'Congressional Retaliation for U.N. Vote Helps America's Foes'

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TIME.com: The House of Representatives on Thursday voted, against the wishes of the Bush administration, to withhold some of the dues owed to the United Nations until the U.S. is reelected onto the U.N. Human Rights Commission. What impact will the House vote have on Washington’s international standing?

William Dowell: The House vote is going to be very destructive, and will make it more difficult for the incoming U.S. ambassador John Negroponte to recover lost ground. It makes it look as if we don't want to play the game unless we can run it, and that's unlikely to win us support. What you’re seeing here is the emergence of Western Europe as an increasingly independent political force. The U.S. may pay 22 percent of the entire U.N. budget, but Western Europe actually pays 30 percent — and it's beginning to assume a more important role. The impact of the House vote is that there's likely to be even less deference to the U.S. now. One European ambassador said this is the only global election in which the U.S. has to compete, and the result offers a window into what the world thinks about Washington right now.

There's a tremendous misunderstanding of what actually happened in this vote — the U.S. was never competing against Sudan or Libya, it was competing only against France, Sweden and Austria for one of the three seats reserved for Western nations. And the reason it lost was that it didn’t campaign. France was knocked off once, in the 1970s, and Britain has been knocked off twice — so they know you can't assume you'll be elected, you have to campaign. France and Austria began campaigning last October, and the U.S. found itself in trouble in March when it approached the Swedes and asked them to stand down. The Swedes said no, and then the U.S. appears to have not done enough to gather the votes. Most U.N. diplomats agree, though, that if former Ambassador Holbrooke or Negroponte had been on the case, this wouldn't have happened.

What did the defeat on the Human Rights Commission and also a drug-control committee say about the state of U.S. moral and political leadership on the international stage?

The international moral authority of the U.S. has been shaken by us reneging on agreements reached over money to the U.N., much of which was for peacekeeping, under pressure from Congress. That has created opportunities for countries radically opposed to our view of the world to press their case. China, for example, is radically opposed to our positions on human rights. Many of the Latin American countries, on the other hand, are unhappy with the way the U.S. conducts the war on drugs, believing that there's too much emphasis on interdiction and not enough on reducing demand for drugs in the U.S., which means that the only impact of success will be to raise the price of drugs and therefore the incentives to narco traffickers.

Being voted off the human rights and drug-control committees isolates the U.S., and allows those who don't agree with Washington free to try and create an international consensus on these issues without our input. But those in Congress who are threatening to withhold dues in retaliation are simply playing into the hands of China, the Sudan and others who oppose us, who would like nothing more than to have the U.S. drop out of the UN entirely.

The votes against the U.S. suggest that even allies are finding it hard to support Washington on certain issues…

It's difficult to exaggerate how low the image of the U.S. has sunk in Europe. France's leading daily, Le Monde, openly refers to President Bush as an "imbecile," the German press calls the Bush administration insensitive bullies. That's in the media, of course, but even in the corridors of power there’s an impression that the U.S. now has a government that is essentially provincial, not particularly aware of the world or very sophisticated in its dealings with others; that it is making enormous mistakes on issues such as the environment and missile defense that has some countries that traditionally support the U.S. now looking at us with serious doubt.

So how could the U.S. rebuild its political and moral authority with the international community?

It has to start listening to other countries and consulting them, paying attention to what they say, trying to convince them of our positions and where necessary reassess our own strategy in order to build a consensus. There have been a number of commentaries suggesting that the President does not have a mandate for the radical changes he's making in U.S. policy. He lost the popular vote and narrowly won the electoral vote, and yet he's embarking on profound changes to the framework of U.S. diplomacy and international security. That creates the impression abroad that the U.S. is in an unstable, unpredictable stage. There's no domestic consensus behind Bush's policies, which means the U.S. strategy may change either the next election or the one after that. So the world looks at as an unstable interim after which the policy may change again. So right now they’re trying to step around it, and find ways of continuing to do business without the U.S.