The United Nations presents something of a paradox. An organization founded under the auspices of a U.S. rising toward becoming an unprecedented global power, the main body of the U.N., its General Assembly, has for decades adopted resolutions and hosted rhetoric that very visibly run counter to the stated strategic interests of the United States. The fact that the U.S. remains the most crucial single-nation sponsor of the U.N. budget — it provided 22 percent of the total budget in 2017, more than double the next-largest individual sponsor — makes this paradox all the more puzzling.
To help understand its cause — and its possible solutions — we spoke with Richard Schifter. Schifter served as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs from 1985 to 1992 and spent a distinguished career in public service analyzing the complex interplay of international interests around big-picture strategic issues. He is no fire-and-brimstone critic of the organization. Indeed, he pointed out that “the very constructive work done in the initial decades of the U.N. has continued. You have the World Health Organization functioning. You have the Food and Agricultural Organization functioning. Quite a number of good things are still happening under the U.N.’s auspices. But nothing new is being contributed by the General Assembly. It spends billions of dollars a year on effectively reiterating the same resolutions, the same speeches.”
It is the content of those speeches and those resolutions that Schifter finds so troubling. In order to understand how the good intentions behind the U.N. have gone so far astray, Schifter argues, we first need to understand the difference between the early years of the organization and its modern incarnation. As he put it, “the United Nations was created in 1945 and from the very beginning, the United States played an extremely important role in guiding its work. Much of which, in those initial years, was significantly in keeping with the ideas of the U.S. government regarding world peace and assistance to countries and people in need. Those years saw the creation of organizations like the World Health Organization to deal with public health and the Food and Agricultural Organization to assist farmers in less-developed countries, as well as the United Nations Children’s Fund.”
The upshot being, in Schifter’s words, that “in these first 25 years, the U.N. really played a very important role in developing an international framework for countries to cooperate with each other on assistance and development and, of course, to try to maintain peace.”
There was, however, a major shift in geopolitics during this period, one that would prove crucial to the subsequent development of the organization. “Colonialism more or less came to an end,” Schifter notes. “A great many countries became independent and then established governments of their own and were admitted as members of the United Nations. And that brought about a basic change in the geographic makeup of the United Nations. It had previously been European countries, a few Asian countries, and the United States. Now, a large number of additional Asian countries and a great number of African countries became members.”
With the influx of newly independent nations, the U.S.’s main rival in global politics, the Soviet Union, saw an opportunity to swing the balance of power within the U.N. in its favor. Their tool for achieving this? The Non-Aligned Movement, an anti-colonial concert of younger nations. “The Soviets developed an idea — working with the Non-Aligned Movement to take control of the U.N.,” Schifter says. “It was in the autumn of 1973 at an NAM conference in Nilgiris that Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi, who had been engaged in a struggle over the leadership of the NAM previously, agreed to work with each other and to see whether they could use the NAM presence in New York at the U.N. to take control of the General Assembly. They began a campaign to try to convince the governments of these new independent countries, these new members of the U.N. to associate themselves with the NAM and with its anti-U.S., anti-Israel program.”
This plan had, according to Schifter, a single overriding goal: to embarrass the United States and put it visibly in the minority. “And that effort,” says Schifter, “turned out to be successful. The Cubans had as their ambassador in New York a man by the name of Ricardo Alarcon. He served as Cuban ambassador of United Nations for 12 years.” This period more than sufficed, says Schifter, for the Cubans to “establish a solid base for this Cuban-Libyan coalition. What Gaddafi did was to provide funding. People were then paid off on a regular basis for going along with the line as it had been laid out by the Castro-Gaddafi leadership.”
The results of this are plainly visible. The U.N.’s obsessive focus on Israel — seen around the world as a proxy of the United States — is but one of the results of the strategic coup the Soviets executed. The U.N., of course, does not equal the U.S. in military force on its own; and among its constituent members are any number of very close U.S. allies. But there exists enough of an ingrained permanent opposition within the organization to frustrate and hobble U.S. attempts to work with it. This, however, is not a unalterable condition of the world — or of the U.N., Schifter argues. It is an artifact of a geopolitical order that has since changed.
“What is important is to recognize,” he told us, “is that in a great many countries the outlook of the government leadership is not what it was decades ago. Many of them are much closer to the U.S. position and are not really interested in being seen as anti-U.S. or even anti-Israel.” Yet, Schifter notes, at the United Nations the system has continued. This is largely because “a culture was created there among the various nations and ambassadors, and they just keep going along with the traditional approach. The challenge is to try to make the case to government leaders in friendly countries. Tell them that the U.N. matters and they ought to give directions to the U.N. ambassadors to change their voting pattern.”
So what is the strategy here? Schifter outlines one that is both simple to understand and difficult (but far from impossible) to execute. “Identify those countries that consistently vote against the United States and are, in terms of the makeup of their government, friendly to the United States,” he told us. “Many of them receive hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. assistance annually. Get the heads of government to understand that the U.S. really cares about the votes that they cast and call attention to how their ambassadors vote consistently against the United States and ask that they give instructions to change the voting pattern. The question, of course, is who can do it. And that is where the problem arises. The State Department finds it difficult to go over the heads, so to speak, of a foreign ministry and reach a head of government directly. The White House rarely has the time to get involved in all of this.”
He did, however, point to a notable success using this strategy. “In 2006,” Schifter recalls, “Venezuela announced its candidacy for the Security Council. The Bush administration decided to block it. The President and the Vice President got on the phone and started calling the various countries that were voting. Venezuela was running against Guatemala. The voting for the Security Council is by secret ballot. 47 rounds of voting took place before Venezuela gave up. The results of these 47 votes, if averaged, are 103 ayes for Guatemala and 79 for Venezuela. A clear majority — but in order to get a Security Council seat you need a two-thirds majority. The way it finally worked out was that Panama was chosen to be the Latin American representative for that period. We succeeded in preventing Venezuela from serving on the Security Council. A few years later, under the Obama administration, Venezuela was elected without opposition.”
It’s clear that the U.S. can make a difference here. And it seems clear that it should try, as well. For Schifter, it is primarily a question of a coming contest for global primacy.
“The United States should really assert itself at the U.N. as effectively as we can, because China is interested in essentially replacing the United States in a leadership position in the world,” he notes. “And China under its current leadership is highly nationalistic. As far as Russia is concerned, I think we have a problem there with Putin, but Russia is economically not really in good shape. It’s declining, so it is a factor still but probably less so than it was in the past. I think China is what we need to be concerned about.”