An insider’s view on the UN’s relations with the USA

Geoff Catchpole (left) BRLSI World Affairs Group Convenor, and his predecessor, Declan Walton, who gave an insider’s view of the United Nations’ relationship with the USA.
Until last year Declan Walton was Convenor of BRLSI’s World Affairs Group, producing an impressive list of speakers from the front line of international developments. He did, however, keep his own light somewhat under a bushel, revealing only in passing that he had been Deputy Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, and much else besides, in a long career at the UN. Tonight he came back in that capacity to give an insider’s view of the United Nations’ relations with its richest and most powerful member, the USA.
First came some history, as Declan described the ‘East and West Winds’ of, respectively, isolationist and internationalist thought in America. In the isolationist camp was no less a voice than George Washington, who advised his fellow Americans to avoid all overseas involvement, especially with Europe. However President Franklin D Roosevelt took a different view, and in 1941 met with Winston Churchill to form the ‘United Nations’, although at that point the term meant solely the Allies who were fighting against Germany and Japan. Even in this form it managed, among other things, the 1944 Bretton Woods conference that reshaped the world economy, but it wasn’t until 1945 that today’s United Nations, then with 51 members, was officially born.
By 2006 the UN had grown to 192 members, and therein, Declan told us, lay the source of much of the USA’s problems with the organisation, not least the ‘one vote per country’ system used by the General Assembly to determine its budgets, and thus America’s contributions. This led to non-payment by the USA which technically disqualified it from voting – a situation circumvented, in typical UN fashion, by not holding any votes until it was resolved. On a more general level the USA still feels outnumbered, especially since the formation of the ‘G77′ group of nations and widespread opposition to its stance on issues such as Palestine.
There’s no doubt, however, that America benefits from involvement with the UN, not least in adding support and legitimacy to its military actions. Its most successful post-1945 war was in Korea, as part of a full UN action, while its ‘loneliest’ war, as Declan Walton put it, was the go-it-alone Vietnam. Perhaps surprisingly, the UN, not America, is the world’s peacekeeper, with by far the largest number of peacekeeping personnel coming from countries such as Pakistan and India. Conversely, with America’s military budget six times that of its nearest rival (China, with the UK third), it’s in other countries’ interests to keep the USA in the international fold.
Those ‘East Winds’ of isolationism still blow, especially among Republicans such as Congressman Ron Paul, whose H.R. 1146 Bill in 2009 called for the USA to leave the UN altogether. Despite this, Declan Walton saw no breakdown of relations occurring between the UN and USA – or of the USA, with space, resources and a relatively youthful population, ceasing to be the world’s most powerful nation any time soon. Uneasy though the relationship has sometimes been, the UN and USA need each other too much to part company.
• Declan Walton’s lecture was a World Affairs Group event as part of BRLSI’s Perspectives on America programme, which runs until May 31st (click here for a programme). On Saturday 30th April William Rees-Mogg MP will speak at BRLSI on the other Special Relationship, between Britain and the USA. Doors open at 2pm and this is bound to be a popular event, so get there early!