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Helms' Visit to U.N. Was a Step Forward

Author: Ruth Wedgwood
February 4, 2000
Los Angeles Times


It wasn't just whistling "Dixie." The grand geste of Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in staging a personal appearance by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) before the U.N. Security Council seems to have lifted the mood in U.S.-U.N. relations.

International lawyers were initially perturbed. The Security Council is not Hyde Park Corner, open to anyone with an opinion. Delegates who appear are assumed to be stating national policy.

Yet the televised address by the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was surprisingly conciliatory. It was also a handy reminder of the U.S. doppelganger theory of government: two cohabiting regimes in Washington, scrimmaging at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. However complicated the politics, nothing useful can happen without the concurrence of Capitol Hill.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan is perhaps the first U.N. leader to appreciate that legislative oversight is a daily fact of American life and lucre, and that the U.N.'s 38th floor must court the members of both houses of Congress. Filtering all contacts and information through overworked diplomatic missions can be frustrating to everyone.

Many of Helms' colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee— including Rod Grams (R-Minn.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and ranking minority member Joseph Biden (D-Del.)--have become surprisingly knowledgeable about U.N. plans and management. Annan has gained credit with them for his open style of governance. U.N. staffers now can talk to each other without filtering talking points through their agency bosses. Even Senate staff can pose direct questions on U.N. management, budgets and planning.

To be sure, Congress' recent promise in the Helms-Biden legislative package to pay $924 million in U.N. back dues is fraught with conditions. Still, there is increasing optimism among U.N. delegates that a way can be found to meet the most difficult provisos. The reduction of the U.S. share of regular dues from 25% to 22%--required in the second year of the Helms-Biden payment schedule— would leave a $39-million shortfall in the regular U.N. budget. Countries eager for more influence at the U.N., including Japan and some in Europe, may choose to make up the difference.

Russia and China initially caviled at the Security Council's encounter with Helms. Yet Russian U.N. Ambassador Sergei V. Lavrov came along to lunch, a fete that also included the president of the General Assembly, Theo-Ben Gurirab of Namibia, Penelope Wensley of Australia, chairman of the General Assembly budget committee, and former budget committee Chairman Anwarul Chowdhury of Bangladesh.

Diplomats from a host of countries turned up the following day at the Victorian hall of the New York City Bar Assn. to watch Helms conduct an unprecedented field hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Annan political advisor John Ruggie and Undersecretary General for Management Joe Connor appeared informally as panel witnesses, plangently telling Helms that his help was needed in emergencies such as Kosovo and East Timor. Helms offered to continue the conversation over bean soup in the Senate dining room.

President Woodrow Wilson doomed American participation in the League of Nations— indeed, he doomed the League of Nations itself— by refusing to compromise on the Senate's conditions for American membership. But it is hardly surprising that the House and the Senate want to be part of major decisions on budget costs as well as the use of armed forces. These are long-standing concerns that will not go away.

People who work inside the United Nations nowadays are second only to Capitol Hill Republicans in their criticism of the body's past performance. It is sensible to treat the interest of Congress as an opportunity for reform rather than confrontation.