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It's America's U.N. too

June 11, 2006

THERE ARE SOME THINGS DIPLOMATS simply don't do. Last week, Mark Malloch Brown, deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, did one of them, pointedly criticizing the United States, the Bush administration and, for good measure, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Malloch Brown's taste in punditry aside, his concerns about the U.S. are well founded.

"From Lebanon and Afghanistan to Syria, Iran and the Palestinian issue, the U.S. is constructively engaged with the U.N. But that is not well known or understood, in part because much of the public discourse that reaches the U.S. heartland has been largely abandoned to its loudest detractors, such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News," Malloch Brown said at a think tank seminar. "The U.N.'s role is, in effect, a secret in Middle America."

Once they recovered from their shock at hearing a senior U.N. official faulting a member state -- and its most prominent one at that -- administration officials were sputtering mad. U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton blasted Malloch Brown for his "patronizing" tone, saying his comments were "a criticism of the American people, not the American government."

Nonsense. Although his comments were impolite, Malloch Brown was aiming squarely at the U.S. government. His intent was to point out that the United States is the most critical and engaged member of the United Nations, that the two work hand in hand every day around the globe -- but that U.S. political leaders do little or nothing to point this out.

Americans have an ambivalent relationship with the U.N. It was created largely as a U.S. project in the wake of World War II, but much of the U.S. public is deeply suspicious of it. That has been true throughout its history, and in today's blog-addled media environment, the U.N. has emerged as a favorite conservative whipping boy. Thus U.S. administrations (especially the current one) are reluctant to defend the U.N. even as they rely on it to police the world and legitimize their foreign policy moves.

The context of Malloch Brown's remarks was an impending financial crisis. Bolton late last year succeeded in tying the U.N.'s funding to progress on management reforms; after June 30, the U.N. could be shut down unless reforms are passed. Yet Secretary-General Kofi Annan's sensible package of reforms, which would give him more power over personnel and budget matters, is opposed by developing nations. Congress is poised to cut off U.S. funding for the U.N., a move that would paralyze its peacekeeping, humanitarian and diplomatic activities.

The U.N. is still a work in progress. It is neither the guarantor of international peace and justice that its founders envisioned, nor the den of corruption that its detractors portray. Americans have a bigger stake in its survival than they realize. Maybe Malloch Brown could make that point during his next appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor."

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