Why the UN Matters to US Foreign Policy

Published: Wed 8 Dec 2004 11:03 AM
Why the United Nations Matters to U.S. Foreign Policy
Kim R. Holmes, Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs
Remarks before the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs
World Trade Center, Baltimore, Maryland
December 6, 2004
Thank you, Dr. Burd [president of the Council]. It's a pleasure to be here at the World Trade Center to talk about the role of the United Nations in U.S. foreign policy.
I appreciate this opportunity to address the board and members of the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs. Your interest in foreign policy is understandable. This great city, indeed the State of Maryland, has played an important role in historic events affecting U.S. foreign policy.
I know, because I am a Marylander myself whose career has largely focused on international relations and trade. I also know because I am a European historian by education. I've enjoyed visiting Baltimore to explore Maryland's rich historical ties to Europe.
Take Fort McHenry, for example. Its singular importance unfolded in the early 1800s, when Britain and France were at war. American ships on these waters were often captured by the British, who confiscated their goods and forced their crews to fight for the Royal Navy.
Americans did not consider that a sign of proper bilateral relations, of course. They declared war on Britain in 1812 to protect "free trade and sailor's rights." "Privateers" in Clipper ships took to the waters and sank many of their ships.
Britain responded in 1814 with a 25-hour assault by sea on Fort McHenry. Local militiamen and U.S. Army soldiers fought back, literally under that now-famous "Star-Spangled Banner." They fought to defend their homeland, preserve their livelihoods, and protect our God-given rights. They won that battle. And the rest is history, as they say.
It's a great American story. Freedom, defending the homeland, free trade, foreign relations, war--these are issues we care about just as deeply today as Americans did back then. The difference is that, today, Britain fights with us in war, not against us. The U.K. is one of our strongest allies, particularly in Iraq.
There is one more thing that is different today. We have many international organizations in which to advance our foreign policy. And one of those is the United Nations, which is so prominent in the news today.
The United Nations: An Assessment
The United Nations will soon turn 60. It is large, complex, and growing more so every day. Its budget surpasses $3 billion. Much of the work its specialized agencies do is work we want done.
The United States remains the UN's largest contributor. This would not be the case if we thought the UN insignificant to U.S. foreign policy. We pay 22% of its regular budget, and about 27% of its peacekeeping costs. On top of that, we give generously to support the work of UN agencies providing humanitarian relief, electoral assistance, food aid, and more.
Despite all this, we also know the UN has significant problems. The news is peppered with some of them. The just-released UN Secretary-General's High-Level Panel report speaks to others as well.
The point is, many people are now questioning the UN's effectiveness. They question its purpose. They question its capabilities and management. They question its viability in meeting today's threats.
However, I can assure you, dealing as I do with the UN every day, that President Bush believes the UN is still a vital institution. It is an important tool of U.S. foreign policy.
If you take Maryland as an example, you'll understand why. Commerce by sea and by air is very important to Maryland's economy. And it is far safer today because of our work in UN agencies to strengthen international maritime and aviation security standards.
Maryland's medical, biotech, and research institutions share their expertise with developing countries that don't have the resources to fight their own health and economic challenges. They work in collaboration with agencies like the World Health Organization and UNESCO, and others, for example. And, the UN works with the U.S. and groups like Catholic Relief Services and Lutheran Immigration and Relief Services--both headquartered here in Baltimore--to help needy people around the world.
The UN's reach is wide because of our commitment to it. If there were just three points I could leave you with tonight, they would be these:
First, we invest a great deal in the UN to make it an effective multilateral instrument. We would not do that if we thought it was going the way of the League of Nations. I would go so far as to say that, if we did not have international mechanisms like the UN to help us implement global responses to terrorism, nuclear proliferation, failed states, HIV/AIDS, or famine, we would spearhead efforts to create them.
Second--and those of you from major corporations will understand this point--the UN is like every organization that faces new challenges and must figure out how to adapt to them.
Is it a problem with mission, leadership, structure, resources, or product? What are its best practices, its most cumbersome? Is it sticking to its core purpose, or taking on too much? Has it allowed its work to become too politicized? Does it need to innovate, partner, expand, or shed projects to be more effective? Does it need more accountability to its investors, or more transparency, oversight, due diligence? Does its leadership have the will to act?
These are all good questions the UN's leadership, and every member state, would do well to ask. We hope the High-Level Panel asked these questions when formulating its proposals.
We certainly are asking these questions. We have long sought to use common-sense principles like these to help the UN adopt a more responsible, and responsive, management style. We've had some success; but there is more to do. If the UN is to become an effective force in securing international peace, then more U.S. leadership and participation will be required, not less.
My third point is that no one should look at the UN as a counterweight to the United States, its most significant member. The United Nations cannot be effective without the leadership of the United States. Attempts to use the UN to constrain, rather than work with, the United States can only fail. Such attempts would tend to encourage countries to look to other organizations and international mechanisms, which could in the end marginalize the UN.
The United Nations gains its legitimacy from its members. It is not an end in and of itself. It is a means to an end. It does not hover above the host of nations, like some secular "church" embodying the international moral equivalence of divine principle (which is sometimes called "international legitimacy"). Rather, it is a reflection of these nations--at best, a place where they can come together to solve problems and reach consensus on important issues of principle.
The United Nations should not be seen as the sole source of international legitimacy. We still live in an international system that looks ultimately to nations--system of nation states where, to be sure, universal principles (such as democracy and human rights) and national sovereignty exist in tension in some places (as they do in Sudan, North Korea, and Cuba). But they also exist in harmony in other places (as in the United States, most of Europe, and elsewhere).
Our goal should be to transform the UN to the point where more nations (indeed hopefully all nations) are in the latter category--where sovereign governments actually protect human rights and democracy, rather than threaten them. A United Nations of democracies would eliminate the contradiction between sovereignty and universal principles that we now see in the UN--a contradiction that bedevils the institution when Libya is elected to chair the Human Rights Commission, or Syria, a supporter of terrorism, is elected to the Security Council.
To the extent that the reputation of the UN suffers today, it does so largely because so many of its members states are not democracies; they do not believe in and practice the UN's universal principles of human rights. And because of their large numbers, they have a great deal of influence in its affairs. To be sure, not all of the UN's problems can be laid at this doorstep (indeed, sadly, even some democratic nations do not always act to support these principles); but many of them can.
The influence of these non-democratic states extends beyond their numbers. Sometimes even democratic states will excuse human rights abuses in developing nations. Sometimes they have lacked the resolve to stand up to threats from non-democratic states. And sometimes they even defend non-democratic states against criticism. This is unfortunate.
They do this, to be sure, in the name of protecting the little guy (in this case often the developing nations). Yet there are too many developing nations that are thriving democracies to turn a blind eye on repression. Surely this trend is not good for the United Nations. And we democracies don't do non-democracies any favors by indulging them.
Democratic nations need to be the conscience of the UN. They should stand up for what they--and what the UN--should believe. They should not be making excuses for its failures. And they should object to any ludicrous inference that the main threats to international peace and security emanate, not from rogue nations and terrorists as they surely do, but rather from our shores, from these United States.
Making the UN More Effective
Because the challenges confronting the United Nations are many, it faces constant scrutiny. Even those who originally called for the High-Level Panel understand its problems need attention.
The Security Council, the Commission on Human Rights, and other UN bodies succeed when their members choose a course of action based on principles like human rights. As I mentioned earlier, that is not always the case. And unless the UN forthrightly addresses allegations about kickbacks in the Oil-For-Food Program and sex scandals among senior staff or UN peacekeepers in the Congo, the UN's stature in the eyes of the world will continue to suffer.
The UN General Assembly also needs rethinking. It spends too much time debating the same resolutions year after year, without making much progress. A good example is the excessive number of resolutions targeting Israel, and blatantly ignoring Palestinian responsibility to stop suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.
What the General Assembly doesn't do can be equally frustrating. That was the case last week with a vote to block consideration of a resolution we sought on Sudan. Of all the chances for the General Assembly to gain stature, it was then. And it failed to act.
Another question is how to improve the Commission on Human Rights. Sudan is one of its members as well. This year, it was nominated by its African group peers for an unprecedented third term, to serve alongside other countries with questionable commitments to human rights such as Cuba and Zimbabwe.
Many people are calling for UN reform. This is especially so in light of the High-Level Panel's report released last week.
I would say the Panel's proposals are ambitious. There are over 100 recommendations in its report. The Panel clearly tried to account for diverse international views about how the UN should respond to today's threats, challenges, and opportunities.
We welcome this effort. Now it's time for member states to study these proposals carefully. Can they ensure more accountability, transparency, and democracy? Can they make the UN more effective overall, but especially in contributing to our collective security?
The United States particularly welcomes proposals on Secretariat reform, peacekeeping and terrorism. We agree, for example, that all states should join the 12 international counterterrorism conventions and protocols. We also think all states should become party to and implement the protocol on trafficking in persons.
There are also positive elements in the way the report treats the use of force. It calls on the Security Council to be more proactive in dealing with new threats, such as terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
And the Panel agrees that a threatened state does not have to wait until it is attacked to act in order to exercise its inherent right of self-defense, as recognized by Article 51 of the UN Charter.
We agree as well that the Charter's provisions on self-defense should not be rewritten, though we do believe that that right must today be understood and applied in the context of the very different threats we face.
The Security Council does play a key role in maintaining international peace and security under the Charter. But too often it has been unable to end conflicts, halt threats of aggression, or prevent proliferation. The right of self-defense thus plays an essential role in maintaining international peace and security.
We have, however, serious concerns about some of the proposals on this issue. Given today's threats, we should not be putting new constraints on self-defense. But that is what would happen if the proposal that only the Security Council could authorize the preventive use of force were adopted.
Even in a case where terrorists have a nuclear weapon, the report says a state should go to the Security Council first for authorization to take preventative military action. Whether the Council could decide soon enough for effective military action is another matter. Such constraints will never be acceptable to the United States.
We are certainly open to reforming the Security Council. Any proposals for change need to be judged by whether they will make it more effective than it is today. The Security Council needs to be able to react in a timely fashion to changing circumstances. Proposals for change, moreover, need to be able to command wide international support, if they are to be viable.
We should ask not only how we could make the Security Council more representative, but also whether expansion would make it more responsive to the threats to international security described in the report. After all, making the UN more responsive to these threats was essentially the main task of the study.
In judging any particular plan for expansion, we should not only ask whether consensus can be reached on any given plan. More importantly we should ask how such a plan would make the Security Council more effective in dealing with such very difficult international problems as Iraq, Iran, Sudan and North Korea.
We believe the UN can indeed play a vital role in solving the world's problems. But it is suffering not so much from inadequate representation or even a lack of resources. No, it suffers from a lack of political will on the part of its members to solve hard problems, such as the humanitarian crisis in Darfur; the threat of nuclear weapons in Iran, and the need to stabilize and democratize Iraq.
It also suffers from what I call a democracy deficit. By that I mean the UN doesn't do enough to promote democratic self-governance. I also mean that democracies have too little influence in the United Nations. Until recently, there was a caucus for every reason under the sun, except promoting democracy.
Yet, democracy, freedom, and human rights are the principles on which the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are based. Effectively ignoring these principles creates an inherent tension that only confuses the UN's work.
That's why we and other democracies--mainly the key nations leading the Community of Democracies--have initiated a democracy caucus. We initiated it at the Commission on Human Rights this spring, where we collaborated on a resolution calling on the UN to consolidate all its democracy-promotion work.
We also support the efforts to develop such a caucus in the General Assembly as well, to ensure its work focuses on democratic values, the rule of law, and economic freedom.
The virtue of setting up a UN Democracy Fund, as the President proposed to the General Assembly in September, would be this: As more and more nations become democratic, the character of the UN itself will become more democratic. There would be fewer regimes to fear and block political and economic freedoms.
Fewer will want the UN to act as a counterweight to the power of the United States or our alliances. And more members will cooperate with us to enable the UN to act when and as it should.
America's Global Partnership
The United States has many global partners. We have our regional alliances like NATO to deal with problems in the Balkans. We work with the African Union on Darfur.
We work a large variety of issues (ranging from the Middle East to development) through the G-8. We work on helping to stabilize Venezuela in the Organization of American States. And, of course, we work on a long list of issues in the United Nations.
All of this is to say that America's global partnership is multifaceted. The UN is an organization among many we work through. But it is a vital and central one. We work with the UN, as I've mentioned, on humanitarian relief; peacekeeping in Africa; HIV/AIDS prevention; bringing democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq; countering terrorism; improving human rights; promoting sound economic and sustainable development; and so much more.
The UN cannot be expected to do everything, of course. Nor should it. The UN would do best to focus on what it does best, and not pretend to represent some nascent global government.
I began this talk by sharing some anecdotes about Maryland's role in history from our early days as a nation, and I'd like to conclude there as well.
Every time I visit Annapolis, I am reminded that the State House served as our country's first peacetime capitol. The Continental Congress met there from November 26, 1783 to August 13, 1784. General George Washington resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army there. And that is where we ratified the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the Revolutionary War.
So began the story of America. I doubt any of the patriots back then could have foreseen that Britain would one day be our stalwart partner in advancing the "forward strategy of freedom" they had started. Truth be told, I doubt the founding fathers themselves would ever have imagined an organization like the United Nations.
But in a world where trade occurs--not at speeds measured in knots, but in speeds measured in nanoseconds, and where oceans no longer protect us from those who wish us harm--we must create and invigorate such global partnerships.
We helped to create the United Nations, and we remain committed to it. We will continue to strive to make that organization as effective as possible to meet the threats of our time.
Released on December 7, 2004

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