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How to Win Friends, Influence Diplomats

Ideals are nice, but money talks in every language.

February 28, 2003|Allan Gerson

Harry Truman used to say: "In Washington, if you want a friend, get a dog."

The same can be said about the United Nations -- especially for the United States. The U.N. is simply not the place for best friends. It's the home of cold, hard political realities.

Which is why people should not be shocked that the U.S. is flexing its muscle at the U.N., especially when it comes to garnering the support of various countries through -- oh, say it ain't so, Joe -- "economic assistance."

To be sure, that $30 billion that Turkey wanted for its cooperation in any war effort, and even our counteroffer of $15 billion, sounds like a lot. But maybe it's not so unreasonable when you think of how much economic damage Turkey might sustain because of U.S. intervention.

Americans seem worried about this business of buying votes or buying friendship. But actually, we are doing neither, and "buying" has an awful ring to it. It smacks of bribes, which of course are illegal in almost every judicial system. Instead, think in terms of "financial incentives," and only as one method of ensuring influence.

For instance, U.S. diplomats travel the globe to try to influence our friends abroad on how to vote on issues coming up on the U.N. agenda. And then there are the endless cocktail parties, receptions and dinners at the U.N. -- all aimed at swaying others. In recent days, a rare crush of international pressure by our envoys has been on display to win votes for the new resolution on Iraq. The U.S. tries, of course, to change perspectives with the sheer value of our ideas, by the importance of our ideals -- democracy, human rights, the nonuse of force. But when all that fails, money -- in the form of economic or military assistance -- always helps.

In 1984, Congress finally passed legislation to give U.S. diplomats some of the tools that other countries already had. That legislation required the president and secretary of State to regularly report to Congress on how various countries voted at the U.N. on resolutions deemed important to the nation. Now, if a country has a pattern of voting against the U.S. on key resolutions, that is something Congress certainly can take into consideration come foreign-aid or military-assistance time.

Not that there is any automatic linkage, of course. But we no longer act as if a country's bilateral and multilateral relations are separate spheres, independent of each other.

These days, the U.S. is still playing sheriff at high noon inside the U.N. Well, what else is new? The U.S. has never been an imperial power, so there's never been a posse -- namely, a voting bloc -- for us to depend on.

Of the old colonial powers, Britain has the Commonwealth and France nurtures the Francophile nations. The Arab nations have the Islamic bloc. There is the nonaligned movement; the Africans have the African Union. The Soviet Union, of course, had its bloc, and now Russia is quickly aligning itself with the Europeans.

The U.S. has always stood on its own, but at a price.

In 1982, when Britain invaded the Falkland Islands -- a God-deserted hunk of rock populated by 1,000 sheepherders and kelp farmers -- in an effort to retain its sovereignty, few nations rose to condemn the action as a violation of international law. The votes just were not there. By contrast, when the U.S. intervened in Grenada in 1983, it had to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning it for a "flagrant violation of international law." Then it had to suffer the indignity of the United Nations General Assembly condemning it by a vote of 108 to 9, with 27 abstentions.

Today, we bemoan the fact that France seems to have turned against us. Well, again, quelle surprise.

For some reason, many of our history textbooks make little reference to the fact that Americans actually fought France as recently as 1942, when the U.S. made its crucial landing in North Africa, only to be attacked by the forces of Vichy France aligned with Nazi Germany.

In the 1980s, France abstained when the U.N. majority introduced a resolution that condemned the U.S. for deporting an avowed terrorist and that proclaimed "all available means" -- a euphemism for support of terrorism -- were permissible in the struggle against "alien, colonial and racist rule."

Later, France would join in introducing a key U.N. Security Council resolution directly at odds with U.S. Middle East policy. Only under the threat of a U.S. veto did the French "withdraw" that resolution -- holding it in abeyance for discussion purposes.

Is it ignoble to use whatever "means of influence" are at your disposal? Absolutely not. Especially if we're talking about national defense in a post-9/11 world. And that is exactly what the Iraq debate is all about.

*

Allan Gerson, chief counsel to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations in the Reagan administration, is co-author of "The Price of Terror" (HarperCollins, 2001).

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