IT WAS ANNUAL ritual in the Cold War. At the autumn parade of rulers at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the Soviet Union, its puppets and Third World despots would blame the U.S. for the ills of the world.
Americans got tired of this and the Reagan administration retaliated by not paying its U.N. dues, demanding reforms first. What with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, this worked. The worst offenses at the U.N. ended.
Not good enough. Like other debtors, the U.S. found the credit card not only fun but habit-forming. It helped with the deficit and taxes in Congress. What began as recreational experiment became addiction.
The U.S., which is assessed about one-fourth of U.N. expenses, arguably too high, owes $1.6 billion of the $2.8 billion that all members owe. The U.N. remains on the brink of collapse. This would delight many Americans, some of whom are Republican senators.
President Clinton could take them on but would not dream of doing so before the election, for which he has adopted the coloration of his worst enemies. Besides, there is no U.N. bloc amid the American electorate.
Now, for the sake of the American election and without having organized allies on this, Mr. Clinton vows to veto Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's second term. Mr. Boutros-Ghali is the same age as Bob Dole and the one thing he wants in life is another term, with which Mr. Clinton can identify.
U.S. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright explains the Boutros veto as the way to get Congress to fork over $1.6 billion. This implied promise to pay up fools no one, because that will depend on which party controls Congress and not on how she and her boss think the U.N. is shaping up.
Who said what
So Mr. Clinton kept his ritual visit to the General Assembly on Tuesday short. He said a few things disassociating himself from those Americans who don't value the U.N., but not so as they would notice.
As everyone at the General Assembly understood, he cared only about the American electorate's reading of his speech, if any, not theirs. If he has a policy, he will let them know after the election.
But the bashing of the U.S. that Sen. Jesse Helms hates so much went on at the General Assembly anyway. One prime minister called refusal to pay dues unacceptable "intimidation."
That was the prime minister of Norway, our stalwart NATO ally. She is Gro Harlem Bruntland, the women's lobby's favorite to replace Mr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
Then there was the statesman who called U.S. policy "blackmail . . . wrong-headed and short-sighted." Ouch. That was Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy of Canada.
The Irish love our president but that was their foreign minister, Dick Spring, who said that "All member states have an obligation to discharge their arrears . . . promptly, in full and without conditions." He is actually speaking for the whole European Union these six months. And that was the British foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, echoing his words.
Not everyone denounced the U.S. One guy called for the reforms the U.S. wants and didn't even mention dues. That was Yevgeny Primakov, foreign minister of Russia, the U.N.'s second-biggest deadbeat at $335 million.
Most of what the U.N. does the U.S. favors. It never really harms U.S. interests because everything that matters goes through the Security Council where the U.S. wields a veto, or the General Assembly where it commands a comfortable majority.
On the dues business, the U.S. finds itself denounced by Norway, Ireland, Britain and Canada but supported by Russia. One would think the president and Congress could not really be comfortable with that, after November.
Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 9/28/96