The U.N.'s Deadbeat Uncle Sam

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What’s a bill collector to do when his main target is the most powerful country in the world? The U.N. faces just this dilemma as it wrestles with the complications of forcing the U.S. to pay back dues amounting to $1.3 billion. There is little doubt that this is a case of codependency: The U.N. needs U.S. money and stature to carry out various international duties, while the U.S. depends on the perceived neutrality of U.N. delegations that carry out U.S.-friendly foreign policy. Now both parties are in a bind. President Clinton is expected to address the General Assembly on Tuesday, and although the President and U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke are all for handing over the money, they are at the mercy of congressional votes, says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. In June, the U.S. Senate approved payment of the debt, with a rider reducing (from 25 percent down to 20 percent) the U.S. financial commitment to a range of U.N. operations. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright approved the addendum as a tradeoff with Senate Foreign Relations Chair Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who in turn dropped his demands for large-scale U.N. reform. It remains to be seen whether the House will approve the payment plan before the U.N.-imposed January 1, 2000, deadline. Until then, says Dowell, “Holbrooke plans to be back in D.C. at least once a week to lobby the House.”

And if Holbrooke’s powers of persuasion are not enough to overcome the pro-life hard-liners and the isolationists who have been holding up the payment schdule? The U.N. is threatening to relieve the U.S. of its voting rights in the General Assembly if a payment of at least $250 million isn’t in the bank by the New Year. This, of course, is a turn of events that many would like to avoid — the U.N. because, at the end of the day, it just wants the darn money; the U.S. because without its seat in the G.A., it will lose much of its clout in crucial peacekeeping and aid decisions. With U.N.-authorized forces knee-deep in conflicts or peacekeeping efforts in East Timor, Kosovo and (yes) Iraq, the U.S. House of Representatives faces at least one grim responsibility. If the worst-case scenario comes to pass, who would be worse off: the U.N. without the U.S., or the U.S. without the U.N.?