The US has had a longstanding love-hate relationship with the UN ever since 1952 when the world body began operations in New York city on an 18-acre piece of land which housed an abattoir where cattle was being trucked daily for slaughter.
The late Republican senator Jesse Helms, a full-time chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a part-time UN basher, once said “providing funds to the UN was like pouring money into a rat hole.”
Former New York city mayor, Ed Koch used a five-letter word to describe the UN: a “sewer”. And one of his successors, Rudolph Giuliani, said he will not miss the UN if it decides to pack up and leave New York.
When the 193-member UN General Assembly voted some of the world’s “repressive regimes” as members of the Human Rights Commission (now the Human Rights Council), congressman Dana Rohrabacher (Republican of California) hollered: “The inmates have taken over the asylum. And I don’t plan to give the lunatics any more American tax dollars to play with.”
And now, US president-elect Donald Trump, peeved over a Security Council resolution last week chastising Israel over its continued settlements in the occupied territories, has signalled an implicit warning he will review his relationship with the UN.
Having been rebuffed by outgoing President Barack Obama who refused to accede to Trump’s appeal to veto the resolution, the incoming president, who will take office on January 20, challenged the effectiveness of the world body and dismissed it as “a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”
Immediately after the resolution was adopted by a vote of 14–nil, with the US abstaining, he held out a warning: “As to the UN, things will be different after January 20.”
Currently, the US is the biggest single contributor accounting for 22% of the UN’s regular biennium budget, followed by Japan (9.7%), China (7.9%), Germany (6.7%) and France (4.8%) – all based on a country’s ‘capacity to pay’.
The UN’s 2016-2017 regular biennium budget amounts to about $5.4 billion, excluding its peacekeeping budget and voluntary contributions to UN Funds and Programmes.
Following the Security Council vote on Friday, senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) said he plans to form a bipartisan coalition to either suspend or reduce US funding for the UN.
And senator Tom Cotton (Republican-Arkansas) warned that the UN and “nations supporting the resolution (against Israel) have now imperiled all forms of US assistance.”
While the US withheld its veto and abstained on the vote, the other four veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, namely, the UK, France, China and Russia, voted for the resolution, along with the 10 non-permanent members, namely, Angola, Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine, Uruguay and Venezuela.
A defiant Israel was livid, and in retaliation, threatened to build another 5,600 settlements in occupied Jerusalem thereby isolating itself further from the international community.
Jim Paul, former executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, and who closely monitored the politics of the world body for over 19 years, told IPS the US threat of withholding its dues to the UN has been around for a long time – since the 1980s when it was first proposed by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
“This threat is effective only if it is believed and acted on by frightened UN officials or member states, who rush to adopt the latest requirements by the bully-state,” he noted.
“It actually might be healthy if the US dues were reduced and the UN were not so dependent on US financing,” he added.
Paul pointed out that Swedish prime minister, the late Olaf Palme once suggested that the UN’s dues structure should be changed so that no single country would pay more than 10% of the total budget(s).
“The cost to other states would not be very burdensome and the change might produce some real policy benefits,” said Paul, a well-known speaker and writer on the UN and global policy issues.
Over the years, successive US administrations have manipulated the UN to its own advantage as an extension of US foreign policy.
Paul pointed out that some delegates from governments who are out-of-favour in Washington are constrained to live within a specified distance from the city and some cannot travel beyond that distance in the US without special permission.
Every once in a while, he said, a head of state or other high official will be denied entry and thus an opportunity to speak at the UN.
“How important is this harassment and what does it tell us?”, he asked. It is short of horrendous and well past acceptable.
“We can conclude that Washington likes to remind the other states – and the UN as an institution – that it can do what it pleases and impose its will whether others like it or not.”
In Washington, they like to call this behaviour “leadership” but “bully” might be the most appropriate term, said Paul, who frequently served as chair or vice chair of the NGO Working Group on the Security Council.
Despite the 1947 Headquarters Agreement between the US and the UN, which calls on Washington to facilitate the functioning of the UN, the US has denied visas to several heads of governments planning to visit the UN to address the general assembly or accredited as diplomats.
Palitha Kohona, a former chief of the UN treaty section, told IPS the US was a key player in the creation of the UN and the organisation has served US interests well over the years.
“One might even say that the US has manipulated the UN to serve its global interests,” he argued.
Against this background, to return to the confrontational attitudes of the early 1990s, when the US withheld its dues, would be self-defeating, said Kohona, a former permanent representative of Sri Lanka to the UN.
He said the US is no longer the only country with overwhelming financial clout.
“To threaten the UN with financial sanctions would only result in the further waning of US influence in the UN and globally. All countries, especially countries like the US, must continue to work together to make the world a better place,” he declared.
Although complaints against the UN have been never ending – including unpaid parking tickets and tax-free and duty-free privileges for high-ranking UN-based diplomats – US politicians have rarely admitted the political and economic advantages of the presence of the UN on US soil.
And a new report released recently by the office of the New York city mayor points out that the UN generates $3.69 billion in total economic output to New York city’s economy.
The 15,890 individuals directly employed by the UN community took home household earnings of approximately $1.64 billion. These household earnings and the operating expenses of the UN community helped create and sustain 7,940 jobs for New Yorkers.
Titled ‘The United Nations Impact Report 2016’, it was released by the commissioner of the mayor’s office for international affairs Penny Abeywardena.
In 1946, New York City competed with cities from London to San Francisco to host the official headquarters of the UN.
Unlike past mayors, the current mayor of New York city, Bill de Blasio has been a strong supporter of the UN. “New York City is not only an economic and cultural capital, but a diplomatic one. We are proud to be the host city to the United Nations headquarters and the largest diplomatic community in the world,” he said following the release of the new report.
“The impact of the United Nations stretches far beyond New York City and this study reflects the city’s enduring commitment to supporting this critical institution,” he added
Still the political benefits of the UN to the US have not been as clearly highlighted.
Kohona told IPS the US, with its vast economic and political influence, has without reluctance, manipulated the UN to justify its actions, including military interventions.
One recalls (former US secretary of state) Colin Powell’s efforts, with videos and photographs, to convince the security council of the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq or the intense phone calls to diplomats whose countries were members of the Human Rights Council when a US sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka was being taken up for vote at the Council.
He said evidence is also now emerging of the blatant US manipulation of the global media, including with manufactured news, with the objective of influencing diplomatic outcomes.
The current secretary-general, whose interventions, have generally been on the side of the US, also tends to be influenced by the US and the New York media.
His home being in New York is a factor in this outcome. Perhaps the secretary-general should rotate his residence around the capitals of the P-5, including in the UK, France, China and Russia.