The United Nations has generated more debate on Capitol Hill in recent months than at any time since its birth 52 years ago. Several factors account for this recent strain in relations, including the end of the Cold War and increased scrutiny by a Republican-controlled Congress. However, the excesses and missteps of the United Nations itself have been the greatest contributors to the present crisis in U.S.-U.N. relations.
The United Nations was established in 1945 to maintain global peace and security; achieve international cooperation in solving economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems; and promote human rights. Despite the idealistic nature of such goals, the United States can justify its membership in the world body only if it advances America’s national interests and foreign policy objectives.
The decisions and actions of the great powers of the world have the most impact on global events. During the last 50 years, the United States has acted unilaterally or in concert with its allies to achieve its foreign policy goals—involving the U.N. has been little more than an afterthought.
Despite this fact, there remain benefits to U.S. membership in the U.N. The U.N. provides a forum for the U.S. to communicate with both its friends and foes. As the Gulf War demonstrated, the U.N. can be used to build international coalitions to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives. Membership in the United Nations also helps promote America’s leadership role in international politics. Finally, there are a few specialized U.N. agencies that perform invaluable services for the member states. They include the International Civil Aviation Organization, which helps set standards for international air traffic, and the International Postal Union and International Telecommunications Union, which help coordinate and set standards for intercountry communications. Despite these specific and limited benefits of membership, far too many problems remain. The U.N. system is a massive, overlapping bureaucracy of 70-plus agencies and programs with a bloated staff of 50,000. Hundreds of U.N. agencies, departments, and offices are dedicated to agricultural policies alone! Even Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has called the U.N. bureaucracy “elephantine.” The general administrative budget alone has grown from $20 million in 1945 to $10 billion today. Most of these agencies and programs perform work of little or no value. The large and expensive International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the U.N. Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio did little to solve the problems they were ostensibly addressing. One would be hard-pressed to argue that the United Nations Development Programme has achieved its stated goal of “contrib[uting] to the sustainable expansion of the world economy,” or that the United Nations Industrial Development Organization has done much to further global industrial development. The bottom line is the United Nations spends most of its budget on salaries and expenses, not on achieving its idealistic goals. Why should the United States government continue to spend Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars to fund such wasteful practices?
In addition to its fiscal irresponsibility, the U.N. has attempted to reach far beyond its limits and capabilities, while encroaching on U.S. sovereignty. Under the guidance of former Secretary General Boutros-Ghali, U.N. peacekeeping underwent a dramatic transformation. The traditional peacekeeping operation—lightly armed troops overseeing an existing peace settlement-was replaced by military operations in which heavily armed soldiers attempted to force peace onto unwilling participants. Somalia and Bosnia demonstrated the futility and costliness of such ambitious, nation-building exercises. In Somalia, several American soldiers lost their lives because of limitations placed on U.S. commanders by the U.N. operation.
In ways far less glaring than the tragic Somalia operation, the United Nations continues to encroach on American national sovereignty. As I write these words, a U.N. human rights official is completing an investigation of America’s use of the death penalty. The U.N. investigator, who has traveled throughout the United States collecting data, visiting prisons, and interviewing law enforcement officials, believes that the U.S. has expanded its use of the death penalty beyond the bounds set by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the U.S. signed in 1992. Meanwhile, several U.S. parks and wilderness areas have been added to a U.N. list of unique and valuable natural or cultural sites. On the surface, such international designations may seem harmless. However, they limit public land-use options and negatively affect the value of adjoining private property.
The United Nations has outlived much of its usefulness and overreached its bounds. Unless drastic changes are instituted at the U.N. and the United States revamps its relationship with the international organization, other concerned members of Congress and I will continue to use our constitutional privileges to chasten the wayward world body and defend our national sovereignty.