THE EARTH TIMES
OCTOBER 21-30, 1995
‘The best interests of the US will require it to work with the UN…’
BY ASHALI VARMA
Theodore C. Sorensen 67, was principal Policy Advisor and speech-writer for President John F. Kennedy, and later authored several books on the Kennedy Administration and on international affairs. Sorensen has practiced law for many years in New York City, and is a senior partner with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Garrison He met with The Earth Times last week Excerpts from the interview:
What were the challenges the UN faced at the height of the cold war during the Kennedy Administration?
The problem for the United Nations at that time was relevance. The cold war dominated the international activities on the planet. The United Nations was not central to the activities, or even the thinking, of the leadership in either superpower. President Kennedy did his best to alter that somewhat by reminding the leaders and members of the United Nations that it had a role to play in building a climate for peace, and, in effect, tending to the other global problems economic development, refugee and environmental concerns–while the cold war was being waged by the superpowers.
At the time of the Cuban missile crisis, the UN proved its indispensability by serving not only as a forum for dialogue between the two superpowers then confronting each other, but also, as a neutral third party who could supervise the withdrawal of the missiles and the implementation of subsequent details. Due more to the resistance of Fidel Castro than others, the UN ultimately did not play that role. But an agreement had to be struck quickly between the United Nations and the Soviet Union before nuclear war broke out, and the fact that Kennedy could suggest the UN and Khrushchev could accept it, made a difference.
Do you think reform of the Security Council is necessary today? And should more countries have representation?
The world has changed substantially since the Security Council was established and five permanent members were given a veto. Those five no longer represent the leading powers of the world in the sense that they once did. I would hope that a change could be made. But I would not underestimate its difficulty.
There are many people who think that our own Constitution should be amended to give members of the United States Senate powers they would need to approve the Constitutional Amendment, and they don’t want members of the House to have a longer term. The inability to make the change is built into the system itself. The same is true to some extent in the United Nations Charter. So it will require not only a very wise solution to alter representation on the Security Council, it will also require some very statesmanlike and perhaps unusually humble attitudes on the part of people now involved who do not want to share power.
What must the UN do to be more effective in the areas of eliminating poverty, promoting sustainable development and education in its member states?
I think the UN, like most organizations involved in work of that kind, must make certain that the overwhelming bulk of its funds and its energies and its efforts go to the delivery of program and funds and not to the support of bureaucracy.
I have often said here in the United States that as our farm population dwindles we should make sure that the Department of Agriculture does not have more employees than there are farmers. I think by way of analogy it is important that the bureaucracies of the United Nations in those very areas–poverty, economic development and education–consume a very small share of the funds appropriated for those purposes to and through the United Nations.
But at this moment the United Nations, on the eve of its 50th anniversary, is facing a major budget crisis. Do you think this is because theUS and other donor countries feel
that the United Nations is not doing its job properly? And how can theUN better manage its finances and make member states pay up?
I think that the failure of the United States to meet its commitment on both dues and peacekeeping financial obligations is a disgrace. It’s an embarrassment that the richest country in the world, which does not want to take on for itself the policing of the world, is not contributing these relatively small sums to the only world organization that is capable of handling these responsibilities.
Unfortunately, the United States is not the only nation that is delinquent in its dues. And unfortunately the United Nations itself is not as efficient, as economical, and as lean as it should be in the expenditure of those funds. So the United States and others must be pressed to meet their financial obligations, and the United Nations must also make better use of those funds when they arrive.
But do you think that member states are taking the United Nations seriously enough? There seems to be an image problem. I mean, the fact that they’re not paying makes it almost seem as if they don’t think it’s a relevant organization.
Well please bear in mind that many members do pay. And they pay on time. And they are smaller and poorer than the United States. And they recognize the importance of the UN. And they do fulfil their obligations. It’s unfortunate that the United States, as the leading power in the world, and therefore an example to other nations, sets a very bad example in this instance.
I think the United Nations is more relevant today than it has ever been. The problems which confront the planet as a whole, problems of terrorism, environmental contamination, arms proliferation—both nuclear and conventional, as well as chemical and biological—population problems, development problems, these clearly cannot be solved by anyone nation alone. That requires the united effort of the United Nations. If there were no such organization today, we would have to start all over again and invent it because clearly these problems will not be solved by any one nation acting alone. So the importance of the UN is there, the relevance is there. You have to hope that the United States and all other countries will, over time, recognize this and support the UN both materially and in every other way.
How can the UN define its agenda in a way to present a better image to the world because that may be the root of the problem?
It’s unfortunate that the United Nations spends so much money on press and public information, and with so little result. Part of it is because, like the public affairs bureaucracies of many foreign ministries, they go through the routine practices of publishing reports in many languages, which stack up in offices both here in New York and in the capitals of the world where no one reads them or acts upon them. The UN is not very good at letting people know the important and exciting accomplishments for which it deserves credit. It is not very good in responding quickly to criticism and inaccuracies, which are voiced or printed about it in many parts of the world. I would hope that a more vigorous effort to tell the UN’s own story could be made.
In what ways do you think civil society and grassroots organizations can take a more effective role in implementing programs that have been initiated by the United Nations, such as population and women’s rights?
Most of the problems taken up by the United Nations, including population and women’s rights and environmental preservation, cannot possibly be done by the United Nations alone or even by all the governments that are members of the United Nations. If those problems are truly to be tackled in an effective way, then grassroots organizations, civic societies, civil organizations, including women’s organizations and environmental organizations must play a major role. And there are tremendous numbers of those organizations which want to play a major role. I believe that the NGOs constitute a vast untapped resource that the United Nations could and should utilize.
And is there anything that the NGOs themselves can do to alert governments and the United Nations of their importance? Can they do something to make sure that they
play an important role?
Well, let’s be frank. Some NGOs are small and ineffective and uncertain how they should help the United Nations. But they have the best will in the world. Others have a great many members and resources. They should fully inform themselves what the UN is doing outside of the areas of peacekeeping and high diplomacy, determine whether there are ways in which their organizations could help implement those UN policies and activities at the grassroots level, and seek to join forces with the UN agencies involved.
How do you see the role of the Bretton Woods institutions evolving in the 21st Century? They have come under a lot of criticism in the last decade or so.
I think that the International Monetary Fund and, even more so, the World Bank, with which I am better acquainted, are moving in the right direction and moving rather rapidly. I think that we will see the World Bank and Mr. Wolfensohn undertake the kind of new initiatives that people have been urging the United Nations to take. Initiatives that help support sustainable development effort all over the world. Initiatives that will clear away some of the red tape bureaucracy and delays for which the Bretton Woods institutions have been noted in the past. And initiatives that, without being reckless with public funds, will be realistic politically in terms of the kinds of conditions they can impose upon recipient countries who need the funds.
What special obligations do you think the United States, as the only remaining superpower, has toward the UN and toward countries in the developing world?
The United States is the richest, most powerful country in the world. We had a great president 135 years –ago who said that this country cannot exist half slave and half free. Neither can the world exist half rich and half poor. It is in our best interest, not merely because we have a moral obligation, not merely because it is the right thing to do, to make certain that half of the world does not fall into deprivation and poverty of the worst kind, becoming a source for wars, terrorism, disease, environment disaster, illegal drugs and all these ills which in today’s small world can spread to our shores very quickly and easily.
Do you see trade taking the place of donor aid, with more countries opening up their markets? Because donor countries feel that there are no new resources, they have their own economic crunch at home.
I think it is true that donor fatigue has set in. And that countries rightfully concerned with their domestic economic problems will have political difficulty in maintaining aid to other countries at past levels. But the truth is that trade and local economic development, free market development, have always been more important than aid. There was never the slightest possibility that there would be enough aid from all the donor countries combined to lift the least developed countries out of poverty. That rise had to come through their producing goods for the world market and developing enterprises at home.
But then there are whole nations in Africa that am dependent on diminishing resources. How can they participate in and compete in world trade? Everybody says Africa is being left behind.
I am not a professional economist, and I would be reluctant to prescribe remedies for individual countries. But nevertheless I believe that every country, if it husbands its resources spends its money wisely, devotes money to economic development instead of to military weapons, has governments, which are responsive and honest and not draining funds away through corruption—-if they take steps to preserve their environment—these and other measures will enable those countries, in my opinion, to rise in the development of their economics and their standard of living without being dependent on other countries.
What is your vision for American leadership in the post-cold war world today and for the future?
The United States was so caught up in the cold war for 50 years, it so focused our attention in the international arena, that time is necessarily required to develop a clear idea of what our post cold war vision will be. Even after World War II, a relatively brief period of time compared to the cold war, it took some years before the concept of containing Soviet communism evolved. I think those concepts are in the process of evolution now. But in the meantime, there is a certain amount of confusion and uncertainty. And we have also gone through the experience in this country of a political move to the right for a variety of reasons, many of them related to the political skills and the personal attributes of our leaders in both parties. The conservative moment, which does not favour the United Nations and other multilateral activities abroad—and does not favour compassion neither at home or abroad—that movement has gained substantial strength in the United States. l don’t believe that will endure forever. But while it is in power we must do the best we can.
How serious is this trend toward looking inward?
I don’t believe the United States will become completely isolationist. There is a strong isolationist strain in both the Republican and the Democratic parties. There always has been. It was submerged during the cold war.
The cold war is over and that isolationist strain is now back. But the integration of the global economy works both ways. On the one hand, it makes us realize more than ever that we have a serious stake in what goes on in the rest of the world, that jobs and profits here in the United States depend upon markets being open and hospitable and healthy around the world. But at the same time, the pressures of international competition shakes up and restructure our domestic economy. American companies now feel that they can produce their goods in many parts of the world.
There are many places which have far lower wage rates, far less restrictive environmental standards, far less substantial labor benefit packages. As a result, the average worker here has come to see trade as a threat as well as a promise, as a brake on continued wage and benefit increases. And people are feeling insecure about their jobs and their health benefits and their retirement packages and their wages and salaries. And that is not helpful when they are asked to spend tax money to help some country abroad.
What do you envision in the next, say, 10 years as far as American foreign policy is concerned? Looking outward? Or becoming more isolationist?
I’m an optimist. I think the compelling logic of US involvement abroad and of the US acting with other countries, instead of trying to act alone, will enable the internationalist strains in the US to overcome the unilateral and isolationist strains. I am hopeful that, whatever the internal partisan debate may be, the best interests of the United States will be recognized as requiring us to look outward, to work with the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF and other multilateral organizations.