John Bolton a Senior Vice President at the American Enterprise Institute
Ed Luck, Executive Director, Center for the Study of International Organizations, New York University School of Law
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
JOHN BOLTON: I have never been one to doubt that we should remain in the United Nations. Because as I said, I do think it can be an effective instrument of American foreign policy. But there is a lot of hesitation out there that’s not reflected in the broad support for the United Nations, but that does question it operationally in specific circumstances.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, a lively debate on the value of the United Nations.
ED LUCK: I guess to me the, the worst part of the UN is sort of the unfulfilled aspirations of the organization.
KRISTIN MC HUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. The United States played a key role in the creation of the United Nations. UN Headquarters is in New York City; the United States is the largest single contributor to the United Nations; and the US is one of only five nations with permanent veto power in the UN Security Council. Even with this history, there has long been debate over the value of the United Nations to the United States. Today, we’ll go over the outlines of that debate with two experts who have vastly different views on the subject. John Bolton is a Senior Vice President at the American Enterprise Institute. Bolton had close contact with the United Nations during the Bush Administration, when he served as the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations. Ed Luck is now the Executive Director of the Center for the Study of International Organizations at the New York University School of Law. For more than ten years Luck served as President of the United Nations Association of the United States. As we begin our conversation, John Bolton examines the positive side of US participation in the United Nations.
BOLTON: I think the role of the Security Council in international affairs can be a very effective place for the exercise of American diplomacy and the advancement of American interests. For many years during the Cold War that simply wasn’t possible and the achievements of the Security Council were few and far between. But there’s no doubt that the Council and the peacekeeping operations that it has launched, especially in the last ten years, on occasion have been very beneficial. On the other hand some that it has launched—and I think of Somalia and Bosnia in particular—have not been successful. So the question for the United States—and I think the question for us citizens—is trying to decide when the United Nations can be effective and to distinguish it from those circumstances where it won’t be effective.
PORTER: All right. Ed, what do you think is sort of the best part of being part of the UN?
LUCK: Well, I’d start at a different end of the UN. I think for the US in the long term the UN has been valuable in sort of the codification and dissemination of values and norms. They are really the building of international law on things like and disarmament and peace and security generally. I think the UN has played a very important role. I do think the peacekeeping functions, the arms control monitoring, as in Iraq or with the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as the Security Council, have all been parts of the security side of the UN, which I agree with John has had its ups and downs. But I think by and large has benefited us over—over time benefited the US interest. I would add a third area as well, and that’s in humanitarian and functional questions. Whether it’s the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or UNICEF or World Health Organization—I think there’s many areas where the UN has been able to be helpful on the ground in helping those less fortunate in the world.
PORTER: And I’ll stick with you then for the flip side of the question. Where do you think that as Americans we get the least bang for our buck in the UN?
LUCK: Well, obviously there’s a lot more talk in the UN than action. And I think a lot of people get frustrated that it’s an organization with a lot of lofty ideals, that puts a lot of wonderful thoughts down on paper but then really can’t translate them into reality. That of course is up to the member states to implement most of the resolutions and decisions of the organization. But it’s not enough to say that, “Gee, you know, if we just had some other set of member states the UN would be a great place.” Cause these are the only countries we have in this world, you know, and we can’t recreate Mount Olympus or put the UN in another solar system. We’ve got to deal with the day-to-day problems. And that is difficult. It’s an intergovernmental organization and governments are very often hypocritical and governments are very often shortsighted. And I think other countries that have interests quite different than ours have obviously at one point or another subverted the UN in ways that don’t, don’t help us. And sometimes I think the US in its short-term perspective has not recognized the long-term value of building international law and authority, which the UN represents. So, I guess to me the, the worst part of the UN is sort of the unfulfilled aspirations of the organization.
PORTER: All right. And John?
BOLTON: I think a lot of the attitudes that grew up during the Cold War by the so-called Third World nations, which use the United Nations both for their own purposes and I think really, the instigation of the Communist world to attack the United States in particular and the West in general. To use the United Nations as a forum to attempt to extract concessions from the West. One of the reasons really why attitudes in the United States are as hostile to the UN as they are. But unfortunately a lot of those Cold War attitudes have not ended at the UN. And that there’s a time lag perhaps created by the culture of the UN cities, perhaps because of slowness to change in the governments themselves. The result being, I think from the American point of view, we tend to be very practical, solution-oriented people. There’s a phrase, a famous phrase called “shirtsleeve diplomacy,” which is sort of the way Americans get, take their coats off and roll their sleeves up. Now, to be sure we’re not always exemplars of that view ourselves. But I think that is an attitude we have as compared to the attitude of a lot of member governments, to be blunt about it, that they’d rather talk about problems to their own political advantage rather than try and deal with them.
PORTER: Ed, you’ve looked at the numbers, the polling figures. As John mentioned the perceptions in the United States. What do you read into that, about what the perceptions are in the US, about the UN?
LUCK: Well, I would approach it a little differently than John did. He talked about the hostility in the US. Clearly in the US there are pockets of deep hostility towards the organization. But very few public opinion polls would suggest that it would ever be more than maybe 20% who are really deeply hostile towards the organization. I think there’s large numbers who feel that the UN is well intentioned and they basically like what the organization stands for but they’re sort of disappointed in the UN. It really depends what question you ask. If you ask, “Should we stay in the UN?” polls are consistently 85-90% say we ought to stay in the UN. If you ask people, “Is the UN a good institution? Do you basically believe in what it stands for?” again, very high numbers, usually 80% or higher are supportive of the organization. If you ask people, “Is the UN doing a good job?” in other words, does it really perform on its tasks, then you get a much more mixed response and it goes up and down through the years. But it tends to be overall more than half the people say the UN is doing a good job.
One of the things I think is interesting, if you compare polling in the US with other countries, what we’ve found through the years is that in fact support for the UN in let’s say Western Europe or the Nordic countries or other places—Canada—that are traditionally very supportive, has in fact ebbed a little bit over the years. It’s a little weaker than it had been. And so that the numbers in the US look very similar to the numbers in other countries. And the US is not much that out of step, except for the fact as I mentioned earlier, that the US does have a minority viewpoint which happens to be very strongly represented in the US Congress, which is actively hostile towards the UN. And that is different from other countries.
PORTER: John, do you read those numbers differently?
BOLTON: I think the numbers Ed is referring to speak to aspirational opinions that people have. Is that Americans are a very humanitarian people. We have given generously in all kinds of circumstances, in natural disasters and other human tragedies, and I think to the extent that the UN evokes memories that, that call on those compassionate instincts, is that people do respond positively to it. But I think it is both the legacy of the ‘60s and the ‘70s and the attacks on Western values, resolutions like the Zionism is racism resolution, that, that still resound in people’s consciousness. And I think when they see some of the examples of UN failures—I mentioned Somalia a moment ago—that was a failure that of course resulted in 18 Americans being killed in the late Fall of 1993—it causes people to wonder what exactly they are getting for American participation in it. I have never been one to doubt that we should remain in the United Nations. Because as I said, I do think it can be an effective instrument of American foreign policy. But there is a lot of hesitation out there that’s not reflected in the broad support for the United Nations, but that does question it operationally in specific circumstances.
LUCK: If I could just comment on two things that John just said. When he mentioned the killing of the US Army Rangers in Mogadishu, in Somalia, it should be remembered that those particular forces were under a direct US command and it was not—it was part of a larger UN operations but it was very much run out of the US, and the Rangers and their effort to track down Aidid was not part of the UN command, but in fact was commanded separately by the US. And also, the Zionism-racism resolution, which John is right—in fact that was the low point of the US public support, was after that was passed in 1975, when under the Bush administration, when John was serving, the General Assembly in a very unusual act, said they were wrong to have passed that resolution and said in fact that it wasn’t a valid decision. That got very little play. There was a great deal of attention to the onerous resolution and very little attention, which the Bush administration deserved a lot of credit for seeing it reversed and dropped by the General Assembly.
BOLTON: Can I just come back to Somalia for one minute? Because this is a very, a very important incident in the UN’s history and in the history of the US’s involvement with it. Ed is technically correct that the American Rangers were under the operational control of American commanders. But there’s no doubt that it was part of a larger UN effort. And in fact one of the things that had the most dramatic impact on members of the House of Representatives and Senators was after that tragedy, when the administration sent Secretary of State Christopher and Secretary of Defense Aspin to the Hill to try to explain what had happened. On a bipartisan basis, Democrats and Republicans alike felt that they had, they were unable to give a convincing reason what exactly the UN’s objectives and the US objectives in Somalia were, that had resulted in the deaths of the Rangers. And that was a reason I think for the collapse of political support in Congress for Somalia and the reason why the Clinton administration ultimately withdrew US forces.
LUCK: I just hate to prolong the Somalia debate but it is really, really essential. I, I think John is putting on, his finger on something that is quite important. And sometimes it’s hard to tell what is US policy and what is UN policy and when does one start and when does the other end. In fact, the reason that the UN took such an aggressive stance in terms of trying to chase down Aidid to begin with was because the US was really quite insistent in the Security Council that that be so. And I think those who were very critical of this on Capitol Hill were as much criticizing the Clinton administration and its policies as expressed through the Security Council resolution, as they were for the UN itself. I mean, we have to remember the US remains, and has always been the most powerful figure in the UN and in the Security Council. And I don’t think the UN would have been in Somalia if it had not been for the Clinton administration’s desire to continue what had been an earlier humanitarian mission started by the Bush administration. So that yes, in the end, the blame went to the UN and as, is often said, it turned out to be the lightning rod for criticism. But in fact it was an extension of American policy at that particular time. And so I think many of the critics were saying, “Okay, we don’t like US policy, we don’t like the way it was expressed in the UN,” and people get a little confused as to which is at fault. Is it the Clinton administration? Is it the UN? Or where did this come from?
MC HUGH: Coming up, we’ll hear more from Ed Luck and John Bolton about the United Nations, world government, and black helicopters.
BOLTON: I’ve thought for quite some number of years that we were suffering in the United States from not addressing larger international questions by our concentration, by our political leaders’ concentration purely on domestic matters. And I’m certainly hopeful as we look into the next Presidential campaign that on all sides of the spectrum we’re gonna start dealing more specifically and more concretely with international issues that confront us, including the United Nations.
MC HUGH: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes 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 a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: I have to at least in passing bring up the black helicopters and sort of the sinister motivations that a lot of people read—that this deeply hostile group that you talk about—reads into the UN. Where does this come from, Ed? And what does it all mean? When we get these—on the Web you can get all kinds of stories about UN infiltrators and military, UN military operations taking place out in the deserts and black helicopters being sighted. What does that all mean?
LUCK: Well, actually I’ve just finished a book on the subject of where American skepticism to the organization comes from. And I didn’t feel in that that it was important to emphasize the black helicopters and that sort of paranoia. Because I think it is a fairly small segment of the population and not reflective of the more important conservative critiques of the organization. But I do think the UN is for many people sort of a symbol and a vision and it conjures up all sorts of fantasies, both for those who support the organization, think it’s the beginning of world government, and those who are very fearful that it might be that. And you see much of the debate in the public are really between those on the two extremes. And the real UN, what it actually does, is somehow caught in the middle and only those who really follow it pretty closely are really party to that kind of discussion.
But I think there are groups in America who are very worried about infringement of our national sovereignty. It seems sort of odd as the most powerful country in the world that we’re afraid that all these small countries in the UN are going to somehow beat up on us and whether it’s land rights or whether it’s taxation or whether it’s an international military force, that somehow this is going to become embodied in the UN. In fact, I think most people are disappointed with the UN in this country because it’s so weak, not because it’s so strong. But there are those who sort of see this as the camel’s nose under the tent, you know. It’s, “okay, today it’s a peacekeeping mission; tomorrow it’s going to be a standing army; the next day somehow we’re going to lose our veto on the Security Council and they’re going to be invading us with black helicopters.” And of course it’s a very fantastic kind of a vision. But, you know, people always worry that something is the beginning of a trend. And for those who are concerned about world government, and concerned about loss of our own sovereignty the UN looks like a potentially threatening institution.
PORTER: John, I think it was interesting what Ed said about the fact that the UN inspires these fantasies at both ends of the spectrum. Do you agree with that?
BOLTON: Absolutely. There is something we certainly do agree on. I think the black helicopter issue is one that gives comfort to a lot of people who would like to believe that concerns about the United Nations or international organizations generally are kind of paranoid and delusional. And it ignores, I think, attempting to address seriously issues of American independence and flexibility that often arise in what seem to be pretty narrow contexts but which, the resolution of which can have important precedential effects. So that, and I don’t see that that’s really any different from a lot of domestic political issues that we’re all very familiar with, where large values are at stake in what seem to be relatively picayune disputes. So my preference would be to get away from the delusional aspects on both ends of the spectrum and talk—start talking more in Congress and in the general political debate about some of these issues.
I’ve thought for quite some number of years that we were suffering in the United States from not addressing larger international questions by our concentration, by our political leaders’ concentration purely on domestic matters. And I’m certainly hopeful as we look into the next Presidential campaign that on all sides of the spectrum we’re gonna start dealing more specifically and more concretely with international issues that confront us, including the United Nations.
PORTER: Ed, there aren’t a lot of, sort of, institutional UN issues that make it into the headlines. But one of them that does is this thing about paying dues and how much every country owes and the US arrears in those payments. Why hasn’t the US paid its dues?
LUCK: Well, there has been a series of withholdings through the years for different reasons. I mean, initially there were some that were fairly technical or there were some UN decisions, for example on Law of the Sea or supporting certain so-called national liberation movements in the past, that the US simply disagreed with so strongly, they said, “We’re going to withhold that portion of our dues.” But those are relatively small amounts. The largest amount has come from a decision by Congress that the US would not pay more than 25% of any peacekeeping expenditure even though under the assessment scale at the UN we’re really 30.7%, that the US is assessed. And that has built up over the years to be quite a significant amount.
There have been additional withholdings. In the mid-80s there was a bill, Kassenbaum-Solomon Amendment, that withheld funds because it wanted weighted voted on the General Assembly on financial matters based on the size of contribution. In other words, if the US gave 25%, which is our regular assessment scale, then we should have 25% of the votes in the General Assembly on financial matters, rather than the one nation/one vote formula that is under the Charter.
I personally think that it’s been not only harmful to the UN to see the US now somewhere around $1.5 billion in arrears, but I think it’s very harmful for the US. I think it makes us look like we don’t live up to our commitments. I think it offends many of our friends and allies around the world in particular. And I think it’s financially a rather trivial amount of money that we’re talking about compared to larger US expenditures in many areas. But we pay a real diplomatic and price for it. And I think the things that are decided in the UN and in the General Assembly are important enough that we should want al the leverage that we can get. And instead what you see at the UN, whether the question is reform or finance or human rights or one thing or another, people constantly coming from other countries and saying, “Well, we can’t spend money on this because the US insists on zero growth” or “because the US hasn’t paid its bills.” And it makes it very, very difficult.
In other words, when many people hoped that reform would be spurred in the UN by the US withholdings; instead it’s become an excuse for other countries not to move forward and reform. They say the issue is US payments, US obligations, US respect for international law, not the reform steps that we’re actually advocating within the organization. So I think it’s become an issue unto itself, which, one, has not produced the results that we wanted, and two, I think has in many ways been very counterproductive.
PORTER: John, have we paid some price, whether in perception or in reality, for not paying our dues?
BOLTON: I personally don’t think we’ve paid that significant a price politically, internationally. I think what this debate over the arrearages really tells us is something about where the UN stands in American public opinion. Despite what the polls say there has just not been a view in Congress that paying the assessments is a sufficiently high priority, that it’s going to override some other political issues. And you can agree or disagree with that. But I think that is a real measure of exactly where the UN stands in people’s minds. It is in effect collateral damage in the battle over some other political and international issues that are being fought out between different factions in Congress and the administration.
LUCK: I worked a couple of years, ‘95-’97, within the UN trying to move forward the reform process. And the debate was mostly about the US and not about reform. And it was partly the other countries using that as an excuse ‘cause they didn’t want to move forward on particular things. But it suggests an attitude in this country that we’re gonna sort of treat the UN as a smorgasbord where we pick a little bit of this, a little bit of that and if we don’t happen to feel comfortable with something we’re just not going to support it. And if every member state could unilaterally decide what dues it was going to pay to the organization you’d have complete financial chaos. And people forget that in the early ‘60s, when the Soviets and the French and some others had withheld funds for UN peacekeeping cause they felt that should not be an assessed expense, that it ought to be a voluntary payment, that the US in the UN took the Soviets to the World Court and won a decision that in fact these were obligations under international law.
And I think for the United States the respect for international law and order is extremely important. We may be big and we may be powerful, but we have, we’re part of a global economy, we have people’s interests everywhere around the world. And I think we depend more than many other countries on international law and order, and if we don’t appear to be respecting it and particularly in such a visible way at the UN by deciding unilaterally we don’t have to pay our dues, I think that’s very harmful to our values and to our long-term interests.
BOLTON: Although it should be said the Soviets never paid their debt and it now doesn’t count against them. I think you have to acknowledge as well that some of the best run UN agencies are actually funded by entirely voluntary contributions, like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program. And that’s why I think there are people giving a serious look at the question whether all of the UN agencies should be funded voluntarily. Get away from the entitlement mentality that an assessed system of contributions means and consider exactly UN ala carte. Picking what is good and in effect subjecting it to a kind of a market test.
PORTER: I want to ask you one last question. That has to do with something that happened during, during your term John. That was during the Gulf War and using the Security Council at least to, as the context for building this coalition. Could you have done that without—you’ve already said that the security function is one of the key elements at the UN, one of the things we benefit from—could you have built that coalition in absence of a UN Security Council?
BOLTON: I think so, although it was certainly President Bush’s preference to do it using the Council as principal forum. I think it was indicative of how important he and Secretary Baker took it that the critical resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq was actually negotiated face-to-face by Jim Baker with his counterpart foreign ministers and the other 14 members of the Security Council, including the foreign minister of Cuba, even though they didn’t ultimately vote for it. It was also important in American domestic political terms to have had the Security Council authorize the use of force even before we got an affirmative vote on that from both houses of Congress. But if you had come down to a crunch and we had not been able to prevail in the Security Council I’m not at all certain that President Bush wouldn’t have proceeded without Council authorization in any event.
PORTER: Ed, I know there was criticism by experts in international law that elements of the Charter weren’t followed to the letter in, during that time. Maybe the process is not as important as the end result. But is there something we can learn from the way the Security Council played a role in that? Perhaps as contrasted with the way it played, the role it played in Kosovo?
LUCK: Well, I think the example of Desert Storm and pushing the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait was a far better example than Kosovo. I think the Bush administration was correct to go to the Security Council. They did get authorization. I think that made a big difference politically, both domestically within the US and particularly in the US Senate when they went along in part because the Council had. And also, in terms of brining others onto the coalition as John has said. In Kosovo I think it was sort of unfortunate. We had the Council go as far as saying, “yes, we recognize that the Serbs have created atrocities and we want them to reverse course,” but it was recognized that you couldn’t get the Council probably to go along with specific measures beyond perhaps economic sanctions. And I think it’s creating a very difficult situation if the UN’s role is simply to authorize the use of military force or economic sanctions to compel countries to do things. And yet, is unwilling to take the next step of being specific about actually overseeing and pursuing the implementation of these steps. And one of the things that didn’t happen in Desert Storm, which, I think was wrong, was that the Security Council resolution said that in fact periodically those carrying out the enforcement would report back to the Council. And that was, never happened. It was interesting that when the fighting was going on the UN had virtually no role in it. It had a big role leading up to that point, to build the political-legal support, and a big role afterwards trying to keep, carry the peace, including the disarmament of Iraq.
PORTER: All right, one last question for you. We’ve already entered the Presidential campaign season, as early as it seems. Do you have some advice for the next American President on how they should have the US interact with the UN?
LUCK: Well, I would think whoever is President they will hope that the dues situation is taken care of before then and that in fact they can start with a fresh slate. I think that would help enormously. I would think that the next President if he or she talks about reform in the organization really backs it up with real diplomacy, real political effort. And I don’t think that frankly has happened in recent years. And also I would think that any President would have to recognize, whether it’s the UN or regional organizations or ad hoc, that you need a multilateral, broad base for moving most issues in the world today. And whatever our power is, we need burden sharing, we need other countries aboard. And so they would recognize that this is not a sidelight of American policy, but I think it ought to be a central one to build stronger multilateral institutions, whether through the UN or outside the UN.
PORTER: John, I’ll give you the last word.
BOLTON: Well, assuming we get a President we can trust I think it would be worthwhile taking another look at the American relationship with the United Nations. And I just recall for people, it was during President Bush’s administration we were repaying our UN arrearages.
PORTER: That is John Bolton, Senior Vice President at the American Enterprise Institute. Our other guest was Ed Luck, Executive Director of the Center for the Study of International Organizations at the New York University School of Law. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
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