's treaties setting up an International Criminal Court and outlawing landmines. Washington signed neither; and both will remain little more than pieces of paper until it signs them.

This is the dilemma that must be resolved. From the UN and the rest of the world realism is needed; from the US, a greater readiness to give way on occasion, to obtain 60 per cent of what it wants through compromise, when by use of the sledgehammer it might have had the lot. Boutros-Ghali may be a proud and embittered man, but surely his private plea was reasonable enough, that every now and then he might be allowed to differ from Washington, for the good of both the UN and the US. Too late did he realise, he writes in his memoirs, "that the United States sees little need for diplomacy; power is enough. Only the weak rely on diplomacy."

You can make the case that with Holbrooke the US is giving peace with the UN its best shot, by sending to New York its most eminent and famous career diplomat. And perhaps, by sheer bravado and force of personality, he can expunge from the UN's collective memory the accumulated slights from Washington - the endless hectoring and lecturing, the refusal to pay its dues, the Boutros-Ghali affair. But we should not be too hopeful. For one thing, Holbrooke's diplomatic modus operandi is based on power and the projection of power. For another, being nice to the UN is not a paying proposition in American politics.

If Al Gore wins the White House next year, the new American Ambassador to the UN is firm favourite to become the next Secretary of State. Holbrooke knows only too well how, in the 1996 campaign, the Clintonites' fear of the way that Republicans might profit from savaging the reviled bureaucracy in New York made them all the keener to secure the defenestration of Boutros- Ghali.

He will provide the Republicans no such ammunition this time. Which is one more reason why, even if it receives every last cent of what it is owed by Washington, the UN may have to wait a while yet for a renaissance.

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