- The Washington Times - Monday, May 2, 2005

Two elephants sit squarely in the room. No one will speak of them lest they awaken. Awake, they might stir intense debate, distracting us from other currently fascinating topics.

Behind the personal and political battle over John Bolton’s nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, sit two enormous issues. They are reform of the U.N. and conversion of America’s critics. If the latter sounds lofty, consider the importance of diplomacy over the last 60 years. Persuasion can be difficult, but the U.N. is the best forum for taking on critics. Winning hearts and minds is not just wise; it is essential. War may not always be avoidable. But as Lincoln observed, “I destroy our enemies when I make them friends.”

So, start with U.N. reform. Putting aside whether one person can reform the world’s most unwieldy dinner table, certain facts are glaring. The United States contributes 24 percent of the U.N.’s official development assistance budget — not counting private contributions by Americans. That number is regularly criticized as the lowest percentage of any nation’s gross national income. Yet in absolute dollars the United States gives more than twice what France, Germany, Japan or Great Britain give; more than 8 times what Sweden, Spain, Norway, Italy, Denmark, Canada or Belgium contribute; and more than 16 times what Austria, Finland, Greece, Ireland or Portugal give. Americans are outspoken, unrepentingly individualistic, and irretrievably idealistic but not stingy.

Of course, more can be done. But critics miss the big picture. Americans can support the United Nations to this extraordinary degree because we have the freedom and self-determination others at the U.N. have tired, at times aggressively, to suffocate under a blanket of socialism, communism or dictatorship. Our gross national income is higher because we live in a free society, characterized by rule of law, respect for human rights, protected property, free labor mobility, free flows of capital — all the advantages of embracing democracy.

Within the U.N., contradictions abound. Occasionally, they even undermine founding principles embodied in the United Nations Charter. For example, in 2004, the Sudan — one of the world’s most notorious human-rights violators — was elected to membership on the U.N. Human Rights Commission. According to Human Rights Watch, Sudan’s government is “complicit in crimes” such as “killing, raping and looting of African civilians.”

Unbelievably, that election occurred just a year after Cuba, this hemisphere’s trampler-in-chief of human rights, was elected to the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

How do decisions like this occur? Where are the sensibilities of members who allow such decisions to prevail? These questions must be raised and debated.

Beyond ideology, there is another U.N. albatross: financial management. Without external accountability, no U.N. member is well-served. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker’s investigation of the billion-dollar U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal offers an important inflection point. Mr. Volcker found senior U.N. personnel destroyed thousands of pages of U.N. documents.

Undisclosed meetings by U.N. leaders undermined any pretense of transparency. There was no external oversight. Leadership was missing at a critical time. Mr. Volcker fingered official U.N. misconduct — specific acts that “presented a grave and continuing conflict of interest, were ethically improper, and seriously undermined the integrity of the United Nations.”

Where does an absence of U.N. accountability leave the United States? It should leave us resolved to champion wide-ranging reform, and commit us to making it happen.

One more thing. Over the last 20 years, as the world has rocked and steadied and rocked again in the wake of a collapsing superpower, three Middle East wars and democratic noises from unfamiliar parts, some have viewed the U.N. as increasingly irrelevant. The general thinking is that, given all the problems, we can do without this headache.

On reflection, they are dead wrong. The U.N. has been — and will be, even with faults — central to realizing the spread of freedom worldwide, and solidifying our security. The ideas we champion are uplifting, timeless and true. Freedom’s advantages should not be soft-shoed; they should be trumpeted. Not dictated or demanded, but offered and supported. From free speech to free trade, they will carry the day. Multilateral forums give us the best chance to communicate, and the United Nations is the biggest one.

This is where the second elephant wakes up. We need to communicate, increase outreach, articulate the universal appeal of universal rights, reaffirm ideals that transcend national borders, and make the U.N. work.

Abraham Lincoln was fond of distinguishing between when to fight and when to tell a story. “All my life,” he once said, “I have tried to pluck a thistle and plant a flower wherever the flower would grow in thought and mind.” That was a founding premises of the United Nations. It remains so today.

By reforming and engaging the U.N., America wins.

Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, 2003-2005, is president of the Charles Group in Gaithersburg, Md.

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