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Deadbeat Diplomacy

The United States Congress has done it again. The recent compromise between the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the administration to pay less on our United Nations debt, with conditions and over three years instead of two, has enormous implications for US credibility and legitimacy as a leader of the international community.

It was bad enough that the Clinton administration had only enough political gumption to put forward a two-year plan to pay off our UN debt, instead of paying it off in one lump sum. But worse still is the cavalier attitude of Congress toward both the UN and the other 184 member states. By giving in to Sen. Jesse Helms's fantasies of running the UN and US foreign policy from Capitol Hill, the administration only deepens the suspicions of America's allies and friends that the future "new world order" will be of, by, and for the US alone.

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After ousting Boutros Boutros-Ghali from the top UN post and implying that after doing so the US would finally make good on its grossly overdue bills, the US Congress has succeeded in forcing the administration to renege on its "word." Not only is the amount being offered - $819 million over three years - well below the UN's figure of $1.3 billion, but the conditions for making payment are simply illegal.

Perhaps UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was naive to believe he could count on the Clinton administration to move this Congress to settle the US debt to the UN. Mr. Annan has made deep cuts in the UN's budget and streamlined the bureaucracy, going as far as he can, and then some, to meet US demands for reform. His reward? More delays in getting payment of US arrears and more unreasonable demands from the organization's biggest deadbeat.

Apparently, Mr. Helms believes his Senate committee has the same power over the UN as it does over the administration. But he is wrong. As Mr. Annan pointed out, "One can discuss these things in Congress - that does not mean that it is going to become law in the United Nations. It does not necessarily mean that the member states are going to accept it.... It is going to be a real challenge for United States diplomacy."

In fact, it will be nothing less than a diplomatic miracle if Mr. Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and UN Ambassador Bill Richardson can convince the other 184 countries in the UN that this deal is the best the US can do. Even if they succeed, it will take years to recover from the damage done to American diplomacy.

It is hard to imagine why the administration has agreed to such a poor compromise. They must see the dangerous precedent this legislation will set, and the problems it will create for the president and the State Department when conducting US foreign policy. What faith will other countries put in an administration that cannot deliver on legally binding treaty obligations? Friends and foes alike will never again believe the word of Clinton or of any US diplomat, as long as Helms and company can come later and derail agreements. The North Carolinian and others in Congress seem hellbent to destroy both the UN and US diplomacy.

This "deal" for the UN is the lowest blow the US has ever thrown at the world body. Even if the UN membership lets the US get away with it, the administration and the Congress should not believe that America's problems at the UN will disappear by enacting this so-called UN reform package. This is "deadbeat diplomacy" and it will haunt US-UN relations well into the next century.

* James P. Muldoon Jr. is a UN expert and foreign policy analyst living in Shanghai, where he is working on a book about multilateral diplomacy and the post-cold war United Nations.

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