America is retreating from an attempt to use its sizable monetary contributions to insist on genuine reform at the United Nations. While what Turtle Bay for 60 years has called "reform" has proved elusive, the financing from America and the other main funding nations will not be interrupted anytime soon.
On the face of it, America, which is responsible for 22% of the U.N. budget, is not alone in demanding real reform at the world body. The Europeans, Japan, and other countries whose taxpayers foot most of the bills last year supported an ultimatum that would impose a freeze on all monies spent by Turtle Bay unless significant changes took place by the end of June.
A plan was designed to seize the process of spending decision-making from the hands of committees, where countries with conflicting interests bicker endlessly, and transfer the authority to the secretary-general. Secretary-General Annan was a strong backer of the move, but, like any bureaucracy that fears losing funding, his Secretariat team opposed using member-state contributions to enforce it.
Even fiercer was the opposition by poorer member states, known as the Group of 77, who feared their powers at the United Nations would be eroded.
Here is how America's ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, described the battle lines during a congressional hearing last week: "On one side are a group of 50 nations, including the U.S., who are pushing an ambitious reform agenda, and whose combined contributions happen to total more than 86.7% of the U.N. budget. On the other side are over 120 nations who contribute 12% of the budget, and are blocking these reforms."
So which side won? The U.N. body dealing with budgets and management, known as the Fifth Committee, last month voted down the proposed management reforms, but the failure to change did not result in immediate spending penalties. On Friday, that same Fifth Committee decided to postpone for a few days its decision on whether to lift the budget cap. On Wednesday, when the ultimatum runs out, spending restrictions are expected to be postponed even longer. For all intents and purposes, they will be removed entirely.
At a Senate hearing last month, Mr. Bolton signaled the Bush administration's willingness to consider a 90-day postponement in the imposition of a spending cap. At that time it was clear to American diplomats that European support for using the budget weapon was lukewarm at best. Publicly, Japanese diplomats said their taxpayers were miffed at the United Nations, but Japan, too, was expected to cave if it remained the sole supporter of America in this fight.
The signal that a compromise by America on the spending cap was forthcoming was cheered on Turtle Bay's 38th floor, where Mr. Annan and his top aides have their offices. Removing the budget threat could well have emboldened Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown to inject himself once again, with the full support of Mr. Annan, into American politics.
Now that the Bush administration is no longer seriously threatening to use budgets to force the United Nations to make changes, Mr. Malloch Brown is free to call on top Democrats to strengthen the United Nations, using it as a weapon against Republicans in the presidential election. "Who will campaign in 2008 for a new multilateral national security?" he challenged Democratic operatives in an infamous June 6 speech.
Nobody, even American diplomats, wants to fight alone against the rest of the world. Mr. Bolton recently met with members of the G-77 to allay their fears and formed an alliance with newly elected staff union leaders. But America's leadership on reform has already turned Mr. Bolton into a Turtle Bay target. By now, even if he offered to transfer all powers to the hands of poorer countries, some G-77 leaders would assume he has a trick up his sleeve and vote it down.
Turtle Bay types often cite some successful reform measures, like the Peace Building Commission that was inaugurated on Friday to loud self-congratulation by Mr. Annan and others. But the creation of yet another bureaucracy with ill-defined responsibilities, most of which will surely overlap with existing U.N. bodies, is no reason for cheering by those who believe that above all else the Turtle Bay behemoth needs some paring down.
Mr. Bolton has not abandoned his hope of achieving at least some management changes that will attain that goal. To force changes, however, he will need to find ways to renew the funding threat. The Senate could help, and Mr. Malloch Brown's partisan remarks may give some senators the incentive to do so.