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U.S. Department of State
95/09/01 Remarks: Strobe Talbott on US Policy toward UN
Office of the Spokesman
The Case for the U.S. in the U.N.
Remarks by Acting Secretary of State Strobe Talbott
on the United States & the United Nations
September 1, 1995
My thanks to the United Nations Association and the other organizations
who have joined in sponsoring this Assembly.
I'm told that the representatives of nearly 100 national and community
groups are here today, ranging from the AFL-CIO and the American Bar
Association to the Girl Scouts and the Grey Panthers to the Sierra Club
and the Salvation Army to the U.S. Catholic Conference and the Union of
The participation of these and other organizations -- everyone here at
this event -- is an encouraging testament to the quantity, quality and
diversity of grass-roots backing that the UN has among the American
people. As you know, this has been quite an eventful week for UN as
well as for American diplomats and for NATO military forces in the
The week began with a murderous Serb mortar attack against civilians in
Sarajevo on Monday. That outrage demanded an international response,
which the UN has authorized and NATO has delivered. The message to the
Bosnian Serbs -- and to all the parties to this conflict -- is clear and
it is simple: now is the time to stop killing and start talking about
the terms of a lasting peace. With that message and that objective in
mind, Assistant Secretary of State Dick Holbrooke and his team have
made real progress, although much remains to be done.
Earlier today, we announced that the foreign ministers of Croatia,
Bosnia and Serbia have agreed to meet for talks next week in Geneva,
under the auspices of the Contact Group -- the United States, Great
Britain, France, Germany and Russia. Others, including UN diplomats and
representatives of the European Union, will also attend.
Thus, a week that began with an all-too-familiar act of wanton carnage
is coming to a close with a development that could augur an all-too-rare
breakthrough for diplomacy. After four years of brutal war, the United
States is committed to helping the people of that region face the
responsibility of peace. One thing is certain: our diplomatic effort
will go forward; we will persist in our pursuit of peace at the
negotiating table -- in Geneva and beyond.
Whether this process unfolds against a backdrop of continued airstrikes
or a continued suspension depends on whether the Bosnian Serb leaders
commit themselves to end the shelling of the UN safe areas, end all
attacks on representatives of the international community, including
those representing the UN, and end their strangulation and intimidation
My boss, Warren Christopher, has frequently said that diplomacy must
often be backed by force. That is the case in the Balkans today.
Because of the complexity and delicacy of the moment at which we find
ourselves, I'm afraid that I'm the man who cannot stay for dinner. But
my colleague George Ward, our Assistant Secretary for International
Organizations, is here this evening, and, if you promise to feed him
first, he'll be available to join in what I'm sure will be a very good
discussion when coffee is served.
In my short time with you, I will address the subject of our
Administration's policy with regard to the UN.
But first, I'd like to put that subject in a broader context.
We as a nation face some fundamental choices; we're just beginning a
great national debate.
At issue is whether we are prepared to do what it takes -- and that
means spending what it takes -- to have a foreign policy worthy of our
aspirations and our interests as a world leader -- indeed, as the world
We're facing these choices and conducting this debate now because we've
entered a new era. It began ten years ago, in 1985, when Mikhail
Gorbachev took control of the Kremlin.
He ushered in a series of reforms that he hoped would revitalize the
Soviet Communist system. As it happened, perestroika and glasnost led
not just to reform, but to a democratic revolution. That revolution
helped, in turn, to trigger a stunning series of triumphs for democracy
around the globe.
In recent years, we've seen Germans tear down the Berlin Wall; we've
seen South Africans free Nelson Mandela from prison and elect him their
President, and we've seen Cambodians cross mine fields and defy death
threats to vote against the Khmer Rouge.
Over the past decade, nearly two billion people in some 70 nations on
five continents -- from Brazil to Ghana to Poland to Bangladesh to the
Philippines -- have moved decisively toward democracy and free markets.
A decade ago we routinely, unquestioningly spoke of there being three
worlds: the Free World; the Communist World; and the Third World. The
organizing principle of international politics was a global ideological
struggle: the heirs of Vladimir Lenin versus those of Thomas Jefferson;
the proponents of the ideas of Karl Marx versus those of Adam Smith.
Now, to an extent few of us ever expected to see in our lifetimes, there
is one world -- joined in a loose, imperfect, incomplete but still
extraordinary consensus in favor of open societies and open markets.
During this dramatic transformation, America has not been a bystander.
Far from it.
From South America to Eastern Europe to Central Asia to the Pacific Rim,
our foreign policy has helped nation after nation to emerge from
totalitarianism -- and to keep moving in the right direction.
Thanks in large part to American leadership, the political and economic
principles that we have nurtured here in the United States for over 200
years are now ascendant around the globe.
An important moral of the end of the Cold War -- a story that is still
unfolding and will be for a long time -- is that the United States must
maintain its position of international leadership. Only if we do that
can we take advantage of historic opportunities, not just to combat
threats and enemies, but also to build a world that reflects our ideals
and promotes our interests; a world that will be more peaceful and
provide better economic opportunities not only for our generation, but
for our children's and grandchildren's as well.
The flip side of that proposition is just as important to recognize
clearly: If we do not provide international leadership, then there is
no other country that can or will step in and lead in our place as a
constructive, positive influence.
Make no mistake about that.
And make no mistake that there are plenty of other forces that will fill
the vacuum we leave, and they will do so in ways not at all to our
liking or to our advantage or in keeping with our interests. For
instance, thanks to American leadership, the enemies of the Middle East
peace process -- in Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Libya -- are now more
isolated than ever before. But if we let down our guard, the leaders of
those rogue states can still make trouble by menacing their neighbors,
sponsoring terrorism, and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.
Whether deterring threats or seizing opportunities, the United States
needs to remain fully engaged in the world. That point should be self-
evident, but unfortunately it is increasingly controversial -- or at
least it is increasingly obscured by other controversies.
There is, in our country, a resurgence of the view that our vital
interests in some sense end at the water's edge. I say "resurgence"
because we've heard that argument before.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, just as after other great struggles
earlier in our nation's history, there is a temptation to draw back into
ourselves, to devote more of our attention and our resources to fixing
our own problems -- to let foreign countries fend for themselves.
That temptation, if over-indulged, would turn the American eagle into an
ostrich. Today's isolationists echo the narrow-visioned naysayers of
the 1920's and 30's, who rejected the League of Nations, embraced
protectionism, and were complacent about the rise of Mussolini, Hitler,
and Stalin; who thought that Lend Lease and the Marshall Plan were
costly give-aways; who opposed help to the victims of aggression and
inadvertently endangered our security -- chanting all the while the
crowd-pleasing mantra "America first."
Part of the problem, no doubt, is that today, as in the 20's and 30's,
we suffer from a collective lack of confidence in our democratic
institutions. Many Americans think that government spending is
virtually synonymous with waste and abuse, resulting -- not so much in
public welfare as in public debt -- not so much in national security as
in rising taxes, which is to say, personal insecurity.
In this atmosphere, our foreign policy is especially vulnerable.
Because the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of Soviet
Communism mean that there is no longer a single, world-class dragon for
us to slay. It is easier to justify drawing inward and, conversely,
harder to justify engagement overseas. Well, maybe not really harder,
but it takes more words than you can fit on a bumper sticker.
Thus, when Congress returns to debate these issues next week -- ten
blocks from here, on Capitol Hill -- the foreign-affairs budget of our
government -- your government -- will be under a two-pronged attack.
It's under attack from those who think we can afford to withdraw from
that very complicated world -- and also from those who think we can
significantly reduce the federal deficit by reducing our spending
But the fact is, those who would slash foreign spending in the name of
fiscal responsibility are deluding themselves. The deficit, as we all
know, began to mushroom out of control in the early 1980's. But the
'80s saw no corresponding boom in our international budget. Quite the
contrary, over the past decade the amount of money that the U.S.
government spends each year on foreign policy has actually declined
nearly 40% in real dollars, adjusted for inflation -- and is now at its
lowest level in over half a century.
Even if we were to eliminate our foreign-affairs spending altogether, it
would make very little difference to the cause of deficit-reduction.
The current international-affairs budget is only about 1.3% of total
Federal spending. That tiny fraction pays for all our embassies and
diplomats overseas, our foreign aid and economic assistance programs,
our participation in international organizations. It pays for our
support of multinational peacekeeping operations, many of our arms
control initiatives, and our overseas public information services.
We've long since cut most of the fat out of our foreign-affairs budget,
and we're now in danger of cutting into muscle and bone and vital
Let me put it as simply and bluntly as I can: Every single foreign-
policy initiative and program we have underway in the world today --
from our support of new democracies and market economies in the former
Soviet Union and Central Europe, to our support for the Middle East
peace process, to our fight against international crime and narcotics
trafficking, to the battle against further genocide and famine in
Africa, to our commitment to assure the safe dismantlement of nuclear
weapons that have been aimed at our cities -- every single one of those
efforts and countless more is in dire jeopardy.
This is the danger facing us now.
Not next year or next month but next week, when the Congress returns and
misguided members pick up the meat cleaver with which they are hacking
away at the American people's ability to defend and advance their
Let me now turn to the United Nations.
It, too, is on the chopping block.
Not just our position in the UN but the UN itself.
Throughout the Cold War, our nation's leaders -- Republicans and
Democrats alike, in both the Executive and Legislative branches --
viewed the UN as key instrument for advancing U.S. interests. Whether
it was fighting communist aggression in Korea or smallpox in Africa, we
turned to the UN to help us achieve our goals and further the cause of
freedom. But today, the bipartisan consensus in support of the UN has
frayed badly. 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. Some in Congress would all but eliminate U.S. funding for UN
operations, meaning that the United States government would be forced to
default on its fundamental Treaty obligations under the UN Charter. If
we further reduce our payments to the UN, others will surely follow,
undermining the financial viability of the UN. And if Congress pulls
the plug on basic UN activities such as conflict resolution, as some of
its members wish, then the UN might very quickly join the League of
Nations on the ashheap of history.
I should say a word about UN peacekeeping, since that is the area where
UN activities and costs have increased most dramatically in recent
years, and where the UN has come under the heaviest criticism from its
opponents on Capitol Hill. Since the end of the Cold War, the United
Nations has taken on peacekeeping assignments that no nation would
undertake alone -- and conducted most of them admirably.
It has demonstrated a unique ability to bolster the confidence of
parties who have had enough of war, but who are fearful of what might
happen if they lay down their arms:
-- In El Salvador, where America spent more than $4 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
-- In Cambodia, the UN has succeeded in clearing mines,
repatriating refugees, and organizing elections, thus making an
astonishing transition to democracy possible.
-- In Cyprus, UN troops have played an essential role in keeping
the peace between Greece and Turkey, two NATO allies that are also
-- In Haiti, the UN, under the exemplary on-the-scene leadership of
a splendid international public servant, Lakhdar Brahimi, is quietly,
persistently and effectively helping the people and the government
restore security and democracy.
-- Even in Somalia, which is another one of those place names that
has become a synonym for failure, the UN went a long way toward
fulfilling its humanitarian mandate; its operations have saved hundreds
of thousands of lives.
As then-Secretary of State James Baker put it when he testified in
Congress in 1992, "UN peacekeeping is a pretty good buy and we ought
to recognize that . . . We spent trillions of dollars to win the Cold
War and we should be willing to spend millions of dollars to secure
the peace." My own boss, Secretary Christopher has said much the same
thing -- and done so more recently -- but I thought I'd quote his
predecessor here to underscore that support for UN peacekeeping is a
tenet of American foreign policy that ought to enjoy bipartisan backing.
UN peacekeeping, like the United Nations as a whole, is a good bargain
for the United States. The U.S. share of UN peacekeeping costs us an
amount equal to less than half of one percent of our defense budget. 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 -- about the price of a ticket to our nation's most popular
movie, which currently is something called "Mortal Kombat."
Some American critics of the United Nations have focused not so much on
cost but on concerns about the effectiveness of UN operations,
decisionmaking and management. In the current political environment,
the only target that is juicier for rhetorical and budgetary attack than
big government is world government. The United Nations is, of course,
no such thing, but it does represent an attempt -- welcome, admirable,
and promising -- to concert the energies of sovereign states on a
variety of common causes, and as such it is vulnerable to demagoguery,
particularly these days.
We all know that it's easy to caricature the United Nations bureaucracy.
In truth, the UN has sometimes resembled a corporation with a 185
members of the board. But throughout its history, the UN's universal
membership has also been its greatest asset -- albeit one that requires
But in assessing the future potential of the UN, we should keep in mind
the handicaps under which it worked, and often worked quite well, for
most of its fifty-year history. The Cold War divided not just the world
but the Security Council. Now, the old ideological and political
polarization has either narrowed or vanished completely. The UN still
does not work as well as it should, but UN member nations share a
renewed and intensified interest in fixing it.
The Clinton Administration came to Washington with a vision of a United
Nations that makes a difference in the lives of ordinary people around
the world. That's why Vice President Gore went to Cairo for the
Conference on Population and Development that began on Labor Day last
year; that's why the Vice President and First Lady went to the Social
Summit in Copenhagen this March; that's why Under Secretary of State Tim
Wirth went to the Climate Change Conference in Berlin in April; that's
why President Clinton made reform of UN economic and social agencies a
top priority at the G-7 Conference in Halifax in June; and that's why
Madeleine Albright, will go straight from her daughter's wedding
tomorrow to join the First Lady and HHS Secretary Donna Shalala for the
Fourth World Women's Conference in Beijing.
In our determination to make sure that American taxpayers' dollars are
better spent at the UN, we've worked to streamline the bureaucracy and
empower those who are working at the grass-roots and on the front lines.
Under Secretaries General Karl Paschke and Joseph Connor have embarked
on an aggressive campaign to change the entire management culture of
the UN, and to crack down on waste, fraud and abuse. We're confident
that they'll get the job done. At least, they will get it done if we
stay involved ourselves, with our funds and our leadership.
But in spite of these efforts, and the relatively low cost of the UN as
a whole, some American critics of the UN still 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. Such feelings are understandable,
and sometimes play well at home.
But 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.
So by all means let's get on with the great debate. But let its
starting point be a shared recognition of our nation's three greatest
strengths: first, the strength and global appeal of our democratic
values and institutions; second, the strength of our economy, which
depends on global peace and stability -- on open societies and open
markets; and third, the strength of our military power. In short, we
have the heart, the brains, the wallet and the muscle to exercise
international leadership, and to do so on behalf of our own interests as
well as those of humanity as a whole.
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