Global Policy Forum

Post-Election, Where Do US-UN Relations Stand?


By Steven A. Dimoff*

United Nations Association of the USA
November 21, 2006

The results of this month's mid-term congressional elections portend an overall improvement in the United States' relationship with the United Nations, especially given the predisposition of incoming committee chairs to support more active US involvement in the work of the world organization. In the House, long-time supporters of multilateral institutions, such as Representatives Tom Lantos (D-CA) and David Obey (D-WI), will chair the International Relations and the Appropriations Committees, respectively. At the level of the House leadership, incoming speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has been a strong supporter of foreign assistance programs generally and UN programs in particular, including the UN Children's Fund, the UN Development Program and the UN Population Fund, among others.

In the Senate, Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) will become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Biden, of course, was a principal architect of the Helms-Biden agreement for payment of nearly $1 billion in US arrears to the United Nations in the late 1990s. Most recently, he has played a leading role in urging Congress to lift a legislative cap of 25 percent on US contributions to UN peacekeeping operations. The United States is currently assessed 27.1 percent of the cost of peacekeeping operations; the US failure to pay the current assessed level has led to the accumulation of US arrears to peacekeeping even as the Bush administration supports the creation of expanded peacekeeping operations in the Middle East and new operations, such as Darfur.

At the same time, the election of new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea will set the stage early in the new year for a reassessment of US policy toward the world body. Mr. Ban is expected to make an official visit to Washington early in his term to meet with President George W. Bush and members of his administration as well as congressional leaders. UN reform is likely to remain a top priority for the US, though Capitol Hill leaders will also look to the UN to provide a diplomatic forum in which the US can address crises in such trouble spots as Iraq, North Korea, Iran and Darfur.

The loss of a significant number of Republican moderates in the recent congressional elections, such as Representative Jim Leach (R-IA) and Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), could affect congressional decision-making on UN issues, however. This may be less likely in the House where the Democratic majority is more substantial than in the Senate where a two-vote margin for the Democrats offers little room for maneuver without reaching across the aisle if the need should arise. In both the House and Senate, though, moderates have been essential to building a larger consensus—or more bipartisan approach—to foreign policy issues, especially on issues affecting the UN. The loss of these Republican centrists means that there will be a greater disparity in views on US-UN issues generally and votes could more easily fall along strict party lines.

Even before the 110th Congress gets underway, the issue of John Bolton's confirmation as US permanent representative to the UN is contributing to the overall setting in which issues of US-UN relations will be considered. As of this writing, it is unlikely that Bolton will be approved by the Senate given Senator Chafee's announced opposition to the nomination in the Foreign Relations Committee and incoming Committee Chairman Biden's call for a new nominee who would represent the Bush administration's willingness to extend an olive branch on this issue to the new Capitol Hill majority.

The Bolton nomination has received much attention on the Hill of late given that the ambassador's current recess appointment expires at the point at which the current lame duck session of the 109th Congress adjourns—expected to occur at the end of the year. Just last week, two members of the House, Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and James Walsh (R-NY), began circulating a letter among their colleagues urging the Bush administration to nominate Rep. Jim Leach for the UN post. In remarks on the House floor, Blumenauer argued, "We desperately need a strong, positive direction to guide multilateral diplomacy at the United Nations. There is not another American who is better suited to advancing United States interests in that important forum by temperament, experience or intellect than Jim Leach."

Aside from the issue of US representation at the UN, the new majority on Capitol Hill will deal with the reality of funding US contributions to international organizations in the context of an ongoing federal budget deficit that limits choices and administration budget requests that may well set different priorities for federal spending. In this regard, constituent pressure is likely to play a decisive role in setting policy directions and spending priorities on Capitol Hill. On UN reform issues, such as whether the US should seek a seat on the recently-created Human Rights Council, members of Congress from both parties will look to public opinion for a clearer sense of the direction in which the legislative branch ought to go.

About the Author: Mr. Dimoff is vice president of the Washington Office of the United Nations Association of the USA.

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