For Richard C. Holbrooke, managing U.S.-U.N. relations must feel a bit like taking over as skipper of the Titanic -- after the iceberg. As soon as a truculent Senate finally confirmed him as permanent U.S. representative to the United Nations in August, Holbrooke headed off to the Balkans, where the West has handed the United Nations a peacekeeping migraine. In Kosovo, the province's political future remains utterly unresolved, most of the population wants an independent state that the West will not give, and a still-domineering Kosovo Liberation Army -- despite a September agreement to disband -- loses no opportunity to defy an organization it knows is in disrepute both on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

The real problem for the United Nations is that, after six years of worsening U.S.-U.N. relations and a series of bloody peacekeeping disasters, a skeptical Clinton administration now views Kosovo as a test case for whether the United Nations can ever be trusted with peacekeeping again. "The U.N.'s future in international crises," Holbrooke said, "is going to be determined in very large part by what it achieves in Kosovo." Although for the moment a truce has been declared -- senior Clinton officials have promised U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan they will avoid publicly criticizing the U.N. effort -- some in the administration seem to be positioning the United Nations as the fall guy for a probable foreign-policy mess. This, of course, continues a pattern dating back to Clinton's inaugural foreign-policy embarrassment in 1993: Somalia. Matters have only gotten worse since then.

Back in New York, Holbrooke faces an organization that is demoralized and in disarray. The United Nations' never-ending budget troubles fester on. By withholding more than $1 billion in dues, the United States is responsible for nearly 70 percent of the United Nations' current indebtedness, claims Joseph Connor, the U.N. undersecretary-general for management. As a result, the United Nations now owes $900 million in peacekeeping arrears to other nations, which in apparent retaliation have forked over only $22 million of the $125 million they were assessed for Kosovo. Although Congress and the Clinton administration agreed last June to pay up part of America's dues in exchange for U.N. "reform" -- even though, under Connor's nimble knife, the United Nations had already cut 12 percent of its staff -- the money has barely begun flowing. Still, the United States wants to regain its seat on the U.N. budget committee. "There is a real sense of visceral anger" here, says a senior U.N. official. The Security Council, meanwhile, teeters on the brink of dysfunction -- especially since last year, when Moscow, Paris, and Beijing virtually allied with Saddam Hussein to cast U.N. weapons inspectors out of Iraq. Increasingly, Washington looks on the Security Council as a place where it must go, holding its nose, to wrest an okay for collective action -- but which it tries mightily to avoid, as it did before the war in Kosovo.

U.S.-U.N. tensions, of course, are not a new story. What has become ever more alarming throughout the 1990s, however, is the deepening contempt displayed by both Congress and the Clinton administration toward the world body. These dismissive attitudes exist at all levels; recounting tales of U.N. incompetence is water-cooler sport in the State Department and the Pentagon. Washington's collective sneer has helped delegitimize the organization that Woodrow Wilson, F.D.R., and Harry Truman once dreamed would bind the world into a new structure of international relations. If the United Nations has not yet fallen into the desuetude of the League of Nations in the 1930s, it seems infected with a similar morbidity: that of an orphaned agency lacking the legitimizing imprimatur of the United States, with a Congress that refuses to recognize its value or even its existence (no fewer than 74 representatives, led by the powerful Republican whip, Tom DeLay, once voted to withdraw from the United Nations altogether), and a president who has been AWOL in defending it.

As Stanley Hoffmann has noted, in the past the United Nations' prestige let it post peacekeepers from Kashmir to Cyprus to Mozambique. Lacking that, the United Nations promises to become the Third World talking shop it was during the worst of the Cold War; the Security Council would degenerate into a mere soapbox used by once and would-be great powers (Russia, China, France) to puff themselves up; and the United States would stand estranged from the organization it once lovingly welcomed into the world. America would become, as Samuel P. Huntington has warned, a "rogue superpower."

Obviously, this is not what the United States really wants. Indeed, the terrible irony is that the United Nations -- the organization Washington has willfully marginalized and bankrupted -- is now more central than ever to America's global interests.

TIMOROUS

Two recent international crises, Kosovo and East Timor, are case studies in why America's disdain for the United Nations makes so little sense. East Timor in particular showed both the depths to which the United Nations can sink without U.S. support and, in the crisis' resolution, what the United Nations can become when there is a strong U.S. hand behind it.

In early September, the U.N. compound in Dili established to monitor a referendum on independence was besieged by Indonesian-backed militias. With the Clinton administration paying scant attention and thousands of East Timorese getting slaughtered, Annan ordered his staff to withdraw. Many bravely refused to go. The United Nations' reputation and prestige once again was utterly on the line. All the world was watching -- except, it seems, Washington. Asked about U.S. intervention, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger shrugged off the notion of American involvement, helpfully pointing out that he does not intervene every time his daughter messes up her room at college. (Berger later apologized, calling the analogy "a clumsy way of saying we can't obviously go everywhere, do everything.")

But as the headlines continued to scream and TV showed a smoking catastrophe in Dili, the global clamor for action grew deafening. Clinton abruptly swung into action en route to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in New Zealand, suspending military assistance and arms sales to Indonesia. Under Washington's guidance, the International Monetary Fund told Jakarta that billions of dollars in desperately needed aid would remain suspended as long as the killing continued. All this was given the heft of international law on September 14, when Holbrooke engineered a late-night approval of Security Council Resolution 1264, which authorized sending multinational troops to stop the killing. In the face of such unified opprobrium, Jakarta finally yielded to a peacekeeping force.

The success of that mission is hardly assured, but the East Timor crisis demonstrated that when Washington makes use of it, the U.N. system can be a powerful channel through which a wide array of threatened sanctions can be transmuted into a single hammer blow of pressure. Or as Holbrooke said afterward, "It was almost a textbook example of how the U.N. Security Council is supposed to work as envisaged by Churchill and Roosevelt."

East Timor held other, larger lessons for the Americans. Some in Washington still entertain the notion that America can define its "vital national interests" unilaterally and narrowly. But East Timor, like Kosovo, demonstrated that this decision is often no longer in our hands. CNN and the 24-hour media culture can turn local humanitarian horrors into global causes celebres that America, as the chief champion of post-Cold War liberal internationalism, can scarcely ignore. It's never lonely at the top, it turns out, when you're the lone superpower. It becomes much harder to claim that something, anything, is not your fight. But the United States does not want to be a "globocop" now any more than it did in the past, sacrificing American resources and lives to the East Timors of the world.

That sentiment argues for active U.S. support of multilateral solutions. The problem is that in most cases the United States simply cannot achieve effective multilateralism without the United Nations. This is not an easy conclusion for Washington's policy-making elite to swallow -- especially after Kosovo, a demonstration of America's unrivaled might that gave rise to White House hints of a "Clinton Doctrine" of humanitarian intervention. Soon after the war, senior administration officials -- inspired by NATO's new posture as a regional police officer -- began talking with renewed vigor of beefing up other regional organizations like the Organization of African Unity and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. They have even hinted that APEC, which began as a purely economic group, might become a regional security forum after East Timor. But the stark truth is that regionalism, whether through organized forums or ad hoc "posses" of nations, will rarely work outside the U.N. structure. Such efforts would inevitably be seen as power plays by one regional rival against others; just try to imagine an Australian-led peacekeeping force entering an Indonesian territory, as it is now, without Security Council authorization. In Kosovo, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic caved only after being offered a U.N. guarantee of sovereignty on which his ally, Russia, had signed off. For its part, a reluctant Washington acceded (at Moscow's urging) to a U.N. peacekeeping role in Kosovo when it realized that the only viable alternative, a mission run by the European Union, was even less desirable. (Another problem with regional military intervention: Kosovo was a much closer call than anyone has admitted. Despite 78 days of laser-guided bombing, NATO was within days of ordering up a potentially bloody ground invasion when Milosevic gave in. That is why no European leader cares to get involved in a Kosovo-like regional crisis again soon -- and why a worried White House strangled the nascent Clinton Doctrine in its conceptual crib.)

Hence, imperfect though it is, the United Nations and its system of agencies (including the World Court and the International Atomic Energy Agency) are collectively the closest thing to a globocop out there. And something more important than the United Nations as an organization is at stake: the future of international law itself. To oppose NATO's strikes on Serbia, both Russia and China -- the countries America most fears, with reason, as future geopolitical rivals -- invoked the U.N. Charter, which gives the Security Council alone the authority to enforce compliance with its resolutions. Irritating as this was to the White House, the co-opting of Russia and China by the U.N. system may be the surest firewall against war in the 21st century. The Security Council may be becoming, through its accumulated resolutions, the chief source of international case law -- the very framework of international norms that Washington has been trying to build since Wilson's day (even as arguments rage over the Security Council's ever-broadening interpretations of the U.N. Charter). But Washington's assault on the United Nations' prestige may undercut the norm-creating role of the Security Council, and that would badly damage U.S. interests. The Security Council, with its five World War II-engendered permanent members, is "increasingly being challenged as archaic" by the rest of the world, noted Ruth Wedgwood, an expert on the United Nations at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If we're mounting an artillery barrage from the other side," she said, we could be shooting ourselves in the foot.

THE SCAPEGOAT

What a difference half a decade makes. It was not very long ago that Washington was eager to help the United Nations take on the task of world peace. Think back to early 1993. The Cold War paralysis had ended; Moscow, the shoe-banging, propaganda-droning obstructionist, had become an attentive if troubled pupil of Western reform; and on the eve of Bill Clinton's election, then-U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali proposed an activist "Agenda for Peace" that won kudos from the Bush administration, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. His vision: a robust "peace enforcement" capability for the United Nations, a rapid reaction force that would fill the gap between the United Nations' traditional peacekeeping role as a lightly armed buffer -- the kind of duty it had performed for decades in places like the Middle East and Kashmir -- and the large-scale warmaking capability left to the United States in the Korean and Persian Gulf wars.

Boutros-Ghali's concept seemed to dovetail nicely with the new administration's agenda: "enlargement" of democracy had replaced containment as America's basic foreign policy doctrine, declared then-National Security Adviser Anthony Lake. The United Nations would not be central to this, but that was fine; it would take care of the world's basket cases -- a kind of World Bank for the politically needy -- while the rest of the globe prospered on a diet of open markets and democracy. Taken together, it was the last time anyone offered up a coherent plan for the hopefully named and never realized New World Order. As Boutros-Ghali concludes sadly in his recent book, Unvanquished: A U.S.-U.N. Saga -- a startlingly frank attack on Madeleine K. Albright and her tart-tongued janissary, James P. Rubin, whom Boutros-Ghali contends ousted him as secretary-general in part to appease congressional Republicans -- "in the past the job of constructing a postwar system of revitalized international relations generally was completed within five to seven years. . . . This book has been about the loss of [that] opportunity."

There is plenty of blame to go around -- starting with the United Nations itself. Always timid with firepower, the institution was clearly ill-equipped to take on so many post-Cold War peacekeeping challenges -- especially Bosnia. But whatever chance the United Nations had to become something more was quickly snuffed out by Washington politics. In 1994, the Republican takeover of Congress coincided disastrously with a surge in U.N. peacekeeping duties. At the time, the United Nations was running 17 different operations, and its peacekeeping budget had leapt from $600 million to $3 billion per year. In the absence of a true foreign threat to the United States, those numbers quickly came to the attention of the Republicans, especially Jesse Helms, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair who made an obsession with "U.N. reform" the focus of much of his blinkered vision of a scaled-down U.S. presence in the world. Largely as a result, the isolationist, Republican-dominated Congress held U.S. dues in thrall.

But Bill Clinton was the one who let it all happen. The leader of the free world willingly sacrificed the United Nations' reputation to domestic politics, making it yet another victim of the "triangulation" strategy whereby he co-opted key Republican ideas. And by not publicly taking up its cause, he let risible right-wing demagoguery about the threat to U.S. sovereignty of U.N. "black helicopters" linger in the public consciousness. Rather than working on the United Nations' weaknesses himself, Clinton let the organization become a scapegoat for his administration's own failures of will, imagination, and courage. Indeed, the stock image of U.N. failure -- the picture of a dead U.S. Ranger being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 -- was largely the fault of U.S., not U.N., command and control. But that experience so traumatized Clinton that it set in motion a wholesale retreat from overseas commitments, including a Clintonffinato decision not to vigorously pursue Bosnian Serb war criminals after the 1995 Dayton peace accord for fear of a Somalia-like result. That, in turn, emboldened Milosevic in Kosovo.

Worst of all, in the last few years the president has allowed America's backlog of dues to go unpaid over a dubious issue drenched in domestic politics: the use of U.N. money for pro-choice family planning. Pro-life Republicans can be faulted for their monomania, but in truth, most of their bills have contained fairly mild language tying up only a small amount of U.N. money. Many observers believe Clinton could have compromised much earlier had he been less beholden to women voters -- and more concerned about the United Nations.

Unless he does something about it, the neglect and breakdown of the U.N. system may some day be one of Clinton's most enduring foreign-policy legacies. There is no question that the United Nations needed reform and still does; even today, despite maintaining a zero-growth budget for most of the 1990s, it suffers from a certain degree of bloat. Half the United Nations' regular budget still goes for economic commissions and studies; outdated agencies like the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development could easily be absorbed into superseding organizations like the World Trade Organization. But is the United Nations frankly that much worse than any other multilateral bureaucracy? And might not the "medicine" now being administered be killing the patient?

Clinton and other administration officials regularly voice support for the United Nations in public. What they cannot bring themselves to do is to champion it in actual fact. Interestingly, no one embodies these tensions more than Richard Holbrooke. It was Holbrooke who, as chief negotiator at Dayton in 1995, banished the United Nations from the bargaining table in a harsh display of realpolitik. But it is also Holbrooke, a New Yorker born of immigrant parents, who more than once has tearfully described the moment when his father took him to the banks of the East River to gaze upon the U.N. building and see the great hope of the future. Against U.N. wishes, Holbrooke must now deal with Congress' all-too-unilateral attempt to reduce the U.S. share of U.N. dues from 25 to 20 percent, as he promised to do during his oft-delayed confirmation hearings. Moving the United States and the United Nations back to a place where they can at least coexist in mutual respect will, in the words of one U.N. official wise in the ways of Washington, require "a piece of almost Dayton-like shuttle diplomacy." But it may be the single most important foreign-policy initiative that the Clinton administration can undertake in its final year in office.

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