Punishing U.N. for Good Behavior : Despite Its Improvements, U.S. Slashes Payments Drastically

Peter Fromuth is director of the U.N. management project at the United Nations Assn. of the United States of America, a private research and education group based in New York.

Less than three months after the close of its 40th anniversary session, the United Nations is running out of money. Without a solution, U.N. and State Department experts agree, the lights will go dark on the next General Assembly.

There are two sides to the troubles that are depleting the coffers of the organization, and they are like two clamps of a vise. One of the clamps represents about $125 million in back dues owed by members, including the United States, that have refused some part of their U.N. contribution as a protest against activities that they don't like. The other clamp is $80 million to $100 million in cuts, or about one-half of our U.N. assessment, that Congress has enacted or proposed over the last year.

Both violate U.S. commitments under international law. And both cause major cash-flow problems for an organization with an $800-million budget and a prohibition against borrowing. However, since the first of these clamps tightened gradually over the last 20 years, the United Nations was able to cushion the effect, although at the price of exhausting all financial reserves. But there was little warning of the new U.S. cuts. And, with its financial cushion now gone, the world body is running out of options.

The largest cut so far--$42 million--is essentially a congressional penalty for the United Nations' failure to jettison one of its charter's basic principles--one nation, one vote--and replace it with contribution-weighted voting on money matters.

Potentially even more serious are the cuts triggered by the Gramm-Rudman budget measure. In this fiscal year, for example, the United Nations' "share" of cutbacks was already $21 million, which is roughly 10% of the United States' dues to the organization and thus more than double the 4.3% whack aimed at the rest of the federal government. And there is more to come. Congressional sources predict much greater cuts for 1987.

While the United States has long been unhappy with its lot at the United Nations, the timing of this frontal assault is paradoxical, because it coincides with the most sustained period of U.S. influence in the world organization since the 1960s. In fact, after four years of angry arm-waving at the United Nations, the Reagan Administration compiled a record on both political and administrative issues at the last two General Assemblies that would justify intensified U.S. involvement. Helping to make that possible is the emergence of a powerful, moderate mainstream in the Third World that is willing to join this country when it takes reasonable positions and defends them convincingly. While this attitudinal change is pervasive, a few illustrations will suffice.

A vivid example is the United Nations' turnabout on terrorism. For 13 years the organization has been stuck in a definitional tar pit over what causes terrorism and who is responsible. But in 1985 both the General Assembly and the Security Council passed resolutions unequivocally condemning terrorism and hostage-taking, and declaring them unjustifiable regardless of the cause. Hand-in-hand with the terrorism breakthrough was a decline in verbal mistreatment of Israel, so startling to the Israeli ambassador that it moved him to hail "the end of our decade of isolation."

Another side of the same story is a more responsible attitude toward U.N. management--one that has produced a freeze on professional salaries, a near-freeze on budget growth (0.1%) and, most important, an almost universal recognition that after four decades it is time to overhaul the programs and machinery of the world organization.

In the face of these and other improvements of equal magnitude, the congressional assault amounts to punishment for good behavior.

When the Reagan team arrived at the United Nations, it was aggrieved by many things: attacks on Israel in U.N. forums, double standards in the treatment of the United States and the Soviet Union, the irrelevance of many U.N. resolutions and programs, and the expansion of the U.N. budget.

On each count there has been dramatic progress. Yet now Congress is embarked on actions that will replace the surgeon's scalpel with a stick of dynamite. Such deep cuts in so short a time will make it impossible to trim the fat and save the bone. They will force the firing of as many as 2,000 U.N. staff members in peace-keeping as well as in human rights, in disaster relief as well as in combating drug-trafficking.

In many ways it was this Administration's unvarying criticism of the United Nations in the early 1980s that triggered the congressional furies now laying waste to America's credibility and leverage in the world body. It is the Administration that now must call the attack to a halt.

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