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Imperfect, but the Best Around

October 30, 1987

Even as the United States continues to defy its treaty obligations to pay the assessments of the United Nations and its specialized agencies, the Soviet Union has announced plans to pay up its substantial arrears, including almost $200 million for past peacekeeping operations of the world organization. The turnabout raises profound questions about the future of the United Nations and the commitment of the United States to a rule of law.

The United States now owes the United Nations and its agencies more than $200 million cumulative through calendar 1986, and has paid none of its obligations for the current calendar year. In addition, the United States owes $62 million, as of the end of September, for Middle East peacekeeping operations--most of it for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon.

Under the terms of the U.N. Charter and the international agreements establishing the specialized agencies, member nations must pay an assessment, and the assessments have been proportionate to national wealth. In fact, the American share of 25% is substantially below the share of global wealth that is represented in the gross national product of the United States. But this has not discouraged a full-scale U.S. assault on the world organization in which congressional leaders have vied with the executive in bashing and budget cutting.

This American campaign, even though out of all relationship to the perceived sins of the organization, has had one positive result: Last December the United Nations adopted stringent budget and administrative controls, setting an example for lean and clean that could embarrass some of Washington's bureaucracies. But enough was not enough. And now Congress, infatuated with its role in the taxpayer revolt, has found a defenseless target in the United Nations, and apparently has no intention of paying the overdue obligations of the United States. Even the belated entreaties of President Reagan for full funding have not been heeded.

Those who are determined to punish the world organization seem far more impressed by the occasional impudence of Third World delegates than by the accomplishments of the organization in helping the poor nations climb the uncertain path to development. They are infuriated by the overstaffing and underworking that occasionally have been exposed, allowing this rage to blind them to the role that the organization has been able to play in calming disorders, disengaging adversaries and tackling the impoverishment, disease, hunger and ignorance that have security implications as relevant as bombs and missiles. And so there was the paradox of the United States turning to the Security Council for a peace initiative in the Persian Gulf just as Congress was again refusing the full funding of the American assessed share of U.N. operating costs.

The United Nations is an imperfect instrument that mirrors an imperfect world. It could do much better. Nevertheless, it is the best security buy around. The whole American share is scarcely $500 million a year--less than a modest weapon system. And that includes the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization and Middle East peacekeeping. But it has become fashionable to decry the failures of the organization rather than to build on its unique foundation.

Those willing to see the organization decay must never have calculated the complexity of constructing a substitute in this day and age. Those who find its costs excessive have never read a defense budget. Those who fail to engage fully in its operations and its debates have ignored the reality of the changing world, and how accurately the organization reflects those changes. Those who rail at the rudeness of some delegates have never measured in global terms the overwhelming advantage to the United States that has flowed from membership.

Brian Urquhart, the extraordinarily effective undersecretary of the United Nations who managed much of the peacekeeping work of the organization, has some good advice for the world. He is now retired. In the epilogue of his autobiography, "A Life in Peace and War," he writes:

"We have created unprecedented possibilities for both progress and disaster on our planet without yet assuming the collective responsibility that both those possibilities demand. We already have much of the machinery for this purpose. We must take it out, overhaul it, and get it on the road."

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