DENVER – U.S. President Donald Trump’s first address to the United Nations General Assembly will be remembered, above all, for its bizarre language and its descriptions of North Korea as “depraved,” Iran as “murderous,” and Cuba and Venezuela as “corrupt.” And, beyond calling out miscreant member states by name, Trump also offered a fervent defense of his “America First” agenda.
But while Trump’s particular choice of words was new to the U.N., his arguments were not. He pointed out, with some justification, that other countries also put their own national interests first. And he reprised a long-standing complaint within U.S. foreign policymaking circles: that it is somehow excessive and unfair to expect American taxpayers to pay for 22 percent of the U.N.’s total budget.
After calling on the General Assembly to do its part to implement and then enforce sanctions against North Korea, Trump said, “Let’s see how they do.” But referring to the U.N. as “they” implies that it is something apart from the United States. Trump’s tone was that of a dissatisfied tenant, blaming the landlord for his home’s poor state of repair. But the U.N. is only as good as those who inhabit it, not least the U.S. itself.
In his speech, Trump listed America’s many contributions to the world and suggested that it keeps the U.N. around as a sort of favor to other countries in need of an international forum. He assumed no U.S. responsibility for the U.N.’s fortunes, failures, or even its achievements. But, in addition to contributing more than any other country to the U.N. budget, the U.S. also plays an outsize role within the institution. The U.S. can thus claim credit for many of the U.N.’s successes; but it is also responsible for many of its failures.
It is worth remembering that no U.N. secretary-general assumes office without U.S. support. And, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. has veto power over any U.N. action, including sanctions, deployments of peacekeepers and official condemnations of other member states. Even if the U.N.’s large institutional bureaucracy can be unwieldy at times, its effectiveness ultimately depends on its most influential members.
Consider the Bosnian conflict in the early 1990s, when the Security Council decided to send in U.N. peacekeepers, rather than deploying a more robust multilateral presence, as would have been allowed under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter. The United Kingdom and France, which contributed the bulk of the peacekeeping force, insisted on a peacekeeping mandate, because they did not want to put their troops in harm’s way.
The U.S., for its part, refused to contribute any troops at all, and thus had no right to call for a stronger mandate that would have allowed U.N. forces to step in to end the violence. Although many Americans had witnessed the carnage from their living rooms and wanted the U.N. to do more to stop it, neither they nor their leaders — first George H.W. Bush and then Bill Clinton — had any interest in sending American troops to be a part of a Bosnian peacekeeping force. The result, as we now know, was that the killing continued, sometimes in the presence of U.N. peacekeepers whose countries had not given them a strong enough mandate to intervene.
By the time the U.S.-led Dayton Accords had put an end to the war, in December 1995, the U.N.’s peacekeeping capacity had been so thoroughly discredited that NATO war-fighting troops were sent in to take over from the U.N. Protection Force. In other words, when the situation required war fighters, peacekeepers were dispatched; and when the situation called for peacekeepers, war fighters were sent. None of this apparent dysfunction had anything to do with the U.N. It was a direct result of U.N. member states’ decision-making.
Even Trump’s dystopian and dyspeptic speech conceded that the U.N. makes valuable contributions to world peace, through peacekeeping missions and other forms of assistance. More often than not, this work is done in far-flung countries, where direct U.S. involvement would be unpalatable to many American politicians’ constituents.
The U.N. is far from perfect. But, rather than bash it, U.S. leaders should understand that its actions and decisions are often an extension of their own.
Christopher R. Hill, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. © Project Syndicate, 2017