Retail Diplomacy

Retail Diplomacy

Mini Teaser: The successful U.S. campaign to convince 188 other nations to cut its annual dues obligation provides a model for success in other multilateral negotiations.

by Author(s): Suzanne Nossel

PERHAPS THE most widely heard and trenchant criticism of the Bush Administration's foreign policy before September 11 was that it displayed a wilful and counterproductive unilateralism. Clearly, since the terrorist attacks, that policy has changed: We're all multilateralists now, at least for the time being. Nonetheless, a tension remains: Can an administration whose vision of international leadership is defined by a go-it-alone approach whenever possible really conduct effective multilateral diplomacy? The question is not only whether the administration can keep a motley coalition together long enough to accomplish its military and political goals in the war against terrorism. We need also to ask whether it will, and whether it should, maintain a commitment to multilateralism once the present crisis passes.

The answer is not simple; some mix of unilateral and multilateral methods surely makes sense for the United States.1 But the problem is clear. Despite (or perhaps because of) its superpower status, the United States has grown increasingly isolated in the United Nations and other international forums. In the past year, America has been reviled for sabotaging the Kyoto climate negotiations, bullied in the UN Security Council over Iraq and Israel, kicked off the Geneva-based Human Rights Commission for the first time in history, and provoked to walk out of the Durban racism conference in a huff. These setbacks triggered not only dismay but also a reactive impulse in the Congress. As the first plane slammed into tower one of the World Trade Center, the post of U.S. ambassador to the UN had been stripped of its cabinet rank and left vacant for nearly eight months. American arrears to the UN were at an historic high, with $582 million pledged in January mired in delay.

On the other hand, despite the setbacks noted above, the United States has beaten the odds in several key recent multilateral battles. A year ago the United States kept Sudan, the duly anointed candidate of the African Group, off the UN Security Council. The United States ended Israel's fifty years of technical pariah status at the UN, winning our ally acceptance into a regional group. In late 2000 the Americans convinced the membership to accept Jesse Helms' UN finance formula, cutting its dues while forcing others to pay more.

On all of these issues, successes and failures, more was at stake than what was officially on the table. When the United States loses in international forums, both its pride and global standing are hurt. When it stands alone, even if it holds the line, it is vulnerable to accusations of high-handedness and double standards. When it succeeds by browbeating others, it feeds resentments. Every which way, it becomes harder to achieve American goals the next time around and, as we have learned this fall, one never knows when the "next time around" may be the time that really counts.

Both champions and critics of multilateral diplomatic forums have a stake in ensuring that as long as the United States is at the table in global forums, it is effective in promoting American interests and poised to marshal global support when it needs to do so. Even critics of the United Nations have to concede that it plays an important role over an array of functions that serve U.S. interests: human rights and refugee protection, international air traffic control and safety, and now perhaps even "nation-building." Likewise, the UN'S most enthusiastic supporters, both in the United States and globally, would be better off if the United States were more confident of its influence among the UN membership, and thus more willing to put trust in the organization. The tired debate over whether multilateral institutions do America more harm than good must give way to a pragmatic discussion of the recent U.S. track record in the multilateral arena and what can be done to improve it.

The need for improvement should be obvious. After the Human Rights Commission ouster, U.S. policymakers were indignant over the UN's act of defiance, having assumed that American stature alone guaranteed the seat in perpetuity. But things no longer work that way. While we remain on top militarily and economically, other spheres of influence-including Europe and China-are rising.

Moreover, America's pre-eminent status can be a mixed blessing. Even as the world pledged to support a U.S.-led fight against terrorism, one could discern an undercurrent of grim satisfaction that the United States had proven less than invincible. Resentment toward U.S. hegemony fuels efforts to use international organizations to rein America in. The United States, in turn, balks at encroachments on its sovereignty, clipping the wings of international organizations by withholding its support. As the events of this fall have demonstrated, however, stifling international organizations is risky, in that there are certain key tasks that only the UN is equipped to undertake.

In a world of competing power centers, the United States cannot rely on a strategy of curbing international organizations at its pleasure. Rather, we must learn how to translate our global military and economic clout into effective and specific diplomatic influence. American strength lies ultimately not in the ability to steamroll the world community, but in the power to turn delegations around one-by-one through persuasion and bilateral leverage. Put another way, we need to focus more on the art of retail diplomacy as a tool for multilateral advocacy.

A noteworthy recent example of successful retail diplomacy was the campaign to negotiate a reduction of America's UN dues. Like many examples of the art, this effort was not particularly glamorous. But it worked, and it bears many lessons in diplomatic skill and stamina that American statesmen will need to learn in the months and years ahead.

Cutting US. Dues: A Case Study

IN DECEMBER 2000, after a 14-month campaign, the United States overcame nearly universal opposition at the UN to win an agreement to lower American dues to the organization. The victory fulfilled the terms of the 1999 "Helms-Biden" law, which provided for payment of nearly $1 billion in U.S. arrears to the UN, but only if the UN membership agreed to lower U.S. dues for the UN's regular and peacekeeping budgets by more than $170 million annually.

On the face of it, the U.S. position evinced not a little chutzpah. The U.S. stance was the equivalent of having Bill Gates, in response to an IRS enforcement action on back taxes owed, agree to pay up only if the IRS agreed to lower his tax bracket in future years, regardless of what he earned. 'When the UN membership signed onto the deal, Senators Helms and Biden were as stunned as anyone else, and led a historic standing ovation in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the triumph in what many saw as an era of waning American influence at the UN.

How did the United States convince 188 other countries to fork over more so that--during the longest period of prosperity in its history--the world's richest country could pay less? For starters, the United States wielded powerful leverage: nearly $1 billion in back dues that would be paid to the UN if the American demands were met. Beyond that, the charm, boldness and bravado of then-UN Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke gave the advocacy effort unique momentum and profile.

But incentives and personalities, though crucial, were not enough. When Helms-Biden was passed in December 1999, dangling the promise of repayment in exchange for a dues reduction, a Canadian diplomat described the offer as "a lump of coal in the Christmas stocking"--and the Canadians are about the best friends the United States has at the UN. The UN membership was galled by the U.S attempt to attach strings to payments that it owed under the UN Charter, seeing the move as a bald-faced violation of international law and a dangerous precedent. What would stop the Japanese from withholding payments to protest their lack of a seat on the Security Council? And the Germans from following suit? Most of the membership had long been on record opposing a U.S. dues reduction as inconsistent with the precept underlying the UN's financial system--that each country be assessed according to its "capacity to pay." This phrase became a mantra repeated in every accent known to humanity, the rallying cry of countries accusing the United States of foisting burdens onto the less fortunate.

By some accounts, this was all so much ritual howling before the inevitable concession to U.S. power and money. According to this view, the membership was bound to surrender because the United States was holding the organization to ransom; unless it gave in, the UN would risk bankruptcy. In forums like the UN, however, the best interests of the institution do not always dictate the course taken. For one thing, there is an obvious point that Americans sometimes forget: decisions are not made by "the UN" but rather by 189 member states, each of which acts in its own self-interest. In this equation, the UN'S fiscal needs often carry less weight than delegations' own financial interests, loyalties and vanities. Moreover, the organization had functioned under the weight of U.S. arrears for more than a decade, and there were plenty of governments that believed it would be better off holding firm by rejecting U.S. demands and re-inforcing America's outcast image.

Essay Types: Essay