Princeton Lyman, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs, US Department of State
David Birenbaum, Former US Representative, United Nations Management and Reform; US Mission to the United Nations
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON, Producer: This is Common Ground.
PRINCETON LYMAN, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs, US
Department of State: I think the expectation is for a community that functions very well
together, etc. And then we had various differences within the world community over Somalia, over
Rwanda, and then over Bosnia and the UN was not able to act as an instrument to overcome those
differences and meet those. The fault was not necessarily with the UN, but the feeling that the
UN could do those things and then the fact that it couldn’t, I think contributed greatly to the
disillusionment. And people in some ways blamed the UN for these failures.
DAVID BIRENBAUM, former US Representative, United Nations Management and Reform; US Mission to
the United Nations: Nonetheless, I think that this is an extraordinary period of time as far
as the UN is concerned. I think that there is a real prospect of significant and beneficial change
occurring in the organizations. I’m optimistic about the prospects of reform because, I think with
the leadership of the new secretary-general, it is possible to achieve a real breakthrough.
DAVIDSON: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Reforming the United Nations is all the rage these days. But reform means different things to
different people. Ask some people and it means better access to the secretary-general’s office.
Ask others, particularly American officials, and reform means downsizing, cutting waste, making
the UN more efficient. That’s Congress’s rationalization for accumulating a $1.3 billion debt in
back dues to the United Nation, the UN must clean up its act before the US will pay up, it says.
My guests today are two Americans who are closely involved in the reform process at the United
Nations. One is Princeton Lyman, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International
Organizations, which includes the United Nations. He works under the new Secretary of State,
Madeleine Albright. He was also the former US Ambassador to South Africa. My other guest today
is David Birenbaum the former US Representative for United Nations Management and Reform from
the US Mission to the United Nations from 1994 to 1996. Ambassador Birenbaum is now in private
law practice. I began our conversation by asking Ambassador Birenbaum what UN reform means to him.
BIRENBAUM: Well I think it means improving the performance of the organization by making
it—enabling it to operate in a way that is more efficient and more effective, in terms of the
programs that it delivers and all other aspects of its operations.
DAVIDSON: Ambassador Lyman, what does UN reform mean to you?
LYMAN: I agree with that and I think what it also will do in the process is enable the
organization after fifty years to look at the plethora of activities in organizations that have
developed and see whether the structure is the right one and whether the priorities are the
correct ones. So I think this process will take us through a lot of different things, not only
the Secretariat and the budgeting etc., but for each entity within the system, to look at its
programs and decide what’s important, what is now outdated, and how to do those things that are
DAVIDSON: Now is it your perception at the United Nations and among the member states that
there is a consensus about what reform means?
LYMAN: I think there is a consensus that something needs to be done, that the organization
is in trouble, in trouble in terms of its image and in terms of its deliverability. But there are
a lot of differences over what’s important and how you get there. Some people are more concerned
with some parts of the organization than others.
BIRENBAUM: Nonetheless, I think this is an extraordinary period of time as far as the UN
DAVIDSON: This is David Birenbaum, the US Representative for Reform at the United Nations
from 1994 to 1996.
BIRENBAUM: I think that there is a real prospect of significant and beneficial change
occurring in the organizations. I’m optimistic about the prospects of reform because there is, as
Princeton mentioned, an acceptance of the need for it, although there isn’t a consensus as to
those reforms that are necessary. I think with the leadership of the new secretary-general, it
is possible to achieve a real breakthrough, but that will happen if and only if the United States
exercises the leadership that it needs to exercise and that can come about only if we recommit
ourselves to the organization by doing a number of things, but most especially paying our dues.
DAVIDSON: Now Ambassador Lyman, the Clinton administration had proposed a budget that
includes, over a period of years, paying the dues. What is that contingent upon.
LYMAN: The President asked the Congress actually to vote this year on a two-year repayment
of approximately one billion dollars to the UN and some other international organizations. And
the Congress is now seized with that and we will be discussing it with them over several months.
What we look forward to at the same time over this same year, are not only the kinds of reforms
that we talked about earlier, but some budget reductions and changes in the scale of assessment.
That would lower the total level of future obligations starting in 1998.
DAVIDSON: Mr. Birenbaum, how do you react to the Clinton proposal?
BIRENBAUM: Well I think it is a sound proposal. I would have preferred to pay all that we
owe in one year rather then spread it over two years, but there are budgetary problems that the
United States faces and this is probably the best arrangement that could have been put in place
consistent with budgetary pressures the United States is experiencing. I think it is imperative
that action be taken this year, 1997, on this whole package by the Congress because otherwise I
think there is a very real likelihood that other countries will become so frustrated with our
failure to keep our obligation that they will take actions that—which will then lead to a
downward cycle as far as the UN is concerned. So this is the year in which I believe progress
needs to be made and in which the Congress needs to act.
DAVIDSON: Yes, I was wondering about the image of the United States. Ambassador Lyman, you
mentioned that the image of the UN has been tarnished, but I am also wondering what your
perception is of the image of the US in the world community.
LYMAN: I think the failure to pay an assessed contribution, which is an agreed obligation
under the treaty, has hurt us in a number of ways because it is always raised with us when we
urge reform in the UN, that we are in violation of one of the UN’s own rules to which we have
given agreement. And I think over time, it is going, if it is not rectified as the President has
proposed, I think it will have a very damaging effect on our ability to get cooperation on things
important to the United States.
DAVIDSON: Mr. Birenbaum, do you foresee some very negative consequences in the future if
BIRENBAUM: Both long-term and immediate. Last year the United States lost an election for
the first time to one of the key budgetary committees in the UN. I believe that the reason for
that decision, which is unprecedented, is because of unhappiness, frustration with our refusal to
pay the—to make the payments that we owe to the UN. As far as long-term consequences are concerned,
that bothers me, that troubles me even more. Because the United States stands for, among other
things, the rule of law in the world. We can hardly be a proponent of the extension of the rule
of law, that other countries should abide by a rule of law in the world, if we ourselves are
ignoring our legal obligations and responsibilities. I think that is very serious as far as the
potential damage that will do to the United States and its reputation in the world.
DAVIDSON: Ambassador Lyman, the United Nations now has a new Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.
What kind of hopes is the administration putting on Mr. Annan’s abilities to carry out reforms?
LYMAN: Well I think you have to look at what he has said when he came to Washington and
subsequently—that he has contacted and been in touch with all the different regional representatives
and he finds a very broad consensus for reforms and changes and that he plans to be a leader in
that regard and we welcome that, we look forward to that. There are certain things the secretary-general can do within his own prerogatives in terms of the structure and streamlining of the
Secretariat. And there are other things in which he can lend his influence to require more
cooperation from the members. And beyond that, his influence, which is limited but important,
with the specialized agencies like WHO and FAO, which also need to improve their effectiveness.
So we have high hopes. He started off well, he’s created a new, much more open style in the UN,
much more consultative style. We are very pleased.
DAVIDSON: What is it about his background that made him the US’s choice for secretary-general?
LYMAN: Well, he was, as you know, one of four nominated by the African community. We knew
him well from his work in the UN over many years. In particular, he was very effective in taking
the lessons of peacekeeping operations that had not worked well, such as in Bosnia, and applying
them to restructuring and improving the peacekeeping office, which he headed, and he worked
extremely well with all the member states and achieved a great deal. So he impressed everyone
with that work.
DAVIDSON: Mr. Birenbaum, what is your opinion of the new secretary-general?
BIRENBAUM: I think he is off to a very good start. As Princeton said, he is clearly committed
to reform. His style of leadership is much more open and he’s more accessible to the member states.
I think that will lend a lot of credibility to his efforts to achieve reform. So I think we are
off to a good start.
DAVIDSON: Ambassador Lyman, given that the UN budget is not growing at all and its funds
are limited, what should its core functions be in the future? What is the role of the United
Nations in the 21st century?
LYMAN: Well I think the core functions are clear, it must protect and preserve the peace
and security, threats to peace and security. It should be promoting human rights, it should be
promoting economic and social development, and it should be providing a forum for the international
community, not only to address problems, but to set standards and norms for the world community
and addressing those problems.
DAVIDSON: And Mr. Birenbaum.
BIRENBAUM: Well, I would add only one function to it—which it clearly has a very important
role to play in—dealing with emergencies that arise in crises of one kind or another which regrettably
break out from time to time. The UN is indispensable in that area.
DAVIDSON: We’ll pause here for a short break. We’re talking on this edition of Common
Ground with Princeton Lyman, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for international organizations
under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and David Birenbaum, the former US Representative
for United Nations Management and Reform. He’s now in private law practice. Printed transcripts
and audio cassettes of this program are available, and at the end of the broadcast I’ll give you
details on how to order. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit
non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and
encourage dialogue on world affairs.
I’m just somewhat perplexed by the dramatic drop in the image of the UN over the last half-dozen
years, because at the end of the 80s, early 90s, there were a lot of articles written and a lot
of talk about the new reinvigorated UN and the UN of the future. What happened?
BIRENBAUM: Well it may be that the expectations were too high. This was in the aftermath
of the successful prosecution of the war in the Persian Gulf which was under the UN, to be sure
blessed by the UN, but actually the coalition was put together by the United States and in that
sense it wasn’t a UN peacekeeping operation. But I think expectations may have been too high.
Certainly the failure of the operation in Somalia set in motion a cycle from which the UN has not
yet recovered. It lead directly to the failure also in Bosnia. And the UN is still under that
shadow. Now what’s the lesson for the future? I’m not sure we really thought that through. We
have reached the conclusion, when I say we I think there is probably a consensus among the member
states on this, that the UN is not going to get involved directly, as it had in the past, in
situations where there is no peace to keep. I don’t know that there is the capability politically
and in other ways for the UN to take on such an engagement. Beyond that, I don’t know that we
really have thought through precisely what role the UN should play other than its traditional
role, which has been very effective historically and peacekeeping rather than enforcing the peace.
DAVIDSON: Ambassador Lyman, What is your opinion on what has tarnished the image of the UN?
LYMAN: Well I think David’s exactly right. I think the expectations were very high for a
new world community that would function very well together etc. And then we had serious differences
within the world community over Somalia, over Rwanda, and then over Bosnia and the UN was not
able to act as an instrument to overcome those differences. The fault was not necessarily with
the UN but the feeling that the UN could do those things and then the fact that it couldn’t I
think contributed greatly to the disillusionment, and people in some ways blamed the UN for these
failures. It seemed ineffective or ill-organized or ill-equipped to carry out its role. And that
has hurt it a great deal and it’s opened up the UN to examination in all the other areas in which
it’s working, with people saying well now, maybe it’s got faults elsewhere as well. So it’s led
to quite a critique.
DAVIDSON: Yes, I was going to ask, if it had been successful in Somalia, in Bosnia, would
this issue of reform have been so critical as it is right now?
LYMAN: I think it wouldn’t have taken on the same tone that it’s taken on now.
BIRENBAUM: Wait a minute, no, it is necessary, but I think it would not have received the
kind of attention that it is now getting and Princeton is exactly right, it wouldn’t have been
approached in the way that it has been. It would not have had this confrontational tone.
DAVIDSON: I haven’t seen any opinion polls very recently about the US public’s view of the
United Nations. Do you have a sense, have you seen any sort of polling on this?
BIRENBAUM: I have observed the polling over a number of years and it is remarkable in its
consistency. The public does support the United Nations, the public supports the United States
paying its assessed contributions to the United Nations. In a broader context of where the US
public opinion is with reference to foreign policy and the role of the United States in the world,
these polls are also very interesting and quite consistent. What they say to me is this: that the
American public doesn’t want either isolationism, represented by stop the world and let us off,
nor the role of the world’s policeman, represented I suppose by the high water mark of the Cold
War when President Kennedy said, “We’ll bear any burden, pay any price”—we’re not prepared to do
that any longer. But what the public is saying, and I think it’s immensely sensible, is this—we
are prepared to do our share, we want to do our share, we recognize we are the world’s pre-eminent
leader and we want to do our share, we won’t discharge our responsibility but we will insist that
other countries also join with us and that they do their share and that they are able to do that
and this burden should not be borne by the United States alone. And in that context, it’s not
hard to see why the public sees the UN as valuable to the United States, as in our interest,
because it is an instrument for sharing this responsibility, which is rather awesome, of providing
leadership to the world.
DAVIDSON: Why is it so inconsistent with the, what I perceive as the view of the UN from
BIRENBAUM: That’s a very good question and I don’t know that I have a very good answer to
it, but I would say this: the attitudes that I described are attitudes that are held by large
numbers of Americans. I don’t know how deep that feeling is. I don’t think that Congressmen and
Senators hear from their constituents on the UN. So they are not moved by public opinion to
support the UN.
LYMAN: Some of the polls show something else that even among supporters in the UN, of the
UN, there is a misperception of what our contributions are. The average American who supports the
UN thinks, however, that we are providing many more peacekeepers as a percentage of the total
than we are. We provide a very small percentage—750 out of 26,000. Whereas the perception is we
provide 20 percent, which is not true. And this runs through, so the feeling is we should do our
share, but we must be doing more than we’re doing. Now that opens up for opponents who say that
we are doing more than our share. Even the supporters of the UN are inclined to say, “Well yeah,
sure, that’s right.” So Congress gets kind of a message that you can criticize the UN and say
we’re doing too much and you won’t get too much flack from the public because even the supporters
have the sense that we’re doing more than we’re doing and that’s a problem. It’s also true in
foreign aid. The other thing, as David said, Congressmen and Senators have said to me, when they
go home this is not an issue on their constituent’s mind. So if it isn’t, they are inclined to
listen to those who are vocal on it, and often those are the people most critical.
BIRENBAUM: I think there is one other aspect of this. We are, as everyone knows in a
period, as far as even our own government is concerned, when we’re experiencing a great deal of
budgetary pressure as we seek to balance the budget. Now in that environment, lots of programs
are being cut and congressmen see the issue of operating funds for the UN as involving a choice
between expenditure of that nature or domestic spending. And it’s obvious that given that choice
politically, they are going to be disinclined to cut programs that benefit their constituents. As
distinguished from programs that do not directly impact their constituents and that they don’t
hear from their constituents about.
DAVIDSON: Exactly what is the US contribution to the United Nations? And how does that
compare to other countries?
LYMAN: We provide 25 percent generally of the budget of the UN and its specialized
agencies. We are assessed higher than that for peacekeeping, but Congress has put a legislative
limit of 25 percent on our peacekeeping contributions. So that’s the financial side. As I
mentioned, our participation in various peacekeeping operations, out of 26,000 UN peacekeepers
in the world, only about 750 are Americans.
DAVIDSON: And how are country’s contributions determined? What are they based on?
LYMAN: There is a complex scale that gears toward a country’s capacity to pay based on its
GNP, degree of debt, and a number of other factors, economic factors, so there’s the scale from
the richest countries that pay the most to the poorest countries that pay the least.
DAVIDSON: How important is the report that the secretary-general is preparing, which is to
come out this summer, going to be for gaining support from the US Congress, Mr. Birenbaum?
BIRENBAUM: Well, I think it will be very important in its own right, that is to say, this
will be his plan for the UN of the 21st century and how it should be reformed, and I would expect
will have a positive influence on the Congress because I expect it to be a powerful and important
statement, a vision, his vision about the UN and the UN of the 21st century and as I say how it
should be reformed to achieve that vision. But I don’t think that he would be well advised to
wait until July before taking action in the area of reform and I don’t expect he will wait that
long. There are actions that should be taken right away and I expect that he will do that.
DAVIDSON: There are reforms that have been going on now over the years, correct?
LYMAN: There’s been quite a bit. There is a no growth budget in the UN, and it has been
adhered to in spite of additional requirements that have come forward there’s been a restructuring
of ?? priority, the UN conference on trade and development, all the economic commissions are
reviewing their programs and prioritizing and reducing low priority programs. There’s in the
specialized agencies, reduction of overhead, also true in UN Development Program. So there’s a
lot going on in the reform effort.
BIRENBAUM: In addition to that the UN has also, at our insistence, put in place an Inspector
General system which is producing some very important and needed reforms. And in addition there
is a version of reinventng government which the UN has put in place and that is, has made
significant recommendations for improving the efficiency of the organization. Reduction of
paperwork, a series of reforms along those lines. So there is a lot that has been accomplished.
There is a good platform to build on.
DAVIDSON: One final question. The UN is now 51 years old. Do you believe, Mr. Birenbaum,
that the United States has gotten its money’s worth at the United Nations?
BIRENBAUM: Oh, very much so. The UN has been very important to us over this period of
time in connection with a whole range of areas of responsibility. In particular, prosecuting the
successful, the war in Korea, a whole series of, going back that far, a whole series of peace
keeping operations of enormous importance to the United States. Coming forward in time to the
operation that we talked about earlier, that is the Persian Gulf, where the UN provided
legitimacy, which was indispensable to the success of the Persian Gulf operation. It’s also been
enormously important in laying down standards of human behavior in the field of human rights.
It’s not imaginable that all this would have happened without the UN over this period of time.
The UN specialized agencies have made enormous contributions in the area of dealing with diseases.
Smallpox was eradicated in no small measure because of the efforts of the United Nations. And so
on and so on and so on. I think the list of accomplishments is quite considerable, and I think
it’s especially worth noting that all of this occurred during a predominantly, during a period of
time when the United States, when the United Nations was not able to operate as its founders had
envisioned because of the Cold War.
DAVIDSON: Ambassador Lyman, I’ll let you have the last word on how the US has benefited
from the UN.
LYMAN: I would just add to that, there’s a lot of direct benefits to the United States,
both economic and otherwise. For example, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN sets
the standards for international trade and agriculture. If you ask anyone in our agricultural
industries in the United States about the importance of FAO they will tell you instantly that it
is essential to the $60 billion of agricultural exports we now have, and for the safety of the
American consumers, it’s essential to the safety of the $30 billion of food we import. So it
plays a direct role in our daily lives and in our economy. That’s also true of the Economic
Commission for Europe, which sets standards for auto parts that our companies know very well.
WHO sets the standards for pharmaceutical exports. So, we benefit from the UN’s operations to
set standards, which enable our exporters and our consumers to operate very effectively in the
global marketplace. I’d just conclude with something that Madeleine Albright used to always say,
that the total cost of all our contributions to the United Nations system are the equivalent of
1 movie ticket per year for every American.
DAVIDSON: My guests on Common Ground have been Princeton Lyman, the Acting
Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations; he was the former US Ambassador to
South Africa. My other guest was David Birenbaum, the former US Representative for United
Nations Management and Reform from 1994 to 1996. For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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