Suppose someone with a huge overdue balance on his credit cards had finally worked out a plan to pay off his debt over a period of two or three years. Suppose further that after receiving the first monthly payment or two a small portion of what is owed the loan company finds out that our bad credit risk has just signed up for a new card. Not only that he is about to make a huge charge that amounts to perhaps a third, and at least about a fifth or so, of all the money he owes under the old overdue card.
If you were the bank or credit company in this story, wouldn’t you be furious to find out he was now about to run up a new debt? Of course, you would. And if you were smart, you would administer a little tough love, or at least good business practice, and cut off his credit altogether.
As Congress prepares to wind up its business this fall, it stands perilously close to imitating the actions of our imaginary credit-card debtor. Late last year, Congress agreed to pay off America’s debt to the United Nations, in return for which the U.N. will continue with a series of reforms set out in legislation by Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, and his colleague, Sen. Joseph Biden, Delaware Democrat. We have now appropriated a first payment, and the U.N., in return, has continued with the changes that many of us conservatives have been pushing since the Reagan administration. Among them is a change in the U.N. funding formula that reduces the oversized payments charged to the United States.
In the meantime, however, Congress may now withhold more than $400 million in dues for U.N. peacekeeping operations. Depending on how you figure our original overdue balance to the U.N., that is about least one-fifth to one-third, of what America owed the U.N. for years all accomplished in one calendar year. (House and Senate committee chairman reportedly signed off on an agreement to restore the withheld funds on the final day of September, but this compromise could be reversed.)
The ironic result may be to undermine the very Helms-Biden reforms that Republicans in Congress are rightly proud of having finally pushed part way through the United Nations globalocracy in 1999 and 2000.
Fortunately for the United States, the U.N. our consolidation lender doesn’t have that much leverage. If Congress does start running up a new overdue balance, there isn’t much the U.N. can (or anyway, will) do to call our debt in. But the U.N. and its member states especially our major allies, who pay their dues every year on time will remember and resent the U.S. bait-and-switch game. And it will resent and resist U.S. efforts to continue promoting reforms in the U.N.’s finances and operations, and to make use of the services the U.N. provides to us.
Among these services is the arbitration it brings to important commercial disputes. This summer, for example, a U.N. team issued a ruling in a case involving international internet domain sites a realm where some foreign countries have allowed and even encouraged outright piracy of U.S. intellectual property in the engine of U.S. growth, the worldwide web. The ruling could save Microsoft, IBM and other U.S. companies billions of dollars, and accordingly shield tens of thousands of U.S. hi-tech jobs.
U.N. peacekeeping operations allow the U.S. to intervene in countries where the U.S. would rather not, for reasons both economic and political, have to intervene all by itself. Among these are Sierra Leone, East Timor and, most notably, Kosovo. In the latter, a long-term U.S. policy of resisting aggression, partly using U.N. forces, helped bring an end to the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic. Do we really want to signal other dictators around the world that even when the U.N. and U.S. are able to bring pressures like these against their regimes, the United States will grumble or chicken out and refuse to pay the bill for the operations?
Congress complains that U.N. peacekeeping operations are often poorly conceived, poorly run and badly in need of reform. And Congress is right. Even Clinton intimate Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., admitted as much in a meeting earlier this year. The African missions in particular have suffered high casualties brought on by halfhearted Lebanon-style operations in which U.N. forces, including Americans, act as sitting ducks.
The correct remedy, however, is not for Congress to get back to running up the national debt even if the amounts are small and the creditor is a weak sister that can’t really do much. The right answer is to pay the dues we owe for peace-keeping especially considering the U.S. could have vetoed any of the operations we now want to second-guess, but chose not to.
Under these circumstances, paying off the national debt to the U.N. is a vote for continued reforms, in peacekeeping operations and elsewhere. A vote to stiff the U.N. for the check is a vote to frustrate, halt and possibly thwart those very changes.
Gregory Fossedal chairs the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution in Arlington, Va.