In the 1970s, during dark hours at the United Nations, a small group of Western allies could be counted on to defend the United States against Third World and Communist ambassadors who dominated the debate. Now, those very allies are leading the anti-American attacks.
The mood is sour and angry. Many of the United Nations' 185 members feel cheated by Washington's reluctance to pay much of its dues even as it demands sweeping reforms of the world organization's bureaucracy. They look on the lack of money as a lack of commitment and support.
"We are getting very unhappy and concerned," said Ambassador Francesco Paolo Fulci of Italy, discussing the United States' billion-dollar shortfall in payments. "America is the ideal. It must set the example."
The U.S. calls for streamlining the world body annoy Fulci, whose country is one of the 15 members of the Security Council.
"If you want to apply pressure," he said, "you must do it gently. Their pressure can be suffocating. . . . They are going too far. They are killing the U.N."
The resentment against the United States represents a dramatic shift.
Since the Persian Gulf War, the debate at the United Nations has been largely tranquil, with the United States, along with its industrialized allies, managing to mold many U.N. policies and missions. In fact, many ambassadors have often acknowledged that the world body works best when the United States takes the lead.
So far, no major issue has arisen to test whether the United States will be frustrated if it tries to exert its leadership again. But the dues shortfall and Washington's efforts to streamline the United Nations--in an apparent bid to quiet U.S. critics intent on weakening or even quitting the 50-year-old organization--are straining long-held loyalties.
Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her aides contend that the administration cannot pay its bills because its hands are tied by Congress, which has voted to cut funding to the world body.
This argument, however, has made little impact.
"There is bad blood," one European ambassador said. "Many people in the U.N. Secretariat and many diplomats believe that the talk about Congress is a smoke screen. If the administration was interested in defending the U.N., it would stand up to Congress."
An ambassador from one of Washington's traditional allies said: "There are only about five ambassadors who understand the troubles with Congress. I'm one of those who does. But I don't care anymore."
"To us, it's one country," a Central European ambassador said. "We don't care about Republicans, Democrats, Congress, the White House. Madeleine Albright speaks for one country."
At the end of 1995, the United Nations was owed $2.3 billion by its members. The United States owed $1.2 billion, more than half of the total debt.
Warning that the world body was on "the edge of insolvency" with "time . . . running out," Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told a General Assembly committee last month that, as long as the United Nations is financially hamstrung, "all . . . efforts to cut back, reform or restructure cannot possibly succeed, and the fate of the organization itself is in danger."
One of the bluntest criticisms came from Ambassador Robert Fowler of Canada, who spoke in January before a closed session of a General Assembly committee studying reform.
Fowler maintained that it is pointless to discuss reform when the United Nations is near bankruptcy.
"The overarching financial crisis faced by this organization threatens to render meaningless our discussions here," Fowler said. "We collectively run the real risk of appearing to quibble over . . . secondary issues of micro-management . . . when our organization . . . [is] in imminent danger of politically inspired financial collapse."
The Canadian diplomat, without mentioning the United States, said that "the crisis is . . . unworthy of its perpetrators."
Fowler warned that the peacekeeping office at U.N. headquarters in New York faces cuts in vitally needed personnel not because of any reform program but because of the shortfall in funds, calling it "a prime example of the reform-by-starvation approach."
U.S. diplomats say the administration is trying to work out "a grand bargain" with congressional leaders under which Congress would release more funds for the United Nations, the United Nations would implement more reforms, and the administration would consult more often with Congress about impending U.N. peacekeeping missions.
Many ambassadors believe that no amount of reform will satisfy critics in Congress like Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has said he opposes U.S. tax dollars going "down foreign rat holes."
Canada's Fowler came close to ridiculing the U.S. insistence that the United Nations cut its staff and costs.
"Do the dissenters really expect the U.N. to be as efficient as Microsoft or General Electric?" he asked. "Is it not reasonable to expect that a universal forum representing every language and culture in the world will necessarily be somewhat cumbersome and deliberative in its approach?
"Surely . . ." he went on, "we ought not to put at risk the eloquent vision of a better world laid down in the [U.N.] Charter 50 years ago because some bureaucrat is not doing a full day's work or the cost of paper clips or interpretation is too high."
Under the U.N. Charter, it is possible to punish members for persistent nonpayment of dues by depriving them of a vote. But insiders say that is unlikely.
The United States has been a chronic late payer of its bills to the United Nations, accumulating a large debt.
In the past, the problem was eased because the total amount of money that the United States and other debtors contributed in partial payment of arrears and partial payment of current assessments usually gave the world body enough funds to operate for a year.
But that did not happen in 1995. The United States paid only a quarter of what it owed for peacekeeping and a third of what it owed for the regular budget.
For 1996, Congress refused to pay anything owed for past years and voted a cut of nearly 50% in current peacekeeping assessments and a cut of 25% in the assessments for the regular budget. Although President Clinton vetoed the appropriations bill covering 1996, he and Republican leaders agreed to adhere to the cuts while Congress puts together a new bill.
As a way out of the financial crisis, Boutros-Ghali recently suggested that the United Nations be authorized to gain income by levying a tax, perhaps on all airline tickets. This infuriated Helms and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who looked on the idea as a way for the secretary-general to usurp power. The proposal also drew sharp criticism from the State Department.