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UN dances to Washington's tune

Richard Dowden, Diplomatic Editor, on the battle for the soul of the world body
Madeleine Albright, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, spends more time in Washington than New York these days. Her job is supposed to be representing the concerns of the US to the world through the UN but she is busier trying to persuade the new Republican majority in Congress that the United Nations is an OK organisation and that the American contribution to its coffers is money well spent.

It appears to be a struggle in a political climate evoked by a recent cartoon in the Washington Post depicting a man standing in front of the UN building in New York, carrying a placard saying: "UN go home!" Misquoting Milton, one observer described Ms Albright's task in Washington as justifying the ways of Satan to God.

Some observers see US foreign policy going isolationist but in fact America has never been more involved in the rest of the world through trade, political power and influence. The important debate is not between isolationists and globalists but between multilateralists who see the US as a global leader, moving and working with allies, and the unilateralists urging it to do whatever it wants, when it wants, how it wants, with no justification other than American self-interest. The UN appears a large obstacle to the unilateralist vision.

Robert Dole, the Republican leader of the Senate, fiercely attacked multilateralism last week and said it undermined American sovereignty and encouraged isolationism, which he also opposes. Speaking at a conference in Washington, he said: "Subcontracting American foreign policy and subordinating American sovereignty encourage and strengthen isolationist forces at home and embolden our adversaries abroad."

Henry Kissinger, another critic of multilateralism, said at the same conference: "In the end America cannot derive its motivation from an international consensus. It has to develop its specific purposes and then try to shape an international consensus."

The Republican nationalists feel that the UN has sucked America into wars in which it has no interest, and cost American lives. President Bill Clinton, already playing to that mood in the middle of the Somalia catastrophe in 1993, said: "If the American people are to say `yes' to UN peace-keeping, the United Nations must know when to say `no'."

That attempt to curb US involvement in the UN has culminated in a Republican bill now before Congress called the National Security Revitalisation Bill. It stipulates that the US must reclaim any expense incurred in peace-keeping operations even if they are not authorised by the UN Security Council. The Bill also stipulates that no US soldier should serve under a foreign commander. If implemented, it would virtually end US involvement in UN peace-keeping. UN intervention peace-keeping would be crippled, because America is the only country capable of getting large numbers of well-armed troops rapidly to a distant war- zone. President Clinton is pledged to veto the Bill but, lacking a majority in Congress, he will have to comply with the mood that informs it.

Ms Albright's justification for the UN has been accompanied by tough reforms of the organisation itself. In the past two years the Clinton administration has tamed the UN. The General Assembly is less critical than ever before and the administration is being subjected to fierce changes. Budgets are being tightened and Washington has arbitrarily cut its contributions. President Clinton has announced that the US contribution to peace-keeping will be reduced to 25 per cent in October, cutting it without negotiation from 31 per cent. He is under pressure from Congress to cut it further to 20 per cent.

US funding has always been a problem and for years Washington has been in arrears with its pledged payments. This year the US is supposed to pay $315m (£194m), a quarter of the UN's peace-keeping budget, but who knows when the UN will get the cheque?

To those who would cut further, Ms Albright says the UN serves US foreign- policy interests and that if it withdrew, the US will have to do a great deal more by itself. It will either have to act alone or not act at all.

The image of the UN painted by the new Republicans is 20 years out of date. They portray the UN as a forum of scroungers and Communists condemning the US for imperialism and neo-colonialism and then expecting it to come to their rescue. These days such language is rarely heard but America's Cold War habit of keeping tabs on which countries vote against it in the General Assembly continues. With no competing powers to rival US hegemony, countries which cross it too often are simply removed from the aid list. US diplomats make no secret of this and use it as a threat. Not many resolutions opposed by the US are passed in the UN.

Having fixed the General Assembly, the US is working on UN bureaucracy. The image of foreign fat-cats living in New York off American taxpayers is even more emotive. Washington has therefore engineered the appointment of several key administrators at the UN. Joseph Connor, who used to head Price Waterhouse in America, and Karl Theodore Paski, a former inspector- general of the German foreign service, have been put in charge of management and budgets. This year Mr Connor submitted a budget below the projected one.

Another recent addition is John Hughes, formerly editor of the Christian Science Monitor and latterly on George Shultz's staff when he was Secretary of State. Mr Hughes is ostensibly employed to improve the UN's image during its 50th-birthday year but his title is Director of Communications and his job will be to get Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary-General and other top officials on to US television in ways which do not make them look negative or defensive. Mr Hughes's Republican connections will also enable him to do some PR for the UN in Congress.

With a veto on the Security Council and a close ally in Britain, Washington can control peace-keeping operations without much noise coming from a supine General Assembly. Meanwhile, key US-approved appointments in the UN administration have strengthened it and made it more efficient. Once she has cut through the visceral nationalism of right-wing American politicians, Ms Albright's task of selling the UN is easier than it looks.