PRESIDENT Clinton's annual speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday was an eloquent plea to use the world body to battle poverty, prevent mass killing and protect children from nuclear, chemical and biological warfare. Every word rang hollow.
The Clinton administration has found the United Nations increasingly useful. Only five years ago, it blocked the Security Council from acting against genocide in Rwanda. Now, in a sea change of attitude, it has obtained U.N. cloaking for an Australian-led peace-keeping force in East Timor.
But the U.S. refuses to pay what it owes to the U.N., which is somewhere between $1 billion and $1.6 billion. If the U.S. does not pay an installment of $350 million this calendar year, it could lose on Jan. 1 its vote in the very General Assembly Mr. Clinton was addressing.
Despite that, while flaunting projected surpluses, Congress still has not put up the money. "It's simply unacceptable that the richest nation on earth is also the biggest debtor to the United Nations," as Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said last June.
He was the only senator voting against a bill to provide $819 million of the arrears over three years if the U.S. share of the budget is reduced -- properly objecting to the strings attached.
Mr. Clinton promised at the General Assembly to work on getting Congress to pay. How much of his political capital he risks in the attempt will determine how he is rated as a foreign policy president.
The United States has found many faults with the U.N. over the years and demanded reforms, most of which have been instituted with varying degrees of success. Washington replaced a U.N. secretary-general it had once backed with another more to its current liking.
Is the U.N. bureaucracy now 100-percent lean, efficient and dedicated? Are the much-reformed Baltimore school administration, the swollen congressional staff or the juvenile clerk's office of Baltimore Circuit Court?
Of course the U.N. secretariat falls short of perfection. That is no excuse for the United States' refusal to pay what it owes for the U.N. doing mostly what Washington wanted.