The Foreign Service Journal, September 2006

Today, we are coming to the end of the 10-year term of arguably the U.N.’s best-ever secretary-general, Kofi Annan. But some of his very successes — promoting human rights and a responsibility to protect people from abuse by their own governments; creating a new status for civil society and business at the United Nations — are either not recognized or have come under steady attack from anti-U.N. groups. To take just one example, 10 years ago U.N. peace- keeping seemed almost moribund in the aftermath of tragic mistakes in Rwanda, Somalia and Yugoslavia. Today, the organization fields 18 peacekeeping opera- tions around the world, from the Congo to Haiti, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Southern Lebanon and Liberia, with an annual cost that is at a bargain-bin price compared to other U.S.-led operations. And the U.S. pays roughly one quarter of those United Nations peacekeeping costs — just over $1 billion this year. That figure should be seen in the context of estimates by both the Government Accountability Office and RAND Corporation that U.N. peacekeeping, while lack- ing heavy armament enforcement capacity, helps to maintain peace — when there is a peace to keep — more effectively for a lot less than comparable U.S. operations. Multilateral peacekeeping is effective cost- sharing on a much lower-cost business model, and it works. That is as it should be and is true for many other areas in which the U.N. system works, from humanitarian relief to health and education. Yet for many policymak- ers and opinion leaders in Washington, let alone the gen- eral public, the roles I have described are hardly believed or, where they are, remain discreetly underplayed. To acknowledge an America reliant on international institu- tions is not perceived to be good politics at home. However, inevitably, a moment of truth is coming. Because even as the world’s challenges are growing, the U.N.’s ability to respond is being weakened without U.S. leadership. Take the Issue of Human Rights When Eleanor Roosevelt took the podium at the United Nations to argue passionately for the elaboration of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world responded. Today, when the human rights machinery was renewed with the formation of a Human Rights Council to replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights, and the U.S. chose to stay on the side- lines, the loss was everybody’s. I hope and believe the new council will prove itself to be a stronger and more effective body than its predeces- sor. But there is no question that the American decision to call for a vote in order to oppose it in the General Assembly, and then to not run for a seat after it was approved by 170 votes to 4, makes the challenge more difficult. More broadly, Americans complain about the U.N.’s bureaucracy, weak decisionmaking, the lack of account- able modern management structures and the political divisions of the General Assembly here in New York. And my response is, “guilty on all counts.” But why? In significant part because the U.S. has not stuck with its project — its professed wish to have a strong, effective United Nations — in a systematic way. Former Secretary of State [Madeleine] Albright and oth- ers here today have played extraordinary leadership roles in U.S.-U.N. relations, for which I salute them. But in the eyes of the rest of the world, U.S. commitment tends to ebb much more than it flows. And in recent years, the enormously divisive issue of Iraq and the big stick of financial withholding have come to define an unhappy marriage. As someone who deals with Washington almost daily, I know this is unfair to the very real effort all three Secretaries of State I have worked with — Secretary Albright, Secretary Powell and Secretary Rice — put into U.N. issues. And today, in a very wide number of areas, 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 reach- es the American heartland has been largely abandoned to its loudest detractors, such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. That is what I mean by “stealth” diplomacy: the U.N.’s role is, in effect, a secret in Middle America even as it is highlighted in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Exacerbating matters is the widely held perception, even among many U.S. allies, that America tends to hold on to maximalist positions when it could be find- ing middle ground. We can see this even on apparent- ly non-controversial issues such as renovating the dilap- idated U.N. headquarters in New York. While an architectural landmark, the building falls dangerously F O C U S S E P T E M B E R 2 0 0 6 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 57