Taking the Lead
To the end of World War I, the League of Nations was set up to promote international peace and cooperation. The League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles did not find the endorsement of the US Congress despite President Woodrow Wilson’s active campaign. America did not join the League. The idea of an intergovernmental organization to promote international harmony and cooperation did not, however, die out. In the early days of World War II, the United States and Britain together drafted the Atlantic Charter. The statement was issued in August 1941, and later agreed upon by all the Allied nations. The principles of the charter translated into the Declaration by United Nations, agreed upon by the allied countries on January 1, 1942. The name United Nations (UN) was coined by US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The ‘Big Four’ allies who formed the core of the United Nations were the US, the UK, the USSR, and China. This declaration formed the basis of the formation of the current United Nations.
Engineering the United Nations
President Roosevelt took the lead in the formation of the United Nations. Along with Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill, and Premier of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, President Roosevelt formulated the principles and structure of the United Nations at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference (1944). The representatives of over fifty nations met at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944 to discuss the proposals put forth by The Big Four. Again in 1945, at Yalta, the structure of the United Nations was reviewed by the US and the UK. On October 24, 1945, the United Nations Charter was ratified by the US, the UK, the USSR, and many other nations, thus marking the birth of the United Nations as we know it. Between 1946 and 1952, the United Nations was based at the Sperry Gyroscope Corporation in Lake Success, New York and was then moved to the United Nations Headquarters at Turtle Bay in Manhattan. The contribution of the United States and President Roosevelt to the birth of the organization remains a significant legacy that impacts the American influence on the United Nations.
With the establishment of the Security Council, the five major founding nations – the US, the UK, the USSR, China, and France became permanent members and assumed the authority to cast a veto – the right to reject any major resolution of the UN Security Council. Though a number of nations opposed the veto, the United States was insistent on this one demand. Over the years, the US has used the veto to halt several critical resolutions. The veto was first cast in 1970 by the United States. The latest use of the veto by the US was in February 2011 against resolutions condemning Israeli settlements. In the past decades, the veto has often been cast by the US to stall anti-Israeli resolutions.
Ambivalence of the US
Since the inception of the United Nations, the US has maintained an intense level of involvement in its proceedings and activities. In the wake of the Cold War, however, focus on the UN was sidelined when it came to America’s foreign relations. This was primarily because the USSR was also a member of the Security Council and both countries wielded the veto, effectively paralyzing the UN agency. In the early days of the United Nations, Vyacheslav Molotov of the USSR, cast vetoes many times earning him the nickname 'Mr. Veto.' In the 1970s a rapidly expanding General Assembly made the US take notice of the United Nations. With colonialism coming to an end in many parts of the world, the newly formed nations of Asia and Africa were active in propagating their non-alignment ideologies, and the UN became an important forum for these nascent nations to form a strong lobby. This was not in line with the foreign policies of the United States, and the country’s relations on the UN front started to sour. By the 1980s, US involvement in the activities of an expanding UN was at its lowest. Ronald Reagan had taken charge of the Oval Office and promptly withdrew the United States from a number of UN agencies.
Back to the United Nations
In the early 1990s, the United Nations once again started to feature prominently in the foreign policy framework of the US. The collapse of the USSR and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait gave US President George Bush the perfect opportunity to engage with the United Nations again. With the launch of Operation Desert Storm, the UN became prominent in the US foreign policy agenda again. The US attempt to engage with other nations through the UN was viewed as an attempt to give what was essentially an American operation a global outlook. The Clinton administration started off with an aggressive commitment to multilateralism. The United Nations once more became a tool for global endorsement of America’s decisions to intervene and to abstain from the ongoing developments in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda. Support for the UN in the USA ebbed after the disastrous operations in non-US Somalia. President Clinton called for a reform of the global organization and vehemently opposed the reelection of Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali. Despite its active role in the early years, America’s defiance of the United Nations came as the fallout of the perceived threat to the country’s foreign policy agenda and to its sovereignty.
The Withdrawal Debate
In the 1990s, the growing unpopularity of the United Nations in Washington sparked off a movement for the US withdrawal from the United Nations. The movement found active endorsement of a number of prominent US legislators. The H.R.1146 (110th): American Sovereignty Restoration Act was introduced in Congress on February 16, 2007, but never acted upon. The bill called for withdrawal of the US mission to the United Nations and demands the termination of America’s participation in any UN agency. Though the bill did not find popular endorsement, it crystallized into America’s firm non-endorsement of the International Court of Justice.
The Scales Tip
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the US led invasion of Afghanistan was not authorized by the United Nations Security Council. While the United States maintained that UN approval was not required because the invasion constituted self-defense, a number of UN members criticized the move on the grounds that the 9/11 attacks were not acts of aggression by the state of Afghanistan. An escalation of hostilities led to the establishment of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) by the United Nations, roping in NATO. Since 2003, the ISAF has been actively involved in combat. This again, detractors of the US claim, was the country’s effort to use the United Nations as a tool to further its own agenda of aggression.
Split Wide Open
In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq following reports of the latter’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, while the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission had not found evidence to substantiate the claim. The US insisted that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had planned to pursue a nuclear program. The United States-led invasion of Iraq was vehemently criticized by many nations as a violation of the UN charter. On September 16, 2004, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan said, “I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN Charter. From our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal.” Critics of the war, including Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela called the act a violation of multilateralism and of the United Nations’ ideals.
A Shift in Focus
The exceptional success of UN peacekeeping forces in countries such as Cambodia, Guatemala, Mozambique, and Tajikistan, point to a shift in the organization’s focus away from the US. The Arab Spring revolts of 2011 revealed a rift in the UN Security Council between the western countries, led by the US, and countries such as Russia and China. The issue of debate remained the policy of outside pressure as championed by the US and several European countries. Russia, China, Brazil, India, South Africa, and a number of other nations (members of the UN Security Council) vehemently opposed any infringement on the sovereignty of these countries. The IBSA – India, Brazil South Africa – approached the matter of UN intervention in the Arab countries. The US–led NATO intervention in Libya was also vehemently criticized by these nations in the United Nations. The economic, social, and political growth of the BRICS countries and other African and Asian nations has been a big challenge to the implementation of many US-led resolutions at the United Nations. A shift in focus is evident but the consequences are uncertain. The tilt of the votes in favor of Asian and African nations has not succeeded in overriding the US at the UN. Instead, they have led to a paralyzed deliberation process, and the UN is now unable to respond unanimously to global crisis. Then again, the UN forces have been successful in supporting political transitions in countries like Sierra Leone, Timor–Leste, Haiti, Liberia, and Kosovo. The inclusion of Palestine as a member of UNESCO is an important instance of the United States being overridden by other countries at the United Nations.
The Funding Issue
The United Nations receives its funding from member states. The United States contributes about 22 percent of the United Nations’ budget and about 27 percent of the organization's peacekeeping budget. Through the late twentieth century, the United States maintained a state of ambivalence and ran up dues on its funding. During the Clinton administration, the arrears of the United States reached about $1.6 billion, and the UN was on the verge of bankruptcy. In 2009, US Congress approved payment of all arrears to the United Nations.
The issue of sanctions and withholding funds has been a significant one, however. In 2011, Palestine was granted UNESCO membership despite severe opposition from the United States, Israel, and several other nations. Of the 173 members, 107 had endorsed the decision. The United States initiated punitive action, cutting off its funds to the UN's cultural and educational agency, withdrawing a $70 million fund contribution and severely affecting the stability of UNESCO. The United States alone had contributed about 22 percent of UNESCO’s annual budget prior to the withdrawal. The United Nations has been used as a tool for legalizing the US sanctions against states such as Iraq and Iran, but the defiance of countries such as Egypt, India, and China have been a matter of concern causing much dissent.
A number of concerns have been raised when it comes to ties between the United States and the United Nations. Is the United Nations' value centered on the implementation of the United States' national interests? Does the US adopt a policy of conformation to the UN when multilateralism falls in line with its domestic agenda and depart from adherence to the UN when it doesn’t?
Is the United Nations dominated by the United States?