NO PEOPLE have as intense and as ambivalent relationship with the United Nations as the Americans.
No government official was quite as certain as President Franklin Roosevelt that it would be possible to construct "a universal organization in which all peace-loving nations will finally have a chance to join," which will at last "end the system of unilateral action, exclusive alliances and spheres of influence, and balances of power and all the other expedients which have been tried for centuries and have always failed."
New hopes for the U.N.
No other government has contributed as much. No other government has criticized the United Nations as persistently. None has worked as hard for U.N. reform.
The end of the Cold War marked the beginning of a new period of high hopes among Americans concerning the United Nations. George Bush spoke for many when he discussed building a new world order. The Clinton team shared the optimism.
So, U.N. activities expanded dramatically: "peacekeeping," "nation-building," election monitoring. Peacekeeping costs more than doubled, from $1.696 billion in 1992 to $3.56 billion in 1995. The need for honest and economical U.N. administration also grew: Inefficiency, waste and incompetence become more objectionable as the organization tasks expand in scope and importance.
Major donors began to blame one another, and all turned on the United States, charging it with egregious failure to pay its bills. The U.S., in turn, turned up the pressure on the U.N. Secretariat.
Burgeoning costs, expanded jurisdictions and new mandates have not led to new successes, only to new needs and demands. "Peacekeeping" has stretched to resemble war-making, with ambiguous goals, carried out under U.N. command. In Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia, it has failed to achieve its goals. In Haiti the outcome is utterly uncertain.
Now the U.S.-U.N. relationship has reached another of its perennial crises. The Secretariat says it is broke because the major donors -- notably the United States -- won't pay their debts. The U.S. representative to the U.N. says we cannot pay all our debts until reforms in the Secretariat -- providing for greater accountability, transparency and all-around efficiency -- are achieved. The U.S. Congress likewise suggests no funds will be forthcoming until these reforms occur.
There are many Americans who believe the United Nations can make important contributions to peace and can be an important tool for advancing U.S. interests and policies abroad -- if it tightens its procedures, improves its management practices and eliminates major abuses and waste.
Lee Hamilton, D.-Ind, and Nancy Kassebaum, R.-Kan, who have provided leadership in constructive thinking about how to make the United Nations a more effective instrument for achievement of its purposes spoke directly to the issue last June. "Today," they wrote in the Washington Post, "lines of authority are confused, blurred and duplicated. Basic missions and activities have ballooned into plodding exercises that produce mountains of paper and little, if any real results."
Two U.N. boosters, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and the U.S. permanent representative, Madeleine Albright, have spoken directly to the General Assembly urging reform: eliminating redundant organizations, establishing a truly independent inspector general, increasing accountability.
But, Ms. Albright asserts, "We would have a much easier time persuading members to support reforms if we could assure them that, if they did, we would pay what we owe when we owe it." Maybe. She was also frank enough to say "The United States does not have to apologize to anyone. We do more than our share around the world to keep the peace . . . "
King George's riposte
Today, Ms. Albright notes that friendly and not-so-friendly nations alike insist, "Why doesn't the U.S. pay its bills?" Deadbeats, they call us. The British foreign secretary reversed the famous complaint of colonial America against George III's Parliament. "No representation without taxation," the diplomat chided.
But, of course, the United States pays far more "taxes" to the United Nations than it has representatives in the policy-making councils.
Bear in mind that the reason the world's richest country is the major debtor is that it is assessed the most. The United States is assessed 31.7 percent for peacekeeping costs, more than any other country. It's 8.5 percent for Russia, 6.3 percent for the United Kingdom, 7.6 percent for France. Many other countries pay virtually nothing: South Korea is assessed at 0.13 percent, Singapore at 0.024 percent, Kuwait at 0.05 percent and Saudi Arabia at 0.193 percent.
If you get a bill for $10 and your next-door neighbor gets one for $100, and neither of you settles your account for a month; you are throughout that month 10 times the greater debtor.
The United States pays a great deal more than its "bill." It pays double its assessed peacekeeping costs and more, and it neither asks for nor accepts compensation for American services -- unlike our affluent allies. It equips, at our expense, many U.N. forces. It picks up the bill for NATO bombings and bombs.
The United States record of support for the United Nations and its principal activities is unparalleled. And it's time to say so.
Jeane Kirkpatrick served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. during the Reagan administration.