The United States needs the United Nations

Today's big problems are global, and solutions must reach across national boundaries

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The argument in the United States over its relationship with the United Nations goes on, in defiance of the increasingly obvious evidence of the realities of the 21st century.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee, newly chaired by the majority Republicans, a couple of weeks ago held hearings on whether the United States should withhold a portion of its annual contribution to the United Nations. This was somehow to be targeted at the parts of the organization which some members said worked against American interests -- notably the Human Rights Council.

In 2009 the United States paid $6.35 billion as its share of U.N. expenditures, including peacekeeping and humanitarian aid costs. That's about three weeks of the cost of the Afghanistan war.

This issue is an old saw. Republican presidents like George W. Bush let U.S. arrearages in U.N. dues stack up. Then Democratic presidents come in and do what Barack Obama has done: pay them off.

The United Nations is necessary, now more than ever, in an interrelated world where virtually all problems confronting governments either are international or rapidly become so, requiring cross-national, coordinated treatment.

The global recession began in America, with irresponsible lenders issuing mortgages to borrowers who were clearly unable to repay them. In a New York minute the U.S. government was running the presses to pump money into the U.S. economy and the European Union was watching four or five of its member economies running like quarterbacks with the hounds of hell in pursuit.

Can anyone in 2011 still argue whether globalization is a fact of life? When problems such as economic crises, epidemics, epic climate events and drug trafficking spread virally, an all-encompassing global organization is indispensable in tackling them. To argue otherwise, to pretend that the United States doesn't need the United Nations, is to argue for throwing away a very useful ally. It also makes us look silly, but I guess we don't worry about that except when we are trying to borrow money or seeking to retain allies in Afghanistan.

Fortunately, young people -- or at least a good number of them -- get it. Over the past couple of weeks I have given the keynote address at two Model U.N. conferences, the first at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and the second at the University of Chicago. The first involved hundreds of high school students; the second, thousands -- including delegates from China.

The preparatory work the students had put into the conference and the questions they asked both publicly and privately indicated that they consider the United Nations essential, that they weren't anti-American in the slightest and that they considered it beyond question that the United States must tackle the problems it confronts by acting as a responsible member of the world community. I understand there is an element of self-selection in the group that participates in Model U.N. programs, but I also know that young people don't put so much time and energy into an enterprise if they don't think it's worth it.

Now, what's wrong with the United Nations? The answer is, "Plenty." And that justifies calls for reform.

Of the some 150,000 military peacekeepers and civilians deployed by the United Nations, since 2008 some 850 have been sent home for corruption, sexual misconduct, arms trafficking and gold smuggling.

I worked especially closely with the United Nations when I was U.S. ambassador and special envoy to Somalia. My efforts to keep track of what it was doing produced stories both amusing and appalling, hilarious in their illustration of the human comedy and shocking in the loss of life and waste of scarce resources. One U.N. official kept thousands in cash in an unlocked drawer. Others tried to ship out elephant tusks in their household effects.

But what is wrong with the United Nations is remediable if it is kept under constant vigilance. I have the impression that the current U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, a no-nonsense South Korean, understands the need for reform and tries to run a tight ship. He has pledged to address all congressional criticism.

Let us not think, however, that this represents any particular virtue on the organization's part since it relies on U.S. financial support. Active and interactive U.S. engagement with the United Nations is needed also because of the organization's very willingness to consider issues presented by all of its member countries, including the United States, in light of common standards of justice and correctness.

The United Nations put heavy pressure on Myanmar to free opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and allow her to participate in political life. It has investigated possible war crimes committed by both Palestinian Hamas and Israel in Gaza. It seeks a treaty to regulate the out-of-control world arms trade, against the opposition of China. It seeks to coordinate efforts to bring the Somali pirates under control, in the absence of a government in that country after 20 years of anarchy.

The United Nations is looking into the U.S. use of unmanned drone aircraft in Pakistan, showing its independence of action even with respect to its largest donor. It is also examining the role of the U.S. dollar as the world's reserve currency. We may not like the scrutiny, but we need it.

If the United Nations did not exist, there would be a mad scramble to invent it. Regional organizations, such as those in Africa, Europe, Latin America and Asia, are simply not enough because more and more problems are global, not regional.

What is wrong with the United Nations can be fixed, but U.S. dependence on the organization to do what we otherwise could not do is unavoidable.

So let's stop wasting time pretending otherwise. Follow the lead of our own young people in supporting the United Nations, while studying it and trying to make it work better.


Dan Simpson , a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor ( dsimpson@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1976).


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