The 39-story United Nations headquarters stands on the banks of the East River in Manhattan. But now the U.N. is planning the construction of a new building next door, with a price tag pegged at $400 million -- and it could soar even higher. And since U.S. taxpayers pay 22 percent of the U.N. budget, the costs for that new building will come right out of your pocket, leading to a very serious question: Just how far should the United States go in supporting the U.N. and international organizations like it?
The issue of a new building in New York isn't the only U.N. story to make the headlines this year. Take the issue of Palestine, which over the summer formally requested U.N. membership. If Palestine were to succeed in its unilateral efforts, it would be detrimental to U.S. interests in the region, isolate Israel, and deal a major setback to Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects. And all of that would come at the hands of an international organization over which the United States can exert strong influence but cannot control. If Palestine is granted member status at the U.N., American interests--along with those of its allies--will be seriously harmed, requiring an even greater vigilance and financial commitment to maintain leverage for U.S. priorities. Again, the question is posed: When does our commitment to an international organization become a problem?
In the latest installment of Heritage's "Understanding America" series, Brett Schaefer addresses America's role as a member of international organizations. He explains that conflicting interests will nearly always hinder forward movement on issues of peace, security, and human rights -- but that doesn’t negate the benefit of having a platform for achieving U.S. interests. Schaefer further explains the risks of participation in these bodies:
Supporting international organizations is not without consequence. It is a burden, albeit sometimes a burden worth bearing. But refusing to recognize the limitations of international organizations and their potential to cause harm does a disservice to the American people.
Joining with friendly nations for a mutual benefit or avenue to problem solving can prove to be valuable for the United States, but America's leaders must never sacrifice the greater American interest for the sake of compromise. When does our commitment to an international organization become a problem? That’s a question U.S. leaders must continually ask themselves. Schaefer explains how the United States must seek to strike that balance:
If the United States is not to undermine its interests, it must abandon its default position of supporting and engaging with international organizations regardless of their performance. Instead, the U.S. must assess honestly whether each organization works, whether its mission is focused and attainable and not dependent on “good faith” that does not exist, and whether it advances U.S. interests.
International organizations are a tool to attain a goal, not an end in themselves. They are one way for the U.S. to defend its interests and to seek to address problems in concert with other nations. But they are not the only option, and their strengths and weaknesses should be clearly understood.
America played a key role in the founding of the U.N., so our stake in its success is important. But there are always risks in working with other nations -- and each international organization relies at least in part on the good faith of those involved. However, each country's own priorities come first, which is why American leadership must be eternally vigilant in assessing the record and actions of participating countries.
That is true when it comes to issues such as America's financial commitment to the U.N., particularly as the organization considers constructing a costly new complex in Manhattan. And that vigilance is even more imperative on issues of international security and the promotion of ideals at odds with America's interests abroad, as is the case with Palestine's bid for recognition in the U.N.
In a 1985 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, President Ronald Reagan addressed the U.N.'s role head on--and the need for America to remain vigilant, noting, "The vision of the U.N. Charter--to spare succeeding generations this scourge of war--remains real. It still stirs our soul and warms our hearts, but it also demands of us a realism that is rock hard, clear-eyed, steady, and sure--a realism that understands the nations of the United Nations are not united." Those words hold true today and should guide America's understanding of its commitment to international organizations but also the realities and limitations of its engagement.