The U.N.'s millennium bash

President Clinton shakes Fidel Castro's hand and sits in on a speech by Iran's president at the organization's P.R. bonanza.

By Ian Williams

Published September 8, 2000 6:25PM (EDT)

Security was tight in the Big Apple this week. Helicopters hovered in the sky, cops swarmed the streets, Coast Guard cutters plied the East River and divers combed its waters for signs of trouble. Motorcade after diplomatic motorcade brought traffic to a standstill in many parts of the city. Inside the restaurants in and around the United Nations headquarters, many on Amnesty International's most wanted list were sitting down to eat. And on Wednesday, the 150 or so government heads -- the largest number ever assembled at one time -- at the United Nations Millennium Assembly lunch showed a certain restiveness as they waited for the belated arrival of Bill Clinton.

The president strolled in nonchalantly, more than a half-hour late -- as he did at his own end-of-term speech at the Democratic Convention a few weeks earlier. Some old diplomatic hands weren't sure whether they should be more upset at the arrogance of the president or the subservience of the U.N. leaders who waited for him to start. "We wouldn't have waited more than five minutes," former Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar was overheard complaining.

But the delay symbolizes a greater truth about the organization: Far from controlling the U.S., as the oddball right in Congress fears, the organization can't so much as make a move without U.S. approval these days. And this week, Washington is keeping the delegates waiting for much more than a nibble at the hors d'oeuvres tables.

With classically Clintonian imprecision, the president called Wednesday for "better machinery to ensure U.N. peacekeepers can be rapidly deployed, with the right training and equipment, the ability to project credible force and missions well-defined by a well functioning headquarters." He concluded "all nations, including my own, must meet our obligations to the U.N."

A cynic would find something hollow about this rhetoric coming from a president who, at the end of his second term, has permitted the U.S. to run up debts to the organization so high that it is barely hanging on to its vote. In his first term, Clinton was instrumental in ensuring that the United Nations sent no supplies or reinforcements to its peacekeepers in Kigali, Rwanda, even as 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered in 1994.

Currently the U.S. owes the organization $1.7 billion, which is being held to ransom by various eccentrically paranoid legislators on Capitol Hill for a variety of stated reasons, ranging from abortion to black helicopter concerns of a U.N. takeover of the United States. It may cost slightly less than a Stealth bomber, but the missing cash makes it almost impossible to plan peacekeeping operations or, for that matter, fix serious leaks in the roof of the U.N. headquarters.

Just as important as its funding is U.S. political support for the United Nations and its global mission. American diplomacy marches to a different drummer than the rest of the world, which is why it has wielded its veto power in somewhat undiplomatic ways, usually based on the dubious premise that Congress always knows best. Unlike the old Soviet Union however, it does not usually have to bang the table and shout "Nyet" to get what it wants, since other members go out of their way to be accommodating. There is only one superpower, and that is the refrain in everyone's mind.

But it seems a lame duck can boldly walk where no president dared set foot before. Clinton sat in the audience to listen to Iranian President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, who returned the courtesy by not mentioning the Great Satan (e.g. the United States) once in his thoughtful speech announcing that "the future of the world belongs to democracy in all levels of governance." Instead, he reserved some relatively temperate jabs for a later press conference.

In the run-up to a huge photo session of the gathered leaders, Clinton created the ultimate Kodak moment when he bumped into Cuban leader Fidel Castro and shook his hand in one of those carefully contrived thaw-making accidents that the United Nations seems to be specializing in this week. While it may not help the Gore-Lieberman ticket in Florida, it will surely help Clinton displace Jimmy Carter as roving peacemaker at large.

Strange as it may seem, short of delivering a check to the cash-strapped global institution, Clinton's rhetorical support is exactly what Secretary-General Kofi Annan and senior officials are seeking from this seven-ring circus on the East River. They will be able to cite his speech and the more specific pledges and calls made by other leaders to justify their work.

The official result of the affair will be a declaration adopted by the General Assembly, a statement from the Security Council Summit and various reports back from four "round tables" on various issues. However, before the first word was spoken, the major, occasionally blunted, points of the "decisions" were well known.

The first point in the draft statement, as echoed by the major leaders, was a call for an injection of funds and forces into U.N. peacekeeping forces. The language, based on a report prepared by former Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, called for the establishment of a headquarters for peacekeeping forces in New York and the creation of "robust" multinational standby brigades that could drop neutrality requirements and go into combat against forces that flout a U.N. accord or attack civilians. The proposal stopped far short of creating a standing U.N. army -- a move that Congress would vehemently oppose.

World leaders will commit themselves to halving the number of people living on less than $1 a day within 15 years. Newly nuclear India lobbied successfully for the removal of a call on states to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, while the other nuclear states, including the U.S., nixed Annan's original proposal for a conference on nuclear dangers. Ironically, the main U.S. contribution was to dilute the final statement so that countries were only asked to "consider" signing up for the proposed International Criminal Court.

Silence, of course, is often the most important sound at these international summits. Last year, in the aftermath of Kosovo, Annan called for serious discussion of humanitarian intervention. Delegates from developing nations ensured that such language was missing from the current draft declaration, supplanted instead by a reassertion of national sovereignty. It is one of the few issues on which the third world and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Jesse Helms agree.

Despite the airy formulations about all states being equal, most of the assorted presidents and prime ministers addressed a half-empty hall. Some smaller delegations have even made their chauffeurs sit in to fill the seats. Only the powerful and the interesting drew anything near a full house. Castro and Yasser Arafat can usually pull the crowds, as of course can Clinton, Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Jiang Zemin.

For many of the others, the main attraction is the United Nations' TV satellite feed of their mercifully brief speeches for domestic consumption. It's safe to presume that few, if any, U.N. officials (apart from the official notetakers) absorbed the repeated pleas against globalism that have been the rallying cry for many developing countries at the summit.

But most people took the opportunity to give their hobbyhorses a run around the ring. Putin took a swipe at Son of Star Wars by proposing a conference on the demilitarization of space and offering to host it.

Both Blair and Clinton used the platform to make points about Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the military junta had placed under house arrest. In response, the junta explained that it had done so for "the solid, wisdom-led reason to keep (her) always under their vigilant eyes, for her own safety as well as for safeguarding Myanmar's fame against the calumniating fusillades of neo-colonialists." At least someone out there was listening.

All of the major players took the opportunity for a sequential orgy of diplomacy with bilateral assignations taking place throughout the building behind closed doors. Britain's Blair met with Balkan leaders as well as Arafat and Israel's Ehud Barak. Clinton met the unmoving duo from Camp David in desperate hopes to get the peace process back on track while it would help his reputation and Hillary Clinton's election.

Almost all the leaders tried to get an appointment -- and a photo op -- with Secretary-General Annan, but there were literally not enough slots in the day so at least 100 of them were disappointed. It was suggested that some U.N. ambassadors might even lose their jobs as a result of their lack of pull.

There are the strange sideshows and parties as well. On the night before the summit, New Zealand Prime Minister and veteran anti-nuclear activist Helen Clarke was honored at O'Neill's Bar -- an Irish establishment known for its close ties to Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein, whose attachment to banning bombs is, shall we say, somewhat recent.

Hardly noticed was the small dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel for the "Third Way," hosted by Blair and Clinton. It gathered South African President Thabo Mbeki and Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and others to discuss the joint New Labor/New Democrat projects. Who knows, they may even have laid the ground work to invite George W. Bush along next time to discuss the Third Way's relation to triangulation from the right and compassionate conservatism.

What lasting benefits will result from the summit? The most practical aspect seemed like an afterthought. With all these people here, one enterprising bureaucrat thought, why not get them to sign on to some of the 500 or so multinational treaties and conventions deposited here? As an inducement, the United Nations set up a special signing area where potentates could ratify, round the clock, any permutation of the 25 most popular treaties with continuous TV coverage. Around 80 countries will be signing away. A brief glance showed that the most popular signings were against the use of child soldiers and child pornography. Several took the opportunity to sign the treaty establishing an international criminal court.

In case the official act was not dizzying enough, the core summit unleashed a paroxysm of do-goodism as NGOs, religious leaders, parliamentarians and others all had their various fringe summits around the official one.

So in the end, what was it all about? Really, it is a major P.R. event, designed to reinforce support for the United Nations. But most countries in the world, even Yugoslavia and Iraq, pledge allegiance to the organization, so the organization is pushing at an open door with most of the planet where states support it -- and pay their dues without imposing conditions.

The only real target of this exercise was just a few hundred miles down the Atlantic coast, on Capitol Hill. While protestors complained about the United Nations toadying up to major corporations, Annan and his kitchen cabinet see it differently. They are trying to build a political constituency in the U.S. for the organization, of the kind that it has in every other democratic country.

Some opponents in Congress see the United Nations' role as some sort of institutional spearhead against U.S. hegemony. In contrast, U.N. delegates and officials know that the only way the organization can ever function fully is with U.S. membership and support. They know what happened to the League of Nations when the major powers dropped out. And that's why they didn't bang their knives and forks on the tables when they were waiting for Clinton. That's why each insult they get from Congress has U.N. leaders running to see what they can do to ingratiate themselves.

Ian Williams

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

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Bill Clinton Cuba Iran Middle East United Nations