President Bill Clinton will face an unusually frosty reception from traditional allies, including Britain, when he joins world leaders in New York tomorrow to mark the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
What was meant to have been three days of celebration, with 145 heads of state and government in attendance, is likely to become a sombre forum on how the UN can be rescued from dire financial straits, precipitated principally by Washington's failure to pay its dues.
The European Union, in particular, has stepped up its criticism of the US, which, according to the UN, currently owes the organisation about $1.4bn - more than the total UN budget for a year.
The UN is being forced to draw funds from a separate budget for peace- keeping, simply to keeps the lights burning in its headquarters. Travel by UN officials has been curtailed severely, recruiting has stopped and there is doubt whether staff salaries will be paid after 1 December.
In a tactic that has strained relations in New York, British diplomats have been instructed by London to make reference, whenever the question of the funding of UN operations arises, to the obligation on member states to make timely contributions.
Sir John Weston, the British ambassador, noted that what the US is expected to pay is hardly gigantic in relative terms. "The entire UN regular budget last year was a little over $1bn, or the equivalent of no more than two- thirds of the annual costs of running the British Diplomatic Service, or the New York Police Department," he said in a speech.
London was incensed by a recent incident in which seven British members of Unikom, the UN mission that monitors the Iraq-Kuwait border, arrived at Heathrow airport to leave for the region only to be told by the UN that there was no money for their flights. They went home.
For Mr Clinton, the affair is acutely embarrassing. Although his administration consistently insists that it supports the continuation of the UN, his hands are tied by Congress, which appears more, rather than less, determined to withhold payments from the organisation. Bills have been passed in both houses of Congress that would reduce still further the size of the cheques that might finally be delivered to the UN.
The mood of antipathy has been reflected in the comments of such figures as Jesse Helms, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who recently described the UN as the "long-time nemesis of millions of Americans".
Meanwhile, the Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, recently went further, suggesting that the UN was a "totally incompetent instrument any place that matters, which kills people by its behaviour". The UN's reputation was especially damaged by failed peace-keeping in Somalia, during which 18 US Marines were killed on one day in October 1993.
Mr Clinton is expected to reiterate tomorrow his commitment to the UN, but also to demand firm and accelerated progress towards some internal reforms. Diplomats hope that a bargain might be struck eventually, whereby proof from the UN that it is going on a slimming regime will allow the President to make a stronger case to Congress to reinstate some of the lost funding and reduce the outstanding debt. There is, however, no guarantee that Congress would be much impressed even then.Reuse content