In recent years, the US has fallen far behind in its dues payments to the United Nations. Congress is now rectifying the shortfall by appropriating some money to pay part of the US debt to the UN. This is a welcome development. The UN advances American interests in a variety of ways, and deserves strong US support. At the same time, the UN must make fundamental reforms in order to become a more effective institution. Weak US support of the UN is costing it its influence within the organization. Because of its debt, the US lost its seat on the main UN budget committee, and was in danger of losing its vote in the General Assembly. American intransigence provokes strong resentment of the US from many other nations, diminishing their willingness to follow the US lead.
Yet even as the US has shirked its commitment to the UN, it asks the international body to attend to a lengthening list of global problems. The UN remains an essential institution. It manages many dangerous conflicts, and keeps others from erupting. It eradicates disease, fights hunger and famine, cares for refugees, combats illiteracy, and promotes human rights.
Issues like the environment, drug trade, and terrorism can be dealt with only on a global basis, and the UN's role has been important. The UN's broad objectives - to promote peace and stability, support sustainable development, and speak up for human rights - support US national interests. The UN often provides international backing and legitimacy for US policy goals.
The UN also allows for greater burden sharing among nations, and lower costs for the US than would be incurred if it dealt with problems alone. America may not like every UN decision, but overall, the UN helps it more than it hurts it. If we did not have a UN, we would desperately need to create one.
But I also agree with some critics of the UN that continuing reform is needed. The slow-moving UN must adapt to a fast-moving world. So I applaud the reforms that Secretary General Kofi Annan has begun, and encourage the UN to move forward with additional reform.
The UN bureaucracy should be trimmed further, more programs should be consolidated or eliminated, and rigorous oversight of UN operations should be institutionalized.
The UN should do more to maintain a highly professional staff, and should make all of its activities and budget processes transparent. The UN should hold fewer global conferences in order to save money, and should make national assessment rates for UN dues more equitable.
The US can help strengthen the UN if it adopts a more constructive approach. The first step is for it to pay its full UN debt. The money the US saves by reneging on its obligations is greatly outweighed by the influence it has lost. To turn the tide, the president must take the lead in promoting public understanding of the UN's importance, and developing with Congress a better process to deal with the organization.
The US and the UN need each other. The US needs a strong UN to pursue many of its important interests around the world. The UN needs strong US support to remain financially viable and effective. The US should pay its full debt to the UN and strengthen Ambassador Richard Holbrooke's hand in working to make the UN more capable of accomplishing its formidable tasks.
*Lee H. Hamilton, a former congressman from Indiana, is director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society