My Turn: Strengthen the UN

  • U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks in favor of a resolution on North Korea sanctions on Friday, Dec. 22, at United Nations headquarters. AP

For the Monitor
Saturday, December 30, 2017

I can see Nikki Haley has scored some points with her boss (and maybe more than a few others) on the plan to cut back on our financial obligations to the United Nations – what she seems to think is a spendthrift, do-nothing organization. After all, didn’t the Security Council (all but one member) and didn’t the General Assembly (128 to 9) vote to have the U.S. rescind its (illegal) decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? How dare they!

But how dare the U.S. take it out on the U.N.’s meager budget and even threaten member states with financial retaliation. Never mind that the U.N. has denied Israel lawful control of Jerusalem since 1947 (and reaffirmed the original plan for international control many times since, despite Israel’s illegal seizure of control after the 1967 Six-Day War). But in practice the issue in recent years has been a point of contention which the Palestinians have hoped to settle peacefully in forthcoming talks with the Israel. It’s hard not to think that this internationally disapproved action by the U.S. has undermined hopes for peace in the region.

Although the idea of a strong U.N. is doubtlessly “a disaster” to Donald Trump, surely the U.N. should be recognized for the important role it has played (and hopefully will continue to play) in international peace. And surely it needs an adequate budget to keep up, and expand, its much-needed work.

But the truth is the U.N. has an annual core budget of about $2.5 billion – less than half the size of New Hampshire’s. And the poor U.S. has to pay 22 percent of it (as it agreed in the 1945 U.N. charter). Yes, it does also have special funds of which peacekeeping is by far the greatest, currently about $4 billion per year. And the poor U.S. is stuck paying a whopping 28.5 percent of that. That brings our bill up to over $1.5 billion. Good heavens, that’s almost the cost of a whole B-2 stealth bomber! (Don’t tell Don and Nikki.)

I know I’m not alone in seriously doubting that the world can survive self-destruction in the coming years and decades – if nuclear war doesn’t take us, climate change will – without a strong international order undergirded by a strong (and repaired) U.N. We should set to work now to build a stronger U.N. not a weaker one, not one whose most powerful lawmaking body – the 15-member Security Council – can have any of its proposals on war and peace shot down (vetoed) by a minority of one. Yes, a single one of its five permanent members (U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China) can kill a 14 to 1 majority vote – as we saw recently. That’s hardly a democratic arrangement. It must be repaired.

We must have respect for the U.N. and international law, and the international courts that adjudicates that law. In international matters a nation must be held accountable to an independent, impartial legal authority, not merely to itself. Unfortunately that’s a message the U.S. (and a few others) has been slow to see. And it’s gotten worse with the new Trump “America first” dangerous retreat from the international community. The U.S. has yet to sign and ratify the treaty on the International Criminal Court, established 1998 (not since Bush Jr. “unsigned” in 2002, fearing that some U.S. citizens and national leaders might be held accountable by such a court).

And we shouldn’t forget the World Court’s 1986 finding against the U.S. in favor of Nicaragua, for illegal use of force (the word “terrorism” wasn’t used) against Nicaragua. The court mandated that the U.S. desist and pay substantial reparations to the plaintiff for damages. Unsurprisingly, the mandate was ignored. (Reagan said he, not the court, knew best what was in the U.S. national interests. Of course an enforcement of the court order would need Security Council approval, which could simply be vetoed by one of the permanent members. We love that veto.)

I hope some of us will live to see the day when nations give the U.N. its own authority to raise taxes and a military-police force as we (the separate nations) begin the process of general disarmament per obligation of Article 6 of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Undoubtedly, that will require some unpleasant surrender of some national sovereignty. The states in 1787 managed to survive it when they settled on a national federation. Most of us would agree we couldn’t have survived without it.

In the meantime, let’s make an effort not to let Trump and his subjects disparage or short-change the UN. And it wouldn’t hurt for all of us to find out a bit more about our important global institution in the days ahead.

(Ray Perkins Jr. of Concord is professor of philosophy, emeritus, at Plymouth State University and vice chairman of the Bertrand Russell Society board of directors.)