Emily Cadei
Foreign Policy
October 4, 2011 - 12:00am

To hear Republican politicians tell it, the failure of the United States to stop the Palestinians' headlong drive for member-state status at the U.N. Security Council was the result of employing too many carrots and not enough sticks. That line of reasoning was on full display this week, as Congress froze $200 million in assistance earmarked for the Palestinian Authority in retaliation for its statehood bid. But a number of GOP figures are thinking even bigger -- or smaller, as it turns out: Seeking a tougher U.S. line on a U.N. system that they say allows rogue states to operate with diplomatic impunity, they are rallying support for measures that would fundamentally transform the U.S. relationship with the world's preeminent international body.

With the 2012 presidential campaign focused elsewhere, Republican candidates have been less explicit about their views of the U.N. system, though Rick Perry and Mitt Romney have both called for the United States to reassess its sizable contributions to the organization if the Palestinians gain any sort of recognition at the U.N. General Assembly. Both GOP front-runners should be easy converts to the anti-U.N. cause: Romney called the United Nations "an extraordinary failure" in his previous campaign for president, and Perry refused to honor United Nations Day as Texas governor in 2004.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are pushing a slew of legislation that would do everything from block funding to certain U.N. bodies to withdraw the United States from the United Nations entirely. The most high-profile GOP proposal, a piece of legislation introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), would completely restructure how -- and how much -- the United States contributes to the international organization.

While none of the bills has any chance of becoming law during this Congress, thanks to opposition from Senate Democrats, the growing Republican antipathy to the United Nations has the potential to transform U.S. involvement with the world's premier international institution in the years ahead. For that reason, U.N. officials and their defenders in U.S. officialdom aren't taking any chances.

Several pro-U.N. advocacy groups had their rapid-response operations firing after Ros-Lehtinen's first hearing as House Foreign Affairs chair -- in a session titled "The United Nations: Urgent Problems That Need Congressional Action" -- back in January. And when her bill was introduced in late August, they countered with a grassroots and media campaign opposing the legislation. The State Department's International Organization Affairs Bureau has also stepped up its media outreach considerably ever since Ros-Lehtinen took office.

This week, a bipartisan policy group, Partnership for a Secure America, is running a one-day, full-page ad in Capitol Hill publications Politico, Roll Call, the Hill, and Congressional Quarterly stating that withholding funds to the United Nations hurts U.S. national security interests. The statement is signed by 30 former lawmakers and administration officials from both parties, as well as retired military generals.

From a congressional vantage point, the palpable level of concern over a bill that at this point amounts to little more than routine political posturing seems overblown. But in Turtle Bay, where every turn of phrase is freighted with meaning, Washington's rhetoric is taken very seriously, especially when coming from the government that foots the largest proportion of the U.N. bill. The United States each year contributes 22 percent of the U.N.'s regular budget, which amounted to $583 million this year. Japan is the next largest contributor, funding 16.6 percent of the budget, followed by Germany at 8.6 percent.

Over the past 30 years, both U.S. funding and leadership at the United Nations have ebbed and flowed. Under President Barack Obama, the United States has paid up and anted up at the United Nations, reinvigorating American participation in the body and conducting aggressive diplomacy at the Security Council and in a range of U.N. bodies with which it had only limited involvement during George W. Bush's administration. But the nexus of spending pressures at home, doubts about interventionism overseas, and a rising conservative corps in Congress could presage another downturn.

Those defending a strong U.S. role at the United Nations have American public opinion on their side. A survey this spring conducted by a nonpartisan polling outfit for the pro-U.N. advocacy group the Better World Campaign found that 85 percent of voters think the United States should play an active role within the United Nations, and 60 percent of Americans say the country should pay its U.N. dues on time and in full.

Of course, the United Nations has long been criticized for offering a platform for Israel-bashing and anti-U.S. initiatives. That is perhaps the reason that a Gallup poll this year found that, though Americans did not want to withdraw from the body, only 31 percent of respondents answered that the United Nations was doing a good job in trying to solve the world's problems, while 62 percent said it was doing a poor job.

The Palestinian statehood bid will only exacerbate these divisions. If the United States is forced to veto the resolution to grant the Palestinians' member-state status at the Security Council, the Palestinians will likely appeal to the General Assembly -- providing an even larger forum for countries to criticize Israeli and U.S. policies. This in turn will allow Republican critics of the United Nations to paint their cause as a necessary step to advance Israel's security, thereby gaining further momentum in Congress.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017