UNder Fire: The United Nations' Battle for Relevance

Is It Worth It?: An Essay by David Brancaccio
by David Brancaccio

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As we worked on this hour of radio, we operated under one assumption: that few of you wake up in the morning doubled over with worry about the future of the United Nations. Gas prices, maybe. Or how to fund your children's education, probably. But the UN in this new century? While it's a crucial public policy issue, it's not one of those front and center, top-of-mind worries.

Unless, of course, one is a member of the group that paid for a billboard I saw along a North Carolina highway this spring. It read, "Get the US out!"—exclamation point—"of the United Nations." It was brought to us by the John Birch Society. You know the Society: a group that hated communism, didn't like the march toward civil rights, and now is convinced the UN is committing that sin of sins, collectivism. At the Birch Society online, the deep-seated fear of UN power is manifest.

But the striking thing when you spend any time actually at the UN is that one is not necessarily left in awe of the institution's power. One is struck, instead, with the limits of what the UN can do, either because the challenges are too daunting, consensus among member countries is too elusive, money is too scarce, or its veins are too occluded with the caution and conservatism that hardens in bureaucracies of this size. That is to say, with the UN as hamstrung as it is on so many issues, one is left worrying less about the UN's sins of commission and more about its sins of omission—like Rwanda ten years ago.

So given what are clearly limits on the UN's power to act, a fair question for Americans is this: Is the United Nations worth the money we spend on it? That's a question for you, the taxpayer, to answer for yourself, hopefully better informed by the discussion we've presented. But before you decide, consider a couple of numbers:

US taxpayers will spend about $2.2 billion on the UN in the coming year. So $2.2 billion—that's a lot, right? But on the intercontinental scale of government budgets, that $2.2 billion gets cast in a different light: a single B-2 stealth bomber or one year for America of the UN. Same diff; they cost the same. Let's try it now per capita: the UN costs $7.51 per year for every man, woman, and child in America. That's equal to what Americans spend in a year on what the International Dairy Food Association calls "frozen novelty desserts," like ice cream sandwiches or fudgsicles.

But few Americans would want to spend even a penny if they knew it would go to waste. That is the challenge for the UN going forward: making the case that it's house is in order and it's ready to roll whenever the dark shadows threaten what Deputy Secretary-General Fréchette referred to as "hell on earth."

Related Web Links
The John Birch Society's United Nations campaign
http://www.getusout.org

International Dairy Foods Association, Ice Cream Sales and Trends
http://www.idfa.org/facts/icmonth/page2.cfm

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