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U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
95/02/28 SPEECH: STROBE TALBOTT ON THE U.N.
OFFICE OF THE SPOKESMAN
Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott
to the Denver World Affairs Council
February 28, 1995
American Eagle or Ostrich?
The Case for the U.S. in the U.N.
Thank you, both for that kind introduction and for inviting me to Denver
today. I've been a frequent visitor to Colorado over the years -- and not just
for purposes of risking life and limb on the slopes of Vail, Snowmass and
Teluride; but also because for nearly 15 years, the Aspen Institute provided
me with an an opportunity each August to spend a week in some of the
loveliest country on earth thinking and talking with colleagues and mentors
about the United States' role in the world.
That is my topic this afternoon. More specifically, I would like to talk about
the need for vigorous American engagement and leadership in the world --
and more specifically still, about the United States in the United Nations,
why we're in it, and what's in it for us. I chose this topic precisely because
it is controversial; because the UN, and America's leadership of it, are
under attack from a number of quarters; and because it's important that the
debate take place not just inside the Washington Beltway, or on the floor of
the U.S. Congress, but in the country as a whole.
Let me start with the general issue of international engagement. I know that
I don't need to lecture this audience on how U.S. foreign policy can affect
every community in every state of the union. Denver companies are doing
record amounts of business overseas, and are actively pursuing
opportunities to expand further -- in industries ranging from mining to
telecommunications to agricultural processing to environmental technology.
Back in Washington, we were pleased to hear when the Colorado House of
Representatives unanimously supported NAFTA. One of the follow-ups to
NAFTA will take place here in Denver on June 30, when U.S. Trade
Representative Mickey Kantor will host a hemispheric trade ministers
meeting, followed by a commercial forum co-hosted by Commerce
Secretary Ron Brown.
These international ventures -- the quest to create good jobs at home by
developing makets abroad -- are an important aspect of one of the central
themes of the era, and of the world in which we live: namely, global
interdependence. That's a somewhat fancy, slightly suspect term because it
smacks of what Clare Booth Luce dubbed, half a century ago,
"globaloney." But the phenomenon is real; to a steadily increasing extent,
what happens beyond our borders affects us here in the United States --
sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. For instance, the lives of our
children and grandchildren will be dramatically influenced by our efforts to
limit population growth, combat threats to the global environment, and win
the struggle against drug traffickers. These are challenges that my friend
and colleague Tim Wirth has been focusing on since he came to the State
With global interdependence comes the need for global cooperation. The
consolidation of a liberal trading order and the opening of markets for
American trade and investment are more important than ever. We can't free
our own neighborhoods from drug-related crime without working closely
with countries where drugs are produced. We can't track down terrorists
such as Carlos the Jackal or World Trade Center bombing suspect Ramzi
Ahmed Yousef -- both of whom are now in custody -- without help from
the police of other countries. And we can't keep nuclear weapons from
falling into the hands of dictators and terrorists through our own vigilance
All this should be obvious, but not everyone seems to get it.
Today, as in the aftermath of other great struggles in our nation's history,
there is a temptation to draw back into ourselves, to turn our attention and
our resources to fixing our own problems, and let other countries take care
of themselves. This is particularly evident in Congress, where there are
those, in each party, who counsel us to duck -- not deal with -- the
international challenges that we face.
This sentiment echoes that of the narrow-visioned naysayers of the 1920's,
who rejected the League of Nations, embraced protectionism, downplayed
the rise of Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin; who opposed help to the victims of
aggression and inadvertently endangered our security -- chanting all the
while the crowd-pleasing mantra of "America first."
Arguments that would turn the American eagle into an ostrich have always
had a certain appeal, in part because we're separated by vast oceans from
both Europe and Asia, because we've been at peace with our immediate
neighbors on this Continent, and because our founding fathers' advice to
avoid foreign entanglements still rings in our ears.
But the leaders of the great coalition that triumphed in the Second World
War learned several, if not all, of the lessons from the aftermath of the First.
Instead of humiliating and impoverishing their defeated enemies, the victors
of World War II helped rebuild Japan and Germany. Through the Marshall
Plan, GATT and the international financial institutions born at Bretton
Woods, the diplomats who were present at the creation of the post-World
War world established the basis for a community of Western democracies,
and for an increasingly interdependent and prosperous global economy.
And they created a mechanism to further the cause of enduring peace
through the U.N. Charter -- a document inspired by American ideals and
largely written by American statesmen.
Of course, internationalism is more likely to be popular when there is a
clear-cut enemy, such as Soviet Communism. During the Cold War, much
of what we were for was dictated by what we were against. The imperative
of containing Communism permeated our policies. We formed alliances to
defend against Soviet expansion; we doled out assistance to maintain our
influence against encroachments; and we strove to counter the Soviets in
every forum, including the United Nations.
With the end of the Cold War, we face historic opportunities, not just to
combat threats and enemies, but also to help build a world that is ordered
according to our interests and values.
Nonetheless, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact,
it's natural that the old isolationist instinct would twitch again in the
American body politic. It's twitching in calls for us to reject free trade
agreements, or to have nothing to do with any foreign conflict, or in the
fantasy that we can build multi-billion dollar space-based shields that will
keep us safe from any military attack.
The argument against isolationism and in favor of internationalism is simple;
its rooted in our history and in our national interest: as this century has
amply demonstrated, freedom cannot be ensured without the active help of
other free peoples.
This is true in the vital area of preserving and advancing our security as well
as in other respects. Now, the ultimate guarantor of our security remains
our capacity and willingness to act forcefully and unilaterally when our
interests are threatened. Our military must remain modern, mobile, ready
and strong, and, as President Clinton pledged in his State of the Union
address, it will. But we must also preserve the option of acting through
NATO and other coalitions.
That brings me to the United Nations.
Two years ago, President Bush observed that the United Nations was
"emerging as a central instrument for the prevention and resolution of
conflicts and the preservation of peace." About the same time, former
President Reagan called for "a standing UN force - an army of conscience --
equipped and prepared to carve out humanitarian sanctuaries through force
That was yesterday. Today, some of the loudest voices in our national
debate propound something quite different. The UN is "the longtime
nemesis of millions of Americans," says one leader on Capitol Hill. It is "a
totally incompetent instrument anyplace that matters," says another. A bill,
the so-called "National Security Revitalization Act," has been passed by the
House -- and is now making its way through the Senate. It is designed not
to reform UN peacekeeping, but to kill it.
This bill, if enacted into law, would be a blunder -- a giant step backward --
of truly historic proportions.
The so-called Contract with America would, among other things, abrogate
the U.S.'s half-century old contract with international community -- the
contract that Harry Truman signed, that the U.S. Senate ratified, and that
every President since has reaffirmed.
The "National Security Revitalization Act," which is part of the Contract
with America, would be an out-and-out repudiation of our treaty obligations
under the U.N. Charter. It would cancel our entire U.N. peacekeeping
payment. Other nations -- Japan and our NATO allies -- would surely
follow by withholding their funds, and U.N. peacekeeping would end
This would cause massive disruptions -- and quite possibly mean the
resumption of a number of conflicts. I can think of few quicker ways to
undermine global stability than to yank UN peacekeepers out of Cyprus,
Lebanon, Kashmir, and the border between Kuwait and Iraq.
Furthermore, if America reneges on its commitments under the UN Charter,
then our ability to argue that other nations should meet their obligations
under international law would be undermined. This would particularly
impair our ability to maintain sanctions against rogue states such as Libya,
Iraq and Serbia.
Those are negative arguments -- bad things that would happen if we pulled
the plug at the UN. Here's the positive one: peacekeeping itself is a vitally
important enterprise in which we must remain engaged. It has the capacity,
under the right circumstances, to separate our adversaries, maintain
ceasefires, speed the delivery of humanitarian relief, enable refugees to
return home, demobilize combatants, and create conditions under which free
elections may be held. In so doing, it can nurture new democracies; lower
the global tide of refugees and the huge cost of rescuing and sustaining
them; reduce the likelihood of unwelcome interventions by regional powers;
and prevent small wars from growing into larger conflicts which would be
far more costly in lives and treasure.
Speaking of cost, let me emphasize this point: peacekeeping -- and UN
peacekeeping in particular -- is a good investment for the United States.
The per capita price to Americans, for the entire UN system, from blue
helmets for peacekeepers to polio vaccines for babies, is less than $7 per
year. That is about the price of a ticket to our nation's most popular movie
which currently is a film called "Dumb and Dumber."
Moreover, our own country's direct participation in UN peace operations is
modest. As of January 1, 1995, the U.S. ranked 26th among nations in the
number of troops participating in such operations around the world --
behind not only Canada and Poland, but also Ghana and Zambia.
All this said, obviously we do not look to the UN to defend America's vital
interests. That, we're prepared to do on a moment's notice by ourselves if
We know that UN peacekeeping cannot be effective where the swift and
decisive application of military force is required. But in many
circumstances, acting through the UN will enable us to influence events
without assuming the full burden of costs and risks. Let me mention a few
of those operations:
-- On the tense border between India and Pakistan, UN troops monitor a
cease-fire between two regional rivals presumed to have nuclear weapons.
-- In El Salvador, where America spent more than $1 billion in economic
and military aid during the 1980's, the UN brokered an end to the civil war,
disarmed and reintegrated the rebel forces into society, monitored human
rights and elections and oversaw the creation of a new civilian police.
-- and in Cambodia, where I was a few weeks ago, the UN has succeed in
clearing mines, repatriating refugees, and organizing elections, thus making
an astonishing transition to democracy possible.
One of the myths that has gained currency in recent months is that the
United States is running around the world doing the bidding of the UN.
Many would argue that the reverse is closer to the truth. Under the UN
Charter, it is the Security Council that has responsibility for authorizing
responses to lawless international behavior, including threats to peace. As a
permanent member of the Council, with veto powers, we have enormous
influence over what it decides.
Frequently, a Council resolution will lend international backing to causes
we support and make it easier to bring others aboard for military operations
or sanctions enforcement -- thereby assuring that the costs, and the risks,
are shared. For instance, the UN Security Counsel played a key role in
bringing together the multinational coalition for Operation Desert Storm in
Kuwait; and the Counsel performed a similar service for Operation Uphold
Democracy in Haiti. As Secretary Christopher puts it, were there no United
Nations, "it would leave us with an unacceptable option each time an
emergency arose: a choice between acting alone or doing nothing."
Now, there is a small minority of Americans who will always mistrust the
UN because they fear it will evolve into a world government -- that it
represents globaloney run amuck -- which is nonsense; or they are upset
that it's so full of foreigners, which, I guess, probably can't be helped.
Far more serious are concerns about the effectiveness of UN operations,
decisionmaking and management.
Here, some of the critics have several valid points: the United Nations does
not always offer the perfect response. But then again, neither does NATO,
nor does unilateral action, nor does inaction. The right cure for the ills of
UN peacekeeping is not to call for the services of Dr. Kevorkian, which is
what the Contract with America prescribes, but rather to administer sound
treatment -- to work to make this tool as useful and efficient as possible.
And that is exactly what the Clinton Administration is doing.
At our insistence, the UN Security Council is now more disciplined about
when and under what circumstances to begin a peace mission. Today, the
tough questions are asked before such a mission is started or renewed. We
are ensuring that UN operations have clear and realistic objectives, that
peacekeepers are properly equipped, that money is not wasted, and that an
endpoint to each UN mission can be identified. This policy has resulted in
fewer and smaller new operations, and better management of existing ones.
Some opponents of UN peacekeeping feel that the United States is
somehow being played for a sucker; that we are turned to constantly for
help by those who are unwilling to pay their own way or to take their own
fair share of risks. This perception is not new. In the years immediately
following World War II, similar emotions prompted opposition to American
participation in NATO and to the Marshall Plan. When President Roosevelt
devised Lend Lease to save a Great Britain bombarded daily by Nazi planes,
the predictable complaints were heard: we can't afford it; the British already
owe us money; this is Europe's battle, not our own.
Such feelings are understandable, and sometimes play well at home. But in
each instance, when we have come to the aid of others, we have also acted
in our own interest. That was true of lend lease; it was true of the costly,
but necessary steps we took to contain Communist expansion; it is true of
our participation in, and support for, United Nations peacekeeping and
enforcement of UN resolutions against Libya and Iraq. America is not just
another country; we are a global power with global interests; and if we do
not lead, we cannot expect that others will. Our position in the world may,
to some, be grounds for complaint; but to most Americans, it is grounds for
pride, and a sense of security.
The Clinton Administration is committed to taking full advantage of the
opportunities, and to confronting squarely the dangers, that we face with the
end of the Cold War. We have a responsibility in our time, as our
predecessors did in theirs, to build a world not without conflict, but in
which conflict is contained; a world, not without repression, but in which
the sway of freedom is enlarged; a world not without lawless behavior, but
in which the law-abiding are progressively more secure.
We have the responsibility to lead in building such a world for three
reasons: first, because of the strength and global appeal of our democratic
values and institutions; second, because of the strength of our economy,
which depends on global peace and stability -- on open societies and open
markets; and third, because of the strength of our military power. In short,
we have the heart, the brains and the muscle to lead in a world that often
looks to us for all three. Thank you.
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