The UN at 60: Still Misunderstood

Jan 11, 2007

This article was first published in the Providence Journal on January 11, 2007, and is reposted here with permission of the author.

As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon assumes leadership of the world's oldest and most visible international forum, the old French phrase "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" (the more things change, the more they remain the same) comes curiously to mind. Will a new UN head really make a difference in the seemingly endless love-hate relationship between the US and the UN?

Indeed, it seems remarkable that an organization that has now been in existence for fully six decades continues to invoke such strong, visceral, and competing responses from the American public—from a sort of nostalgic veneration (particularly from older Americans who remember the promise of its founding in the wake of World War II) to an almost hysterical vilification (in general, by the political Right), in which the world body is blamed for virtually every act of global inequity and malfeasance—including, of course, illegal parking on the streets of New York City.

While it is crucial that the UN continue to evolve and to reform—something it has done continually since its founding—it is also crucial that it be better understood. To this end, perhaps the UN's greatest shortcoming has been in public relations. The simple fact is, in sixty years it has done an absolutely terrible job of explaining to the American public exactly what it is and what it does. Oh, yes, we all think we know what it is and what it does. But where does our information come from?

A recent study of American public school text books showed that there is virtually nothing taught about the United Nations in our classrooms beyond the fact that it was founded in 1945. A paragraph or two at most. As to television news, long gone are the days when the national networks actually covered the United Nations. Americans over 50 might dimly recall veteran CBS correspondent Richard C. Hottelett reporting nightly (!) from UN Headquarters, the flags blowing behind him on First Avenue (in black and white, of course). But that was nearly a half-century ago.

Today, we no longer have reporting on the United Nations, we have judgments on the UN—and these judgments are good or bad, depending largely upon the editorial perspective of the news agency or the political affiliation of the commentator. For example, the so-called "Oil-for-Food scandal," in which a small number of UN officials were accused of corruption in overseeing the sale of Iraqi oil in exchange for much needed food and medical supplies, generated countless anti-UN and, more particularly, anti-Secretary General Kofi Annan articles (in as much as a personal figure always makes the drama that much more sensational). One of the loudest members of the UN lynch mob was Claudia Rosett, a former member of The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board—a group known for its enmity toward the UN and any other organization that might threaten to curtail US unilateralism.

Ms. Rosett, who now identifies herself as a journalist-in-residence at the rather paranoid-sounding "Foundation for Defense of Democracies," recently addressed the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations on the Oil-for-Food scandal (which she takes credit for having revealed) and called for not simply the reform of the organization but for complete US withdrawal. When a distinguished member of the audience pointed out that the United States was itself complicit in the so-called scandal, her response was that we should withdraw from the UN because we should not belong to an organization that would tempt us to behave in such a manner!

Such tortured reasoning would be comical if it were not for the fact that there are some who actually take such comments seriously. Of course, by extension such logic would mean that the US must cease to do business with Halliburton immediately, but that is not part of Ms. Rosett's or The Wall Street Journal's agenda.

So what are some of the myths and misconceptions that continue to prevent the American public from better understanding the complicated and sometimes delicate US-UN relationship? Briefly, they are these:

1. The United Nations is not a world government. Indeed, it is not a government of any kind. It is simply a meeting place, where the nations of the world attempt to conduct their business in the same competitive, self-serving, and (dare we say it) even deceitful way that they always have and surely always will. The one difference is that everyone is in the same place at the same time, which makes for obvious economies.

2. The United Nations has no standing army. In fact, it does not possess one gun, one troop, one armored vehicle. Every ordinance and every blue-helmeted soldier is loaned to the UN from a sovereign nation and under the command of professional military officers—largely, by the way, drawn from among US allies (Ireland, India, Pakistan, Australia, Canada, to name a few).

3. The Secretary-General does not have the power to create a peacekeeping mission. That power rests with the Security Council alone. Further, in the entire 60-year history of the United Nations, no Security Council resolution (and thus no peacekeeping mission) has ever been passed without the consent of the United States. Why? Very simple: The US is one of five countries with veto power.

4. The UN has made peace where the US and other nations have failed. Over the past two decades the UN has brokered the peace of inter-state and civil wars all over the world, including many that defied all US efforts at mediation (Iran-Iraq, USSR-Afghanistan, El Salvador, etc.). In so doing, it also won the Nobel Peace Prize—seven times.

5. The US does not pay the majority of the UN budget. Contrary to a very popular misconception, the US actually pays less than its fair share of the UN budget—22 percent—based on an agreed upon formula that considers the wealth of each nation. Japan, with a much smaller economy, pays nearly 20 percent.

What's next for the US and the UN? A fair question. And an important one. It deserves thoughtful consideration.

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