Why is America still in the United Nations? That is the question I have been nursing in the wake of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speech last week to the General Assembly. This isn’t an entirely new thought with me. But rarely has the world body seemed so bankrupt as it did during the 44 seconds when the prime minister of Israel stood mute to mark how the institution has met Iran’s threats to annihilate Israel with a “deafening silence.”
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It is no small thing that Netanyahu’s speech was boycotted by the Obama administration. Both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power were in the building, according to Benny Avni’s report in the New York Post. Yet they were pointedly absent when Netanyahu spoke, having been — or such is the claim — called away for a teleconference with U.S. President Barack Obama. No one believes the snub was unintentional. The word Avni, a dean of the UN press corps, used to describe the insult is “astounding.”
The sense that the United Nations has become strategically illogical for the United States does not arise solely from the question of Israel. There’s also Iran, albeit a related question. It is an incredible thing that the Iran deal is being imposed on the United States in the face of opposition by majorities of both the House and the Senate. Congress was rankled enough at the lousiness of the deal. But it was infuriated by the fact that it was taken to the United Nations before it got to Capitol Hill. If the full Iran deal got to Capitol Hill at all.
There is still the question of the side-agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency. That little drama is but more evidence that Congress, which is the largest single source of funding of the world body, is not only out of the picture when it comes to what the United Nations is doing.
Whatever happened to the idea of “open covenants, openly arrived at”? That was the first point of the League of Nations, a post-World War I attempt at a world body. The American president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, was unable to win ratification by the United States Senate. But, shorn of Point One, the idea transmogrified into the United Nations that we have today, a body that conspires to operate beyond the reach of its founders and funders. It’s no wonder that a sense of entrapment at the United Nations has been creeping up on America.
Fears that the United Nations Charter would become a kind of supra-constitutional parchment and used against America have animated the UN debate for decades. The objection was pressed by such fringe organizations as the John Birch Society. As the years have rolled on, however, concern has grown, as the United Nations has tried to force America into gun control, used human rights treaties to protect abortions, backed population control, and sought to bind foreign countries on the Law of the Sea and global warming.
Congress’ frustration over the United Nations can only be exacerbated by the events Tuesday afternoon, when the federal authorities arrested on corruption charges an ex-president of the General Assembly, John Ashe, who’d been envoy from Antiqua and Barbuda. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon allowed that he was “shocked and deeply troubled,” and the prosecutor, Preet Bharara, said he’d press to see “whether corruption is business as usual at the United Nations.”
So far, legislation to force the United States to withdraw from — or simply defund —the world body has failed to prosper in Congress. Congressman Ron Paul launched an attempt in 2007, but his measure went nowhere. Yet my own instincts — I’ve worked the beat on and off for years, and in my younger years was an enthusiast of the UN idea — is that Congress has a long memory.
It is nine years since then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s deputy, Mark Malloch Brown, lashed out at Congress and essentially called on Americans to find a president like Barack Obama. He was furious at the United States for failing to participate in the UN Commission on Human Rights. To charges that the United Nations' bureaucracy was weak and lacked modern management structures, he proclaimed the institution “guilty” and then blamed America. But the U.S. has withdrawn, at key points, from both UNESCO and the International Labor Organization — to salutary effect. I wouldn’t count on Congress being taken for granted forever.
Seth Lipsky, the founding editor of the Forward and formerly foreign editor of The Wall Street Journal, is editor of The New York Sun.