James Leonard, Acting President,
United Nations Association of the United States of America
Edward Luck, President Emeritus and
Senior Policy Adviser, United Nations Association of the
United States of America
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
EDWARD LUCK, President Emeritus and Senior Policy Adviser, UNA-USA: The United Nations
works when the nations are united. When the nations are not united, especially the big ones and
the powerful ones (those that have the wherewithal), there’s very little that the United Nations
KEITH PORTER, host: The United Nations and its value to the United States on this edition
of Common Ground.
LUCK: The United Nations is still involved in Iraq. There are UN peacekeepers on the
border between Iran and Iraq. There are still UN peacekeepers between Kuwait and Iraq, helping to
guard and protect that border. There still is this UNSCOM operation, a UN special commission that
is every day investigating Iraqi weapons developments from one end of the country to the other to
make sure that Iraqi efforts to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and the
missiles to deliver them to targets around the Middle East, in fact, are being eliminated and
destroyed. It’s really an unprecedented operation.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter. From time to time, Americans
ask serious questions about the usefulness or perhaps burden of belonging to international
organizations like the United Nations. Someone who’s thought a lot about that issue is Ambassador
James Leonard, Acting President of the United Nations Association of the United States.
JAMES LEONARD, Acting President, UNA-USA: I think the heart of the appearance of public
fire is coming from a rather small group of people, what I might call the radical conservatives.
I don’t think it’s coming from the American public at large. Unfortunately, they’re being
bombarded with a very effective bunch of propaganda about the United Nations, much of which is
simply not true. Things which exaggerate the amount of money the United States spends on things
which depict the United States as being constantly picked on and put in the minority and all that
kind of stuff. I must say by our polls, and we take quite a number of public opinion polls in
order to find out what American opinion is on these issues, the American public remains strongly
supportive of the United Nations.
If I could cite one poll in particular because it was rather an amusing one, a lot of people were
asked what institutions would you like to see less strong and what institutions would you like to
see strengthened, more strong. Number one that they wanted less strong, guess what, the IRS, the
Internal Revenue Service. Number one that they wanted made stronger was the United Nations. They
really do think that it’s an organization which has got problems and ought to be built up, not
EDWARD LUCK: Some of the criticisms coming out right now in the reaction against the
United Nations is really a sense that the United Nations is becoming, or potentially becoming, a
PORTER: Joining us is Edward Luck, President Emeritus and Senior Policy Advisor to
the United Nations Association of the United States.
LUCK: In fact, the need for international cooperation, what George Bush used to talk
about, a new world order, the sense that the United Nations is engaged in many conflicts around
the world trying to put out fires and peacekeepers many places, frankly, has people who are
rather conservative and rather isolationist in their viewpoints a little bit concerned that
perhaps the idea of international cooperation, international organization, even perhaps someday
international governance, is something that really might be a real possibility. It’s like the law
of physics, an equal and opposite reaction. I think a lot of it has to do with internal American
politics of the Executive Branch vs. Congress and who should have prerogatives over committing
American forces abroad. Some of it has to do with the fact that there’s a Democrat in the White
House and you have a Republican majority in Congress, so there’s a lot of partisan sniping back
and forth. A lot of it has to do with the general shrinking of the resources available for the
federal budget generally and pressure all across the board, whether it’s for international
activities such as aid, such as participation in international bodies like the United Nations, or
the running of the State Department itself. All across the board there’s pressure for scarce
resources. As normal, domestic constituencies (domestic needs) tend to be heard from first and
international ones get pushed farther down in the order of pecking priorities.
PORTER: Mr. Luck, as you know, there is a couple of Republican presidential candidates, a
couple of members of Congress, a couple members of the House, at least one member of the Senate
who are very critical of the US role in the United Nations. Just a reality check here, is there
any chance that the United States would pull out? Is there any chance that either our
participation in the United Nations would go away or the United Nations, itself, would go away?
LUCK: One has to be very concerned if the isolationist sentiment in this country got to
the point where we felt we could stick our head in the sand and not participate, not be a leader
of international institutions. It would be terrible for the United States, it would be terrible
for our interests abroad. But we can’t pretend that that never could happen. There was a time
when there were no international organizations. The League of Nations, the United States did not
participate in and, of course, it failed. It could not operate without the United States. In the
long run, the United States needs the United Nations and certainly the United Nations needs the
United States. I have never seen any public opinion poll in this country that showed as many as
20 percent of the people saying that the United States should pull out of the United Nations.
Unfortunately, whether it’s 10 percent, or 5 percent, or 15 percent, some of those people are
very vocal, especially at this point in time. So I don’t think in terms of mainstream America
that people are looking for ways to get out of the world. We recognize that there’s a global
economy, that we have to be part of that and that the kinds of threats we face in terms of the
spread of weapons of mass destruction around the world—the kinds of interest we have in
democracy and human rights and open markets and places to sell our goods abroad—all demand
international organizations and international law.
In the long run, the American people are sensible. They recognize that, in fact, we have to be a
part of this body. We have to be part of the world, but we can’t be sanguine. We can’t ignore the
fact that there is a small and very vocal minority who somehow think we would be better trying to
put fences around the country, put our head in the sand, and wish the world would stop and we
could get off.
PORTER: Ambassador Leonard, anything you would like to add to that?
LEONARD: I would just like to say the same thing in perhaps a more blunt way. I think a
lot of this attack on the United Nations is really using the United Nations as a symbol of
America’s involvement in the world. This is an operation by people who really do think that the
United States should pull up the drawbridges and lower the gates and man the walls and (as one of
the candidates says) load and lock. This is a way of turning away from the world, which the
American people I’m convinced are not going to do. We’ve done it before in our history.
Isolationism has recurred repeatedly over our long history, but we’re past that now. I think
World War II marked the end of any chance of a majority of these for isolationism taking control
in this country.
PORTER: All right. Ambassador Leonard, what can the United Nations Association of the
United States do to guide the domestic debate over our role in the United Nations?
LEONARD: We’ve got to do a better job than we have been. I’m frank to acknowledge that we
have not done as much as we might do to get the word out, to make it clear to people that there
is a serious attack on the United Nations underway, even if it’s only, as I say, a symbol, that
it can have serious consequences. It has already poisoned our relations with our closest allies.
Here in New York, they are so angry at us for our nonpayment of dues and for even hinting that it
might be a nice thing if they would step forward and pay our dues for us. That really sends them
into a tailspin. That’s not a good situation for us to be in. Our interests require us to operate
through the United Nations in a lot of circumstances. The gulf war happened to be a very dramatic
example of it. We didn’t have UN forces; we had alliance forces, coalition forces, under the UN
flag operating under a Security Council resolution. That helped enormously in getting worldwide
support for what we were doing there, and that situation could arise again. God help us if we
have somehow destroyed the United Nations or so destroyed our relations with our closest friends
that we can’t do that.
PORTER: Mr. Luck, anything else on the role of your organization in this?
LUCK: I don’t think there’s any question that the word has to get to Congress that the
vast majority of the people want, in fact, active US participation in the United Nations. They
want the United States to pay its dues. They’re embarrassed to see us as the world’s biggest
deadbeat. They recognize we are part of one world and one world economy and that our interests
dictate that we take the leadership in these organizations. So I think one of the great roles
that UNA can play as a grassroots organization is to communicate the views of individual American
citizens around the country to their members of Congress. What we have are a lot of people that
care about the United Nations, but in a rather shallow way. It’s a very broad support, but not a
very deep one. It’s not the first priority, it’s not the second priority, maybe the tenth or
twelfth priority on their list. But if they really see that the organization is threatened, if
they see that American leadership in the world is threatened, then I think they will rally and
they will come around. But as so often in politics, it’s in reaction to a crisis.
PORTER: Ambassador Leonard mentioned the bounce coming out of the gulf conflict. Did you
see that same thing? If so, what else could have been done perhaps to use that bounce of good
feeling about the role of the United Nations?
LUCK: People have to recognize that the United Nations is still involved in Iraq. There
are UN peacekeepers on the border between Iran and Iraq, which was the bloodiest war since World
War II. People have largely forgotten there are still UN peacekeepers there. There are still UN
peacekeepers between Kuwait and Iraq, helping to guard and protect that border. There still is
this UNSCOM operation, the UN special commission, that is every day investigating Iraqi weapons
developments from one end of the country to the other to make sure that Iraqi efforts to build
chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and the missiles to deliver them to targets around the
Middle East, in fact, are being eliminated and destroyed. It’s really an unprecedented operation.
It can only be done because it is a UN operation. It has the authorization of the Security
Council, which includes increasing its mandate from time to time and reviewing that. You have UN
economic sanctions on Saddam Hussein, putting pressure on his regime, not to move him out of
power but to make sure that he is no longer such a threat to his neighbors.
That’s the kind of thing people have to understand that the United Nations is doing. The
International Atomic Energy Agency around the world is inspecting nuclear facilities to make sure
that materials and technology are not diverted to weapons use. There’s a huge effort to take care
of the world’s refugees. Some 27 million people every year are taken care of by the UN High
Commissioner for Refugees. The efforts to deal with world health problems, children, and the
problems of poverty are just enormous humanitarian efforts by the world. The great irony is that
if you go back twenty or thirty years ago we did have a lot of complaints that the United Nations
was not such a friendly place or, as Pat Moynihan said, it was a dangerous place.
All that really has changed. The United Nations has very much done what we wanted it to. It’s
become the kind of organization that the United States wants. It’s the one which is now promoting
democracy, and over sixty countries have asked the United Nations to come in and supervise their
elections. So it’s becoming the kind of organization we always wanted it to be; and, just at this
point, we’re turning our back on the world organization. I think it’s a terrible, terrible irony.
PORTER: Ambassador Leonard, one other thing that you mentioned in your earlier comment
that I wanted to expand upon and that is the nonpayment. How serious is the financial crisis that
the United Nations faces at this moment? We’ve heard about the pencil and paper not being
available to some people, but it’s certainly more serious than that isn’t it?
LEONARD: The crisis for the United Nations is extremely serious. The saddest aspect of it
is that the amount of money involved is extremely small. The total amount of money that is paid
to the United Nations in our dues every year is 44 cents per capita for each American citizen. A
good many other countries pay more per capita than we do. We are not paying a disproportionate
share of these dues. But the amount of money involved here is really minute. The world as a whole
owes the United Nations a bit over $2 billion dollars. And a billion and a half of that is US
money that we are behind in our dues. That makes it simply impossible for the secretary-general
and his principal assistant, who is an American businessman, to continue to operate much past
this summer. They are telling us that they are going to have to start closing down the operation
there if money doesn’t begin to appear from somewhere.
PORTER: We are talking in this edition of Common Ground with Ambassador James
Leonard and Edward Luck, leaders of the United Nations Association of the United States of
America. Audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for
details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan
organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage
dialogue on world affairs.
LUCK: It’s a sad irony that if you go back to the early 1960s, you go back thirty years
ago, the United States in essence took the Russians to the World Court complaining that they were
not paying their dues for the peacekeeping operation in the Congo at that point.
PORTER: This is Ed Luck.
LUCK: In fact, we took it so far that there were no votes at all in the General Assembly
in 1964. Now it may be a good thing not to have the assembly vote. In any case, it has turned
around where we in fact got the international legal opinion of the necessity of paying dues which
is clearly stated in the Charter, where all of a sudden we are violating international law. We
are the country that always supposedly stood up for international law and order. It seems to me
it’s essential for our interests in the world to have a system where—whether it’s trade or the
movement of people or a question of aggression, or question of military technology,
whatever—that these things are controlled internationally, that there are laws, there is a sense
of order, a sense of predictability. In that kind of environment our values of democracy and
human rights will flourish and our ability to trade around the world is far better. If we get the
kind of world in which law is flaunted, in which there are no sense of norms and order, it’s a
very, very dangerous place. That’s the kind of place where the rogue nations, the terrorists,
those who have always opposed our value (the aggressors in the world) will flourish. Our values
will tend to be diminished.
I think we have to take the lead on this, in part not only because we have interests in the
United Nations functioning but because we need to stand up for international law and order. As
Jim has pointed out, it’s done tremendous damage in our relationships with our closest friends;
but also it’s a terrible precedent for the future. Because if other countries decide they want to
pick and choose to treat the United Nations as a smorgasbord and support this program and not
support that program or they’re going to flout the payment of their dues to the world
organization, then we’re the ones who are very much going to suffer. Because this is a
fundamental principle. It’s written in the Charter. You can’t be part of the club if you’re not
going to pay your dues.
LEONARD: This problem is doing terrible damage to the United Nations, but it’s really
doing worse damage to the United States.
PORTER: This again is Ambassador James Leonard.
LEONARD: To have us in this kind of position where we are not honoring our own
commitments, that really is an awful situation.
PORTER: I want to get each of your reaction to a couple of probably the most serious
criticisms of the United Nations in recent days. One has to do with UN’s role in Bosnia, the
three-and-a-half years of the UN’s involvement there, and there seems to be general agreement
that there was a failure there and that part of it is the United Nations has been heavily
criticized for trying to act if all parties were somehow morally equivalent when the world,
watching on their television sets, could very easily see that there were victims and there were
victimizers and that the sides weren’t, in fact, morally equivalent. Do you think the United
Nations deserves the criticism that they’re getting over their role in Bosnia?
LEONARD: Absolutely not. First of all it wasn’t the United Nations. There’s no
such thing as the United Nations that makes decisions like that. Member states make these
decisions. The Security Council makes them. These decisions to send forces into Bosnia were made
by the council with the assent and even the support, strong support, of the United States. We
were unwilling to put our forces in there, I think, at the very early stage. That was a terrible
mistake, because it conveyed the impression that we were not serious about trying to end the
conflict. In any case, that was a firm decision made by the Bush administration and later
reaffirmed by the Clinton administration, when it came in. What we did was to get our allies, the
British and French and a number of other countries, to send their forces there, but to send them
there under rules of engagement, under a set of provisions that really paralyzed them and made
them unable to deal with the real situation on the ground, ending up with these ghastly
humiliations of the UN forces being taken hostage and the even worse consequences when the
so-called safe areas were simply overrun by the Serbs and the slaughter of the inhabitants there
ensued. That wasn’t the United Nations that did that. That was the member states that set that
whole situation up.
PORTER: Mr. Luck?
LUCK: I agree that the United Nations is very often treated as a lightning rod for
criticism when member states themselves don’t want to take the blame. I agree with Jim that the
fundamental problem was that the international community was divided. The Europeans could not
agree. The United States itself seemed to be divided internally. We seemed to be, at the very
least, ambivalent about what to do; and it seemed to change from day to day. All this was
reflected in lots and lots of resolutions passed by the Security Council. It ended up being a
very uncertain mandate for the forces on the ground. I felt that those of us in the United States
who were quick to criticize the operation and yet, on the other hand, say no Americans on the
ground, really were being hypocritical about it because those countries that actually had people
on the ground were paying real sacrifices. I visited both Bosnia and the other parts of the
former Yugoslavia each of the last two years, in fact, to see what was going on there with the
fact-finding group from the UN Association. First, what we saw was a group of peacekeepers who
were caught in the middle of an ongoing conflict in which there was no peace to keep. It was not
an appropriate application of peacekeeping, and they did look bad. They looked bad because they
were given the mission impossible and without the resources or the commitment of the member
states to do it.
Second of all there was an enormous humanitarian operation underway. I think people fail to
recognize that there were some two-and-one-half-million refugees and displaced people who were
cared for by the United Nations and primarily by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and by
some of the volunteer organizations working side by side. That was very much aided by the fact
that you did have peacekeepers on the ground. There were places that people don’t pay attention
to like Macedonia, where there were UN forces including an American battalion there, that in fact
helped throughout this period to keep the war from spreading to Macedonia which then could have
brought in a number of other states in a very, very messy escalation of the war.
So I wouldn’t give the United Nations wonderfully high marks, but it simply is an indication of
what happens when the international community is divided. The United Nations works when the
nations are united. When the nations are not united, especially the big ones and the powerful
ones (those that have the wherewithal), there’s very little that the United Nations can do. It
can help around the edges, and I think it did do that. It relieved a lot of the human misery
there. It laid the basis for the eventual movement of NATO getting in and with the air strikes
and the other things in the US diplomatic muscle. It bought some time, and I think it saved some
lives. But no, they weren’t able to solve the crisis on their own. After all, the United Nations
is an organization that works some of the time, some of the places, and that’s real value. But
it’s not going to work all the places all the time.
LEONARD: Let me point to one aspect of that if I could, where the United Nations really
was absolutely invaluable and it led to the present settlement and that was the fact that the
United Nations was used in order to impose economic sanctions on Serbia. Without those economic
sanctions we never would have got the Serbian government and Mr. Mlosvic to bring the pressure to
bear on the Serbs in Bosnia and thus produce the climate for the Dayton Peace Agreement. We’ve
got, I think, good hopes for peace now. There’s very little fighting going on at the moment, and
it is the result of the sequence of events that worked through this embargo, these sanctions
against Serbia, to produce a situation that then the United States was able to finally take the
lead on and produce a Dayton agreement.
LUCK: That is very important point, because everyone somehow thinks the air strikes alone
made all the difference. Really, by the time the air strikes came, the feeling in Belgrade among
the Serbs really had changed very much because of the economic sanctions. It’s not only in the
form of Yugoslavia, but also you look in Iraq, you look in Libya and elsewhere, in Haiti at one
point, international economic sanctions can make a difference, but they require a cooperation of
a lot of countries. That requires the Security Council authorization. You can’t just do that
unilaterally. There’s a lot of things you want to do in the world in terms of one’s security that
requires now the cooperation of many countries. That’s where we need the United Nations. It’s no
longer the Soviet Union vs. the United States. It’s no longer a question of NATO vs. the Warsaw
Pact. It’s a question of dealing with regional issues in which you need many, many countries
involved from different parts of the world. And economic sanctions, efforts at nuclear
proliferation (trying to stem that), and other questions in your security require very broad
cooperation. That’s where the United Nations comes in.
PORTER: I want to go back to one issue that you raised and that was the relatively weak
mandates passed by, as you said, the member states which led to peacekeepers going in where there
was no peace to be kept and the tragic consequences of that. We had a guest on our program
recently, a foreign policy writer named David Rieff, who said that at that point, when the member
states did that, that someone in the UN Secretariat, and he would prefer it be the
secretary-general, stand up with some moral passion and say, no, we can’t enforce this mandate.
LEONARD: One of the most shameful episodes in US relations with the United Nations was
the speech that was made up here, I think it was, I’m afraid by the President, in which he said,
we need a United Nations that can say no. And that was after the whole affair in which the United
Nations, under pressure from us, had agreed to do things which really the secretary-general was
protesting strongly. I think the secretary-general understood quite well the dangers that this
was getting into and, for that matter, our British and French allies understood it too. They were
much more at risk than we were, because they were putting their forces in.
But then we had another subsequent act in the same drama in which the United Nations did say no.
This was the small issue of who was going to provide the peacekeeping forces in Eastern Slavonia,
a little corner of Croatia where the NATO forces are not present. Again, the secretary-general
tried to say we can’t do that. And the United States jumped all over him after saying we needed a
United Nations that can say no. Okay. But never mind that no now, we want you to do it anyway.
PORTER: Mr. Luck?
LUCK: I think one has to recognize that in fact, the secretary-general in his reports to
the Security Council had a better sense of what was going on and what was needed than many of the
members did, because his political constituencies are not the same. Member states were trying to
paper over the problem. Probably most embarrassing for the United Nations and for a collective
security was the one of the so-called safe havens—Sebrenica and the other cities and villages
that were, in essence, put under international protectorate—at least that’s the way it was
interpreted by the media. The secretary-general said he would need some 45,000 troops to do that.
The Security Council would not give him that. They gave him 7,000, and then those came very late
and in the end were never fully deployed. So he said, look we can’t do the job; and the Security
Council and the member states said to do it anyway. We know you don’t have the means but go out
and put them there. Then, of course, when push came to shove and the Serbs decided they wanted to
take Sebrenica, it was a terrible bloodbath. Really, it was a shame for the international
community. In that sense if you think of the United Nations as a collective entity, yes the
international community failed in that particular case.
On the other hand, where do you place the blame? I think it has to be with the member states.
They’re the only ones that have the armies. They are the only ones that in the end, as Jim says,
have the ability to say no. Who is this United Nations we’re blaming for this? In the end we’re
the biggest part of the United Nations, and we have to blame ourselves.
LEONARD: Could we consider just a moment the other case that is most often used in order
to say that the United Nations doesn’t know what it’s doing and gets us into bad trouble? It’s
Somalia. In Somalia we had, with President Bush’s initiative, a rather successful operation just
involving the United States. The United States sent a lot of our forces, overwhelming force, and
stopped the civil war there and got relief flowing in to the people who were starving to death.
It was a terrible famine. The United Nations then took over. It was turned over to the United
Nations by the United States. The mission was changed. And just so that it’s clear that we’re not
saying here that the secretary-general is always right and the United States is always wrong, the
secretary-general went along with what I think was a wrong decision to turn that into a civil war
in which we were on one side of the civil war. We were chasing this man Aideed and the
secretary-general endorsed that, the US government, the White House itself, endorsed that. We had
an American admiral actually in charge of the United Nations operation out there. That turned
into the disaster in which, as you’ll recall, a number of Americans were killed and their bodies
dragged through the streets. An awful situation. The blame for that has to be shared between the
United Nations and the United States. It can’t be shoved by either one onto the other.
LUCK: No one said no. That really was a problem. They both went off the tracks at the
same time for the same wrong reasons.
PORTER: That is Edward Luck, President Emeritus and Senior Policy Adviser for the United
Nations Association of the United States. Our other guest was the Acting President of that
Association, Ambassador James Leonard. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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