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– Back in 1998, Senator Jesse Helms, a rightwing Republican from the US state of North Carolina, carried out a virulent one-man hate-campaign against the UN– and its very presence in New York.
A fulltime chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee– and a part-time UN basher—the late Helms publicly complained that providing funds to the UN is like “pouring money into a rathole”. Helms wanted the “Glass House by the East River” shipped out of New York — for good.
Fast forward to 2020.
There is widespread speculation that when US president Donald Trump addresses the General Assembly on September 22 –one of the few, or perhaps the only head of state, to do so “in person” in a virtually virus-locked down world body– he may either threaten to pull out of the UN (very unlikely), warn of possible cuts in financial contributions (likely), or downsize the US role in the world body (most likely).
But with a highly unpredictable US president, everything is up in the air.
Meanwhile, the cry to “de-fund the police”, triggered by anti-black violence by law enforcement officials in the US, has prompted a new hashtag “de-fund the UN”.
Asked for his comments, UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters September 8: ”I have seen the hashtag.”
“I think we prove every day the worth in investing in the United Nations for the betterment of peoples everywhere and the value that it brings, whether it is helping during the pandemic… or what we’re doing all over the world, what we’re doing in our peacekeeping missions… So, we do our utmost to prove our worth every day by the work that we do,” said Dujarric.
Any proposed cuts – or attempts to “‘de-fund” the UN –will also likely be a retaliation against the failed US resolution last month in the UN Security Council against the resumption of sanctions on Iran.
Suffering a devastating defeat, the Trump administration was both isolated and humiliated when only one UN member state, the Dominican Republic, voted with the US in the 15-member Security Council, the most powerful body in the UN.
The vote was short of the minimum nine “yes” votes required for adoption—and 11 members, including Western allies such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom abstained, while China and Russia voted against the resolution.
Asked what the Security Council rejection would mean to the US on the world stage, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters: “Well, it’s disappointing, because privately, every world leader, every one of my counterparts tells me that America is doing the right thing.”
No one, he said, “has come to me and advocated for allowing Iran to have these weapon systems. And so, for them not to stand up and tell the world publicly at the United Nations, yep, this is the right thing, it’s incomprehensible to me. To side with the Russians and the Chinese on this important issue at this important moment in time at the UN, I think, is really dangerous for the world.”
Asked why there was no support from the European countries on the Security Council, he was blunt: “You’ll have to ask the Europeans that”
If the de-funding does happen, and since the US pays 22 percent of the UN’s budget, it will be devastating blow to a world body commemorating its 75th anniversary later this month.
As a hard-core unilateralist, Trump has been openly antagonistic towards multilateral institutions.
Since he took office back in January 2017, the Trump administration has either de-funded, withdrawn from, or denigrated several UN agencies and affiliated institutions, including the World Health Organization, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court (ICC), among others.
And according to a report in the New York Times September 4, Trump is very likely to withdraw from the iconic 71-year-old military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — if he wins a second term as president.
The Times quotes former US officials as saying that such a move would be one of the biggest global strategic shifts in generations and a major victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
So, will the UN be far behind?
Norman Solomon, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Public Accuracy, told IPS the Trump administration is a wrecking crew that seeks to undermine if not demolish any international institutions that do not serve Trump’s idiosyncratic whims or, more substantially, don’t serve narrow interests of U.S.-based corporations and the military-industrial complex.
While top leaders of the U.S. government have routinely seen the United Nations as primarily an instrument to be used to advance America’s geopolitical interests, during the last three-quarters of a century some have recognized the overlap between humanitarian and nationalistic goals.
“No longer”, he declared.
“The Trump regime has operated almost entirely from the basis of narrowly defined self-interest, to the point that it should be understood as the gravest threat not only to the UN but to the world as a whole”, said Solomon, author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death”
“When we evaluate international institutions, they should not be conflated. The United Nations and its potential are very far from comparable to NATO.”
The UN — while significantly and by some measures deeply flawed, and badly in need of power restructuring — has laudable aspirations, he argued.
“NATO, on the other hand, is far more of a threat to peace than a defender. Trump’s hostility to the concept of the United Nations is in many ways categorical, whereas his intermittent criticisms of NATO are inconsistent and largely a function of unhinged nationalism”, said Solomon.
During what are hopefully his last several months as president, he pointed out, Trump should be ostracized as much as possible by world leaders and civil society.
His so-called leadership is a toxic brew of greed, calculated stupidity and narcissistic prerogatives of supposed “American exceptionalism.”
Many U.S. presidents during the last 75 years have aspired to see the United States government work its will on the entire world, but Trump has taken such conceits to an extreme that requires complete rejection, said Solomon.
Ian Williams, President of the Foreign Press Association in New York and author of “UNtold: The Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War”, told IPS the UN system is in the sad position where the US acts as if it hates the organization, but the other members do not love it enough to step into the gap.
Historically, the US prizes the organization’s dependence on Washington as was shown when the US rebuffed Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme’s 1985 proposal to restrict its contributions to 10%.
Since then the other powers could at any time have called the US bluff and met the shortfall- after all Ted Turner did, said Williams, a former President of the UN Correspondents’ Association (UNCA).
“But it goes beyond finance. The US’s lawless attitude has proved infectious. If the US and its ally Israel can defy resolutions, then why can’t Russia break the rules over Ukraine, or Beijing in the China Sea or India over Kashmir?”
He pointed out that previous US administrations have been constrained in their public disdain of international law and order because they needed the UN rubber stamp their positions, as indeed Trump tried over the snapback on Iran but the prestige behind that legitimizing power is a rapidly devaluing asset.
“It is perhaps make-or-break time. The UN’s figurehead, the Secretary General (SG), should invite President Trump to take his braggadocio and depart if he goes too far.”
If Trump loses in November, said Williams, then the SG will get some recognition and gratitude from the incoming administration.
“If he wins, the UN should have contingency plans for continuing without the US, while thanking the archaisms of the UN Charter that leave some counterweight to the unscrupulously expedient Russian and Chinese on the Security Council.”
At the worst, perhaps, realistically the General Assembly should set up an International Residual Mechanism to look after the collective obligations of the UN until such time as the members show signs of resuming their responsibilities effectively, declared Williams.
Barbara Adams, chair of the board of Global Policy Forum, told IPS: “Perhaps the rumoured threat from Trump will backfire and mobilize voices within the USA to generate something similar to the USPS effect (postal services)”.
Certainly, it will bring much international and domestic media attention and hopefully the UN will be able to stand up well to the scrutiny, she added.
“The S-G’s Nelson Mandela lecture was unusually forthright in addressing the systemic issues exposed by COVID. More recently he has been more outspoken, such as, that power is not given away, it has to be taken”.
Could it trigger a “be careful what you wish for” reaction domestically and among Member States whose multilateralism rhetoric is not matched by their actions?, she asked.
“Is this the shock needed to demand genuinely democratic global governance and begin the long overdue transition away from what it has become: a deal-making forum with people and countries represented by the executive branch that does not reflect their diversity and values – and push the UN back to its purpose – to lead the way towards sustainable peace, justice, and human rights”?.
Most concern reflects those fearful of the immediate consequences for the UN budget. Are they missing or ignoring the accompanying constraints from power dynamics in decision-making process?, noted Adams.
In 1985, she said, the Prime Minister of Sweden Olaf Palme proposed a ceiling of 10 per cent on the assessed contribution of any Member State.
In addressing the UNGA to commemorate its 40th anniversary he said: “a more even distribution of assessed contributions would better reflect the fact that this Organization is the instrument of all nations”. While this garnered some support, it exposed resistance in many US circles aware that it would reduce US political power and leverage at the UN.
Expressed differently but clearly by Ambassador Samantha Power said: “Our ability to exercise leadership in the UN—to protect our core national security interests—is directly tied to meeting our financial obligations.”
The UN decision-making is often compared to the weighted voting setup of the IMF and the World Bank having a one country, one vote –as opposed to something closer to one dollar, one vote. This misses the point: there is weighted voting exercised through budgets, threats and self-censorship, declared Adams.