Rediscovering the U.N.

President Bush expressed confidence in the United Nations and its secretary general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, as he attended the swearing in of Thomas Pickering, the new U.S. ambassador to the U.N. His words were a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of the world organization to global stability.

The new President has not yet matched his words with deeds to demonstrate a new determination to strengthen the United Nations. Pickering, a career foreign-service officer, appears to be an excellent choice, but Bush has chosen to exclude him from the cabinet status that had been extended to all his predecessors, including Bush himself in 1971. The Bush Administration budget provides most, but not all, of the money to meet U.S. obligations to the U.N., but an arrears of more than $400 million in unpaid U.S. contributions continues to handicap the work of the organization.

Bush said he was “pleased with the changes that have been taking place” at the United Nations, arguing that in both financial controls and in peacekeeping, the organization is “on the track towards significant improvement.” In fact, it is U.S. policy-makers who have changed more than the United Nations. True, there have been administrative and financial changes at the U.N. forced by the withholding of American assessments, but they are not significant in a U.S. federal budget counted in trillions of dollars. What has finally dawned on Washington is that some international problems cannot be resolved without U.N. help. Most recently that list has included the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, the guerrilla war in Angola and efforts to end South Africa’s illegal hold on Namibia.

The President was an effective representative of the United States at the United Nations in large measure because of the realism of U.S. foreign policy at that time. Bush earned the respect of many developing nations because of his willingness to listen. In more recent years, the United States has lost much of its influence because of the confrontational approach adopted by representatives like Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and by thin-skinned congressmen who think every sophomoric criticism of the United States should be punished by a withdrawal of foreign aid. It has not been easy for the United States, which always had its way and never needed its Security Council veto in the early years of the United Nations, to compete in an arena where a majority often is opposed to what the United States wants. And the adjustment has been even more painful when the majority, as on Vietnam, has proven wiser than Washington.


In an era of declining influence for superpowers, it behooves the United States more than ever to strengthen the United Nations. The U.N. is not a perfect instrument for peace. Indeed, its construction from the disparate nations of the world insures a wasteful and inefficient secretariat, but then cumbersome bureaucracies are not unknown in the industrialized, homogenous democracies of the West. Its debates are often pretentious and irrelevant, its security apparatus too often paralyzed by big-power vetoes or small-power timidity. But it mirrors the real world, as strong or as weak as its members make it, a reality unchanged from its founding.

Bush seems to grasp that reality and to understand the utility of the organization. That sort of confidence has served well in the past to bolster the peace. The opportunity for strengthening the United Nations now is enhanced by the new commitment of the Soviet Union to that same objective.