In the furor over the effort by the "State of Palestine" to gain membership in the World Health Organization, the United States risks being outmaneuvered again. Fearful that a majority of member nations would vote to seat the Palestinians, the United States has upped the ante with threats of cutting off all funding to this well-regarded U.N. agency.
On the face of it, Yasser Arafat's claim to a seat seems preposterous. Membership in WHO and the other major U.N. agencies is limited to states, and no matter how much Palestinians may feel a national identity in their hearts, on the ground they have not succeeded in establishing a state. The United States is right in formally opposing the PLO application: U.N. specialized agencies are not set up to decide political questions of state legitimacy. The determination on whether the Palestinians yet have a state under international law belongs in the International Court of Justice, not the World Health Assembly.
But has our government no other option than to threaten the financial ruin of a universally respected agency that serves our own well-being, as well as the rest of the world's? Is it really in our interest to be chased out of one U.N. agency after another by this PLO mite? Does this not suggest an underlying poverty of American vision and leadership in the world?
Clearly, going it alone is no solution. The problems affecting us--drugs and disease as much as war and weaponry--require coordinated international action for their solution. There has been remarkable growth in the American public's support for international law and institutions. In a survey conducted by the Roper Organization and released last week by the United Nations Assn., Americans overwhelmingly urge that the United States and other countries give the United Nations more money to tackle global problems, such as the environment, food production, disaster relief, population control, human rights and regional conflict. Far from supporting a funding cut for the World Health Organization, the poll respondents favored (53% to 8%) more funding for curbing disease and improving health care around the world. By a surprising 58% to 15%, they said that the United States should accept World Court decisions even if we disagree with them. And by 60% to 14%, Americans said that the United States should always pay its dues to the United Nations rather than use withholdings as leverage to compel changes that we favor.
Apparently, Presidents Reagan and Bush had rightly gauged the direction of public opinion when they pledged that the United States will pay its assessed dues and its arrearages to the United Nations. But now, in the first real test of this new-found commitment, we have taken a giant step backward.
This is the larger dilemma facing U.S. policy-makers: How can we exercise effective leverage in international organizations without resorting to illegal and increasingly unpopular tactics like withholding funds?
First, we need to regain a position of leadership and respect in international organizations, through constructive initiatives, the seeking of consensus and the advocacy of positive American values. A policy that is all sticks and no carrots provides neither influence nor credibility. And effective leadership requires building coalitions, not standing tall in splendid isolation.
We have to pick the right targets: in this case, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the WHO members that support Palestinian membership. The health organization is the victim here, not the culprit. It would make more sense to threaten to suspend the U.S. bilateral dialogue with the PLO. Or we could threaten to cut funding to the U.N. humanitarian agency that provides assistance to the Palestinian people--on the theory that the self-proclaimed state should take care of its own--than to cripple WHO.
If we feel we must withhold funds from the United Nations, we could cut our voluntary contributions rather than withhold the legally assessed dues. This distinction, too often ignored in policy-making, is important: The first course is legal, the second is not.
Finally, we should treat disputes in multilateral bodies as important factors in our bilateral dealings with other countries. Member governments, not WHO physicians or UNESCO teachers, are responsible for decisions about membership and other controversial matters. We have a host of bilateral relationships in areas such as aid and trade, for example, with countries supporting the PLO. If we really attached importance to the Palestinian membership question, then we would take a hard look at these relationships, not just WHO funding.
After all, U.S. participation in U.N. organizations is not a favor we bestow on the rest of the world, It is in Americans' own interests. The American people recognize this, as the Roper poll demonstrates. More than ever, they understand the vital importance of strengthening, not undermining, international organizations when faced with the growing need for global cooperation.