While President Obama was just beginning to make headway against the often cynical approach to human rights at the United Nations, and had begun to repair US-UN relations and the image of the United States globally, Republicans were warming up for another chance to bully the world. With a shift in power, arrogant and often ignorant resurgent cold warriors and neo-isolationists could make 2011 a risky year for the UN, where the US is still the dominant voice.
The Republican right, now fortified by a dose of Tea Party patriotism, has a list of targets: international agreements that might dare to constrain the US, money spent on some UN development programs, foreign aid generally and soft diplomacy. The enemies are foreigners who criticize American policies and power. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican from Miami who will chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says she’s ready to play “hardball.”
"I plan on using U.S. contributions to international organizations as leverage to press for real reform of those organizations, such as the United Nations,” Ros-Lehtinen, a relentless foe of her native Cuba, among other nations, said in a statement when she was chosen committee chair on December 8. She added that she will “not hesitate to call for withdrawal of U.S. funds to failed entities like the discredited Human Rights Council if improvements are not made.”
She also promised to cut the “fat” from foreign aid. A recent WorldPublicOpinion.org poll from the University of Maryland showed that Americans still wildly overestimate the percentage of the federal budget spent on international assistance. Respondents to the poll said that they thought, on average, that aid accounted for about a quarter of the budget; in reality it is barely 1 percent.
In the Senate, a narrower Democratic majority could make it even more difficult to round up the votes necessary for action on foreign policy steps Republicans oppose.
Threats to the UN, or even American membership in it, are all too familiar in Washington, but no less disturbing, given the recent history of Republican-inspired assaults. Some actions were farcical, others more damaging.
In the 1990s, Congress outlawed the naming of Unesco World Heritage Sites in the US without its approval on the absurd theory that Unesco threatened national sovereignty. In 2001, American contributions to the UN Population Fund were eliminated by a campaign originating in the House that falsely accused the fund of abetting forced abortions in China. At least 200 million women are now thought to be seeking but not finding contraception as world population rises to 7 billion next year—almost all the growth in the poorest countries where maternal deaths rates are high. American contributions were restored by Obama, but another campaign by anti-abortion activists against the Population Fund and progressive, secular nongovernmental agencies supported by USAID cannot be ruled out.
UN officials are often targeted by critics before the facts are in. In 2004, then Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota called in the Wall Street Journal for the resignation of Secretary-General Kofi Annan because of his handling of corruption surrounding the oil-for-food program in Iraq during a period of UN sanctions. The campaign to oust Annan took a physical toll on him, little mitigated when an investigation led by Paul Volcker found that the billions Saddam Hussein reaped from illegal deals were largely bribes from private corporations (some American) or government trading agencies such as the Australian Wheat Board. A former French ambassador to the UN and India’s foreign minister were implicated as recipients of Iraqi financial favors, but not Annan. The US, as a Security Council member with the power to stop the undercover deals, had been turning a blind eye to much of what was going on in order to keep its Iraq sanctions policy in place.
As for the Human Rights Council, a favorite target on Capitol Hill, even the mainstream media has difficulty understanding how it works. The council is a UN body only in the same way the Security Council is—a group of nations making its own rules completely out of the control of the secretary-general or any other UN official. Its rights monitors are independent, pro-bono experts who not infrequently criticize the US or give a pass to nations with far worse records. The Obama team was beginning to demonstrate that the only way to influence this body is to get inside, blow whistles, demand show-your-face votes and reject weasel consensuses. An impatient Congress would argue for the opposite course—just get out, and stay out. That was George W. Bush’s policy.
Certainly doomed next year and beyond will be any action on two generally harmless (to national sovereignty) international conventions on the rights of children (important to those battling global child trafficking and child prostitution) and on the elimination of discrimination against women. Senators, who are responsible for ratifying treaties, are lining up to block the Convention on the Rights of the Child, although the US is virtually alone among UN member nations in refusing to ratify it. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, generally known as CEDAW, had a half-chance of ratification this year until Republicans seized and complicated the agenda of the lame duck Congressional session.
Also likely to be out of the picture for the foreseeable future are a ratification of US membership in the International Criminal Court, which tries the masterminds of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and probably the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which went down to defeat in the Senate in the late 1990s under a similarly anti-international sentiment on the Hill. And what about the climate change deniers? Will they have the power to keep the US from joining global agreements?
Whether the Republican distaste for the UN, which not a few representatives and senators threaten to quit entirely if it balks at being run by Congress, will create problems for another secretary general is another question. Boutros Boutros-Ghali was denied a second term in the era of Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms. In an interview later he said that one of his sins—apart from being foreign—was that he was critical of Israeli incursions in Lebanon. Annan opposed the war in Iraq and was hounded ever after.
The incumbent, Ban Ki-moon, whose relations with Washington are correct and amiable but not especially warm, has spoken out against Israeli tactics in Gaza. He has also recently warned that the departure of US troops from Iraq will make it difficult for the UN to operate there without a large infusion of money. The US and the UN are not always on the same page in Afghanistan, particularly over the effects on civilians of NATO military tactics.
Curtailing the spread of nuclear weapons, stopping terrorism, managing global migrations, reducing trafficking and other cross-border crimes, managing world resources, developing poor societies, stopping pandemic diseases and advancing human rights—nearly a fifth of UN member nations criminalize homosexuality, and women’s rights are widely abused or nonexistent—all require international cooperation and compromise. Rising powers are challenging American and European assumptions of dominance as never before. In this new world, hardball won’t work, and weakening the UN in the name of “reform” can only be counterproductive. Obama and Hillary Clinton say repeatedly that they understand this and assign an important role to the UN. But atmospherics matter. If the administration of Bill Clinton is any guide, Democrats are willing to throw internationalism overboard if it gets in the way of domestic politics.