Not long ago, while accompanying U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright to an appearance in North Carolina, I was asked by a reporter whether the United States should withdraw from the United Nations. It was a valid question, to which I responded, "Not yet."

As it currently operates, the United Nations does not deserve continued American support. Its bureaucracy is proliferating, its costs are spiraling, and its mission is constantly expanding beyond its mandate -- and beyond its capabilities. Worse, with the steady growth in the size and scope of its activities, the United Nations is being transformed from an institution of sovereign nations into a quasi-sovereign entity in itself. That transformation represents an obvious threat to U.S. national interests. Worst of all, it is a transformation that is being funded principally by American taxpayers. The United States contributes more than $3.5 billion every year to the U.N. system as a whole, making it the most generous benefactor of this power-hungry and dysfunctional organization.ffi

This situation is untenable. The United Nations needs to be radically overhauled. Yet Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has ignored multiple warnings and stubbornly resisted reform that gets down to fundamentals. On the contrary, Boutros-Ghali has pursued a well-publicized campaign of what he calls U.N. "empowerment." He has protected the bloated bureaucracy, and the number and nature of peacekeeping operations has vastly expanded under his tenure. He has pressed for the establishment of a standing U.N. army and the power to collect direct U.N. taxes.

Now, with U.N. "empowerment" as his platform, Boutros-Ghali has reversed his pledge to serve a single term and is seeking a second one. The Clinton administration has belatedly announced its opposition but has failed to nominate or even search for a replacement, just as it has been complacent in the face of his presumptions to power.

Rather than Boutros-Ghali's "empowerment," the United Nations needs a stark reassessment of its mission and its mandate. The next secretary-general must help develop a bold plan to cut back the overgrown bureaucracy and limit its activities, then muster the political will and leadership to implement it. The reformist zeal of the next secretary -general will in all likelihood determine whether or not the United Nations survives into the next century. For if such a plan is not put forward and implemented, the next U.N. secretary-general could -- and should -- be the last.


The United Nations was originally created to help nation -states facilitate the peaceful resolution of international disputes. However, the United Nations has moved from facilitating diplomacy among nation-states to supplanting them altogether. The international elites running the United Nations look at the idea of the nation-state with disdain; they consider it a discredited notion of the past that has been superseded by the idea of the United Nations. In their view, the interests of nation-states are parochial and should give way to global interests. Nation -states, they believe, should recognize the primacy of these global interests and accede to the United Nations' sovereignty to pursue them.

Boutros-Ghali has said as much. In his 1992 Agenda for Peace, he declared his view that the sovereignty of nations is an outdated concept: "The time of absolute and exclusive sovereignty . . . has passed. Its theory was never matched by reality. It is the task of leaders of states to understand this." In other words, U.N. member nations, including the United States, should be willing to abandon claims of "absolute and exclusive sovereignty" and empower the United Nations by ceding it a measure of their sovereignty. They should give the secretary-general a standing army and the power to collect taxes -- functions that legitimately rest only with SOVEREIGN STATES.

Such thinking is in step with the nearly global movement toward greater centralization of political power in the hands of elites at the expense of individuals and their local representatives. In the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, political leaders are belatedly recognizing the destructive effects of central bureaucracies and state-controlled economic activities and are fighting uphill battles to bring these into check. They are finding, however, that once established, bureaucracies (along with the goodies they dispense) are nearly impossible to dismantle. As the millennium approaches, this virus of centralization is spreading to the global level, and the United Nations is its carrier. Just as massive bureaucracies have taken hold in Europe and the United States, the U.N. bureaucracy has established a foothold on the international stage.

This process must be stopped. In the United States, Congress has begun a process of devolution, taking power away from the federal government and returning it to the states. This must be replicated at the international level. Reining in the U.N. bureaucracy goes hand in hand with Congress' domestic agenda of devolution. U.N. reform is about much more than saving money. It is about preventing unelected bureaucrats from acquiring ever-greater powers at the expense of elected national leaders. It is about restoring the legitimacy of the nation-state.


How big is the problem? According to the latest official U.N. statistics, the organization is home to 53,744 bureaucrats, comprising the Secretariat bureaucracy and those of the diverse specialized agencies. Hard as it is to believe, some advocates of the United Nations argue that it is not big enough. In his book Divided It Stands: Can the United Nations Work? James Holtje writes that "when one considers that . . . [the United Nations is] expected to meet the needs of 5.5 billion people worldwide, the number begins to look small." It is not the job of the United Nations to "meet the needs" of 5.5 billion people -- that is the job of nation-states.

But the U.N. bureaucracy mistakenly believes that caring for the needs of all the world's people is exactly its job. From the bureaucracy's vantage point, there are no international, national, or even local problems -- all problems are U.N. problems. Thus we have the recent Habitat II conference in Istanbul, where the United Nations spent millions of dollars to address the concerns of cities -- an issue that legitimately should be handled by local or national governments.

So what is wrong with the United Nations lending a helping hand on these matters? The issue is not just sticking the U.N.'s nose where it does not belong. By making every problem its problem, the United Nations often makes the situation worse. Instead of helping nation-states solve problems, the United Nations does the exact opposite -- it creates a disincentive for states to handle problems that are their responsibility to resolve. When every local or regional problem becomes a global one, the buck stops nowhere. Solving it becomes everyone's responsibility, and thus no one's responsibility.

The war in Bosnia is a perfect example. Dealing with Serbia's illegal aggression and genocide in Bosnia was the responsibility of the European powers, in whose region the crisis lay, and of the United States, which considers itself a European power. But instead of addressing the issue themselves, the Clinton administration and our European allies pushed responsibility for handling this problem onto the United Nations, which accepted a mission it was incapable of fulfilling. The U.N. peacekeeping operation became an excuse for inaction by the Europeans and Americans, who used the United Nations to pretend they were addressing the problem. As a result, thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians died, while the United Nations, through a combination of impotence and negligence, did nothing to stop the genocide.

The United Nations also complicates matters by giving states with no interest in a particular problem an excuse to meddle without putting anything concrete on the table. Countries that have no natural interest in an issue suddenly want to get involved, and the United Nations gives them the legitimacy to do so without cash or constructive contributions. What, for example, are countries like Togo, Zaire, Panama, or Ireland, or China for that matter, prepared to contribute to bringing about Middle East peace? They have no legitimate role in the peace process, save that which their U.N. membership (and in some cases seats on the Security Council) gives them. What the United Nations ends up doing is giving lots of countries a seat at the table who bring nothing to the table.

By making every issue a global issue, the United Nations is attempting to create a world that does not exist. A United Nations that can recognize its limitations -- helping sovereign states work together where appropriate and staying out of issues where it has no legitimate role -- is worth keeping; a United Nations that insists on imposing its utopian vision on states begs for dismantlement.


Successful reform would achieve the twin goals of arresting U.N. encroachment on the sovereignty of nation-states while harnessing a dramatically downsized United Nations to help sovereign nations cope with some cross-border problems. Such reform must begin by replacing Boutros Boutros-Ghali with a new secretary-general who will go in on day one with a daring agenda to reduce bureaucracy, limit missions, and refine objectives.

Second, there must be at least a 50 percent cut in the entire U.N. bureaucracy. The Clinton administration has made the standard of reform a "zero-growth" budget. This is inadequate. So long as this bureaucracy remains in place, it will continue to find new missions to justify its existence.

Third, there must be a termination of unnecessary committees and conferences. Since its founding as an organization of five organs in 1945, literally hundreds of U.N. agencies, commissions, committees, and subcommittees have proliferated. Today, for example, the United Nations includes a Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which counts among its crowning achievements the passage of a resolution calling upon sovereign nations to report all contacts with extraterrestrial beings directly to the secretary-general.

In addition to massive, wasteful conferences like the Beijing women's summit and Habitat II, the United Nations continually sponsors workshops, expert consultations, technical consultations, and panel discussions, last year some 7,000 in Geneva alone. Most of these can be terminated at a savings of millions of dollars.

Fourth, the U.N. budgeting process must be radically overhauled. Budgets for U.N. voluntary organizations are currently amassed through a bidding process, where nation-states must make capital investments prior to involvement in specific issues or projects under U.N. auspices. This should be the model for the entire U.N. budgeting system. The secretary-general currently has a budget of roughly $1 billion to pay for the activities of the Security Council, General Assembly, Economic and Social Council, Secretariat, and International Court of Justice, plus the administrative costs of numerous relief, development, and humanitarian agencies. This budget is voted on by the General Assembly, where the United States has no veto, and where every nation -- whether democratic or dictatorial, no matter how much or how little it contributes to the United Nations -- has an equal vote.

This system should be abolished. Instead, the secretary-general should be limited to a bare-bones budget of some $250 million, and U.N. activities should be funded on a voluntary basis. This would essentially subject all U.N. programs to a market test. Each country would decide the value of programs by how much they were willing to pay. Those programs that are really vital will continue to receive support, while those championed only by the bureaucracy will die of malnutrition.

Some bargaining will naturally result (country X would say to country Y, you help with my project, and I'll help with yours). But this system would dramatically cut down on waste, eliminate freeloaders, empower member states vis-à-vis the bureaucracy in budget determinations, give states a voice in the U.N. commensurate with their willingness to pay while forcing wealthier countries to pay more, and give the United States and others the option not to fund or participate in programs they are currently compelled to support, but which they feel directly violate their interests.

Lastly, peacekeeping must be overhauled. Peacekeeping is the United Nations' fastest-growing industry. In 1988, the total cost of U.N. peacekeeping operations around the world was just $230 million; in 1994, it was $3.6 billion. Of that, the United States was directly assessed nearly $1.2 billion, plus additional in-kind contributions of personnel, equipment, and other support totaling roughly $1.7 billion (all of which was skimmed off the U.S. defense budget).

Not only have costs proliferated -- so has the scope of peacekeeping missions. Prior to 1990, most peacekeeping missions were just that: monitoring truces, policing cease-fires, and serving as a buffer between parties. Today, however, peacekeeping has evolved into a term without meaning. It is used to justify all sorts of U.N. activities -- everything from holding elections to feeding hungry people to nation-building. As the system now works, the United States has two choices: go along with a proposed peacekeeping operation and pay 31.7 percent of the cost, or veto the mission, which we do not like to do. The system should permit a third option: allow the United States to let missions go forward without U.S. funding or participation. If others in the world want to undertake nation-building operations, there is no reason the United States should discourage them -- so long as American taxpayers do not have to pay for a third of it. This would allow the United Nations to serve the purpose it was designed for: helping sovereign states coordinate collective action where the will for such action exists. And, of course, Security Council members would retain the authority to veto missions they deem wholly inappropriate.


The time has come for the United States to deliver an ultimatum: Either the United Nations reforms, quickly and dramatically, or the United States will end its participation. For too long, the Clinton administration has paid lip service to the idea of U.N. reform, without imposing any real costs for U.N. failure to do so. I am convinced that without the threat of American withdrawal, nothing will change. Withholding U.S. contributions has not worked. In 1986, Congress passed the Kassebaum-Solomon bill, which said to the United Nations in clear and unmistakable terms, reform or die. That did not work. A decade later, the United Nations has neither reformed nor died. The time has come for it to do one or the other.

Legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations and replace it with a league of democracies. This idea has merit. If the United Nations is not clearly on the path of real reform well before the year 2000, then I believe the United States should withdraw. We must not enter the new millennium with the current U.N. structure in place. The United States has a responsibility to lay out what is wrong with the United Nations, what the benchmarks for adequate reform are, and what steps we are willing to take if those benchmarks are not met by a date certain.

The United Nations will certainly resist any and all reform -- particularly many of the smaller and less developed members, which benefit from the current system and gain influence by selling their sovereignty to the organization. That is why the next secretary-general has an enormous job to do: his or her mandate will be nothing less than to save the United Nations from itself, prove that it is not impervious to reform, and show that it can be downsized, brought under control, and harnessed to contribute to the security needs of the 21st century. This is a gargantuan, and perhaps impossible, task. But if it cannot be done, then the United Nations is not worth saving. And if it is not done, I, for one, will be leading the charge for U.S. withdrawal.

ffi There is no single entry in the U.S. budget for contributions to the United Nations. Ambassador Charles Lichenstein, a former U.S. representative to the United Nations, has calculated the $3.5 billion figure thus: the U.S. share of the U.N. administrative budget, $298 million; the U.S. share of the U.N. peacekeeping budget, $1.2 billion; U.S. contributions to all U.N. specialized agencies, $368 million, excluding capital contributions to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; the value of goods and services the United States voluntarily contributes toward U.N. peacekeeping and the U.N. system as a whole, $1.7 billion to $2.0 billion. In recent years Congress has withheld a fraction of this amount as pressure for U.N. reform.

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  • Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) is Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
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