TOPICS > Politics

The Clinton Agenda: United Nations and Dues Owed

February 13, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Next, another look at the Clinton agenda as set out in the President’s State of the Union address last week. Tonight, the U.S. and its delinquent dues to the United Nations. Charlayne Hunter-Gault has the story.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For more than a decade the United States has been seriously delinquent in paying its 25 percent share of dues to the United Nations. It currently owes more than $1 billion. While most of the world body’s 185 member states are current, Congress has held up U.S. dues, charging waste and inefficiency. Last week in his State of the Union address, President Clinton announced the change in the policy that dates back to 1985.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: We must also renew our commitment to America’s diplomacy and pay our debts and dues to international financial institutions like the World Bank and to a reforming United Nations. If American is to continue to lead the world, we here who lead America simply must find the will to pay our way.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The Clinton plan would pay back the arrears contingent upon the U.N. undertaking major reforms, but some Republican congressmen resent spending any money on the world body. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms of North Carolina used the confirmation hearing for Madeleine Albright to be Secretary of State to make that point once again.

SEN. JESSE HELMS, Chairman, Foreign Relations Committee: (January 8) As a new century approaches, all of us working together must find ways to protect U.S. interest overseas in a more efficient manner by discarding outdated and failed programs and agencies having little relevance in today’s world. We must demand and achieve serious and lasting reform at the United Nations. Before recommending one penny of American taxpayers’ money to foreign assistance programs or to multilateral development banks or to bureaucratic demands at home I think you and we together should ask ourselves whether the expenditure or expenditures are truly in America’s interest.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The Clinton administration obviously disagrees but has been a leader in the calls for reform, including engineering the ouster of the last secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was accused of dragging his feet on reform.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, U.N. Ambassador: (Nov. 19, 1996) We have said all along that we believe that the United Nations needs new leadership for the 21st century, different kinds of secretary generals are needed for different periods, and we believe that the next secretary general is one who has a reform, solid reform program for the U.N. and is a kind of a leader ready for the 21st century.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, with the U.S.’s own candidate running the U.N., Ghana’s Kofi Annan, a long-time U.N. official, President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright have told Congress it’s time to pay up.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, Secretary of State: (Tuesday) We have a new secretary general who has made it clear that he supports reform but that he also believes, as our nation has always believed, that obligations should be met. In these days ahead I want to work with you to find a way to implement the President’s plan. Our continued leadership at the U.N. depends on it. Our principles require it. Our budget allows it, and our interests demand it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Sec. Annan has said he wants to push ahead with reform, but again today used his well-known sense of humor to make the point that it can only happen but so fast.

KOFI ANNAN, U.N. Secretary General: I know that some feel that the reform process has not moved fast enough. And on Monday, after a luncheon with the Security Council I apologized to them for not completing the reform in five weeks, and the Russian ambassador was quick to point out that I had had more time than God did. But I also pointed out to him that he had a great advantage of not–of working alone, without committees and without 185 members. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that we are proceeding with the reform, and I have the occasion to indicate that it is a process and not an event, and also change has to be managed.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Annan went on to say that he would present further proposals to the full United Nations membership at the end of July.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, two views. John Bolton was Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs in the Bush administration. He’s now senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, a non-profit research organization. And Alvin Adams is a career diplomat and former ambassador who now serves as president of the United Nations Association, a private organization that promotes the U.S. role at the U.N.. Thank you both for joining us. Starting with you, Mr. Bolton, should the United States pay its U.N. dues now?

JOHN BOLTON, American Enterprise Institute: Absolutely not. I think the most important thing to understand about this current debate is that there really is no financial crisis at the United Nations. What we do face is a crisis of U.N. legitimacy. There are serious questions about the role of governance, the functioning of the United Nations within the United States that are not resolved. The United States has made a number of proposals over the years about reform in the U.N., about its proper role and governance that have not been taken up. And Congress has used basically the only weapon that it has, withholding U.S. contributions. Until these fundamental issues that go to the legitimacy of the U.N. are resolved, however, I think it would be a mistake simply to pay up and hope for the best.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: A mistake to pay up and hope for the best, Mr. Adams?

ALVIN ADAMS, United Nations Association: Absolutely not. I think the time has come for us to pay those dues. I think the record shows the United Nations has been taking some serious reforms. That’s not the end of the story. More needs to be done, but I think the U.N. represents such a value to us not only in terms of how it deals with a crisis and matters in which we have a national vital stake, but also in simple matters, such as exports and the sales of goods and services by American firms and individuals to the United Nations. The time now has come to pay. The time has come to resolve this issue once and for all.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What about Mr. Bolton’s argument that there’s no financial crisis here, but it’s a matter of fundamentals, the U.N. isn’t seen as legitimate because there are things that are wrong that need fixing?

ALVIN ADAMS: I’d say that there’s a crisis of confidence not only in the United Nations but in governance generally that is reflective of alienation on the part of an awful lot of people watching this television program. We’re talking about Washington. We’re talking about New York, but specifically about the United Nations. It has taken a number of things that are of a reform nature. They appointed an inspector general to deal with waste, fraud, and mismanagement. There is a new UnderSecretary for Management, an American, a former CEO of a major accounting firm here. The budget has been straight-lined for two years, and not a penny more now than there was two years ago is spent, and every penny that is spent we approve because now budgets are approved by consensus. And all of those matters I think suggest the U.N. is moving in the right direction for reform, but obviously, more needs to be done.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, Mr. Adams is saying that enough has been done to release the–to pay the debt. Why isn’t that enough to pay some of the debt?

JOHN BOLTON: Virtually nothing has been done that’s important. The U.N.’s budget process from the U.S. point of view has essentially broken down. The idea that 120 members, 2/3 of the general assembly, can essentially do what they want I think is just not acceptable to majorities of members of Congress. Let me give you one very recent example. The United States was recently excluded for the first time in U.N. history from the 16-member budget committee that makes key decisions about the U.N. budget. I believe that the decision of the general assembly to exclude the United States from that budget committee was petulant and short-sighted, and it materially impedes the ability of the United States to make its views on the budget known. That may not be well understood among the general public, but I can assure you it’s extremely well understood by the authorizers and appropriators on Capitol Hill. And it will have an impact.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That wasn’t done because the U.S. hadn’t paid its dues?

JOHN BOLTON: I think it was done because of an inadequate diplomatic effort. First time in the history of the U.N. the United States has not been on that key budget committee. And I would say that if–if there are those countries that dislike the use of the financial weapon, I’m sorry about that. I wish they took our views more seriously.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How serious is that, the incident he just cited, the U.S. being put–

ALVIN ADAMS: I think ti’s serious. I think it’s a serious wake-up call, just the reverse to what John has been saying, a wake-up call for us to take more seriously the United Nations. That is an important committee. It is unprecedented that we’re not serving on it. There are factors other than simple resentment at the United States. I think we’re involved in that situation, but I do think it reflects the depth of alienation and concern on the part of a number of other members at the strategy and the tactics we have brought to the table when dealing with a budget issue. I think the time has come maybe to change those tactics. I understand as a practical matter that the issue is seen by many in Washington as a political one and not as I would see it as a matter of law, of the rule of law, of the obligations that we have accepted by advice and consent of the United States Senate by 2/3. That said, I think–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Let me–just on that point, let me just ask you, is that not the case, that this is a political fight and not–that it’s about more than just the U.S. paying up its dues?

JOHN BOLTON: I think that’s absolutely correct. I think there are more important philosophical issues here. I do not think that the charter in this sense binds the United States to pay whatever the general assembly decides. If the general assembly decided that instead of the U.S. share being 25 percent it should be 99 percent, would anyone argue that we have a legal obligation to pay? I think clearly not. This is a political fight over the future of the United Nations, and I think that that’s something that needs to be resolved.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, let me just ask you this then. You heard all the reforms that Mr. Adams cited as being good enough to, to get the money released to pay the dues. What do you think needs to be done to–what would satisfy you as a condition to get the dues paid?

JOHN BOLTON: First, let me say I think that the reforms that have been undertaken in the past four or five years have been pitifully inadequate. I don’t think the inspector general’s office has proven itself strong. I don’t think the staff cuts have been substantial enough. I think there are many, many more things that could be done.


JOHN BOLTON: But I would stress that this is not simply a bean counting exercise. This has to do not only with what the secretary general may propose in his reform plan but what the other member governments want to do too. And I think it needs to be understood that it’s not simply a problem with the secretariat. It’s a problem with many other member governments that have tried to count on the U.S. paying 25 percent of the total cost to the U.N. and 31 percent for peacekeeping as a kind of entitlement to the organization. That’s not going to fly anymore.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Adams, you disagree?

ALVIN ADAMS: Yeah. I disagree. I think my point is that while the U.N. has made enough changes for us to have confidence sufficient to pay our dues now, our morally and legally binding obligations, more needs to be done, no doubt about it. There is, for example, a whole category of countries, of middle income countries, the Asian tigers, the Latin pumas, countries in the Persian Gulf that very credibly could be asked to pay more than they do. And, therefore, there is room, I believe, for an adjustment in our rates of assessment, and this is the year the United Nations is going to go about doing that.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Bolton, Kofi Annan said today–and we just heard him–that United Nations reforms could only go so fast; that–you know–and the United States proposal is to release, I believe, $100 million now and contingent upon–in ’88, that is–and contingent upon the reforms release another sum in the following year. What’s wrong with that?

JOHN BOLTON: I don’t think that proposal is going to fly in Congress. I think we learned at the Bush administration that when you use the financial weapon to achieve results, as we did, for example, in the case of keeping the PLO out of the U.N. system as a member state, that the leverage occurs by withholding the money. If the Congress simply appropriates the money and hopes for reform, I’m afraid it’s going to be sorely disappointed. And I think they understand that, and that’s why they’re not going to do it.


ALVIN ADAMS: Well, I don’t think it’s a question of just hoping for reform. I think we have to be active in our diplomacy, no doubt, but I do think the world has changed, and it’s often said you fight today’s wars using the tactics and strategies that you thought were successful the last time around. I think there’s a new mood at the United Nations. I think that mood reflects new moods in a lot of governments around the world, how they see themselves, and their service to the public about transparency, about economy, about accountability. I think some of that attitude is being reflected in the views of a number of members. Kofi Annan I think will tell you, as he has told me directly, that there is a consensus in the United Nations for reform. I’m not saying that we take everybody’s word at absolute face value, but I think there’s enough of a record out there and enough commitment out there for us to move with confidence. And by the time we make those appropriations, there will have been enough changes and enough proposed changes, credibly proposed, that we can move.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Bolton, what about Madeleine Albright’s point that if the United States is going to continue to lead the world, then it’s got to pay its dues, it’s got to set an example? Because so far this year only 31 of 185 members have paid their dues. And this example is what is being attributed to the United States’ recalcitrance.

JOHN BOLTON: The United States is withholding its assessments. This isn’t dues to a country club. It’s withholding its assessments because of congressional judgments that important philosophical matters are at stake. That’s the way this is played out. It’s a political question. There’s a dispute between the executive and the legislative branches, and it has not yet come to agreement. I think Congress is open to suggestions about how to resolve this issue, but nobody should have any misapprehension about the fundamental crisis of legitimacy that has to be resolved. This cannot be papered over in a one- or two-year appropriations deal. Basic issues remain to be resolved.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. So where do we start, in your view?

JOHN BOLTON: I think that the Congress is waiting for the secretary-general’s plan. I think they’re fully prepared to give him as much time as he needs within reason to come up with it. I think they want to take a look at it.


JOHN BOLTON: I think two or three months is perfectly appropriate. It fits with the appropriations cycle, but I think there are a lot of other issues Congress is considering: reorganization of the Foreign Affairs agencies of the United States. The administration is very anxious to push ratification of the chemical weapons convention. That’s somewhat dicey in the Senate. I think there are a lot of issues out there. It’s going to take a while to decide.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Adams, what’s your assessment of how soon it’s going to be before this money can get released?

ALVIN ADAMS: Well, I’d hope we would make the appropriation, the basic legislative decision to clear our arrearages however you count them with a formula that’s mutually agreed with the United Nations this year; meaning that we would make an appropriation to pay some this year, and some next year. But I would hope that at the end of the day we end up with a situation where we’re able to sustain our legal obligations to the United Nations on a durable basis and end this dispute once and for all. And it’s not just a political dispute between the executive branch and Congress. It is a treaty, and it is a legal obligation that reflects our standing in the world as one that supports the rule of law.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, we have to leave it there, gentlemen. Thank you for joining us.