It's difficult to use the words "reform" and "United Nations" in the same sentence because most UN member nations aren't interested in reforming the flawed world organization. But the United States, which hosts the UN in New York City and pays more than 22 percent of its total budget, has worked tirelessly - if unsuccessfully - for reform in recent years. Well, it's time to get serious about UN reform.
Two recent news items, an announcement from UN headquarters and a speech by John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, got my attention and emphasized the need for real reform of the world organization. Not long ago UN officials announced a $1.9 billion refurbishing project for the towering UN Building on New York's East River, and Ambassador Bolton reiterated his call for reform in a hard-hitting speech to students and faculty at privately funded Hillsdale College in Michigan.
Although Bolton was criticized for being "too aggressive" when he served as our UN ambassador in 2005 and 2006, he was also known for "telling it like it is" to ultra-sensitive and very well-paid international bureaucrats living the good life in New York. Let's start with that $2 billion UN construction project, which would bring its high-rise building up to city construction and fire codes. If approved, U.S. taxpayers will fork over nearly $420 million during economic hard times. By contrast, developing countries with thriving economies, like China and India, will pay only $40 million and $30 million, respectively. Does that sound fair to you? Me neither.
While not commenting directly on the proposed construction project during his Hillsdale speech, Ambassador Bolton made it clear that he believes other countries should pay their fair share of UN expenses. Under the current system, the U.S. pays 22 percent of the total UN budget plus 27 percent of "special assessments" (disaster relief, peacekeeping etc.). "We are far and away the largest contributor, and every year Congress pays the bill as apportioned by the UN General Assembly," Bolton said before making a truly revolutionary proposal: "The U.S. should pay for what it wants and insist that it gets what it pays for. This would break up the entitlement mentality at the UN and foster an organization that is both more transparent and more effective." I agree.
Bolton went on to condemn "international norming," the idea that we should base our foreign policy decisions on some kind of global consensus rather than defending our own national interests in the UN. "It is a way in which the Europeans and their left-wing friends here and elsewhere try to constrain U.S. sovereignty," he said, noting that the vast majority of UN member nations are either dictatorships or one-party "democracies." He added that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry proposed an unpopular "global test" for U.S. foreign policy during the 2004 general election campaign.
GUN CONTROL AND THE DEATH PENALTY
As examples of the tyranny of the undemocratic majority in the UN, Bolton cited the controversial issues of gun control and the death penalty. In 2001, he said, the UN sponsored an international conference on guns, ostensibly to talk about trafficking in small arms and light weapons. But the discussion quickly turned to gun control in the U.S. with advocates of "international norms" pressing for a worldwide prohibition against private gun ownership.
On the issue of the death penalty, a measure favored by 60 to 70 percent of Americans in public opinion polls, the UN is inalterably opposed. The new UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea (where the death penalty is legal), "was all but subjected to articles of impeachment" for defending the right of each member nation to decide whether to impose the death penalty, Bolton noted.
"Although the UN is perfectly capable of passing resolutions about the death penalty and gun control ... it has proved utterly incapable, even after 9/11, of agreeing to a definition of terrorism that would enable it to denounce terrorism," the ambassador added, "because several member governments think there is good terrorism and bad terrorism." For starters, Iran and North Korea come to mind on this life-and-death issue.
Bolton closed his Hillsdale address by talking about the UN's "unfulfilled promise." "International peace and security was the objective that motivated the founders of the UN after World War II," he said, "and it is here that the UN's promise has been least fulfilled. During the Cold War the UN was fundamentally irrelevant to the great struggle between liberty and tyranny because of the makeup of the Security Council and the veto power held by the Soviet Union ... and China."
In Bolton's opinion, Iraq is a test case for the UN's unwillingness to take its own resolutions seriously. "This is a perfect example of the UN being willing to talk but not to act," he asserted. While I disagree with him and President Bush about our precipitous and now disastrous invasion of Iraq, I share Bolton's dim view of the UN as an instrument for international peace. As a taxpayer, I don't think we should pay 22 percent of dubious, inflated expenses incurred by the world body unless we get our money's worth. Let China and India, and Russia and Venezuela, pay their fair shares before we agree to refurbish the UN Building in New York.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a semi-retired journalist who served 28 years in the U.S. Foreign Service.