Until 1991 there were two major sources of friction: the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Where the U.S. kept faith with the U.N. before the collapse of the Soviet Union, even as the U.N. dithered and refused to take sides, it has often lost its patience over the body’s longtime hostility to Israeli military retaliation to acts of terrorism, which the world would attribute to the way Israel has treated Palestinian refugees. Twice, under Republican presidents, the U.S. refused to pay its dues. Twice, under Democratic presidents, were the dues restored, and the tone modified, and the U.N. reengaged. Often, the U.S. has used its financial leverage over the U.N. to shape debates where it can.
Even as there has been a partisan divide in the way U.S. presidents deal with the U.N., there has been a remarkably consistent tone in their speeches. Virtually every presidential speech since 1945 has called for world behavior appropriate to an “era of interdependence” (Ford, 1974), a “global community in the sense that we face common problems” (Carter, 1977), the endorsement of a “resort to force reluctantly and only when they must” (Reagan, 1982), and the call for a “welcome shift from polemics to peacekeeping” (Bush, 1989).
U.S. presidents praise the U.N.—and then bury it with responsibility and warnings of its irrelevance if it refuses to act. Ronald Reagan noted in 1982 that the U.N. charter’s “influence has weakened” because it refused to take sides against the Soviet Union’s “ruthless repression” and proxy wars across the globe. “In these times when more and more lawless acts are going unpunished—as some members of this very body show a growing disregard for the U.N. charter … let us finally make the charter live.”
George W. Bush made it clear that “other multilateral institutions” were speaking up where the U.N. wasn’t, a direct challenge to the body’s regard for itself. Internally, his administration found the U.N. impossible to deal with, believing it to be a colossal collection of sinecures for do-gooders whose expiration date had long since passed.
But so did Barack Obama, in his first address to the U.N., when he called for a future “forged by deeds, and not simply words.” While noting that the U.S. once again was fully participating in the United Nations’ more symbolic endeavors and had fully paid its dues, “We can be remembered as a generation that chose to drag the arguments of the 20th century into the 21st, that put off hard choices, refused to look ahead, failed to keep pace because we defined ourselves by what we were against instead of what we were for.” Or, he said, the U.N. can finally give “meaning to the promise embedded in the name given to this institution: the United Nations.”
The U.S.’s legacy of hectoring, however, is predicated on the U.S.’s being able to lead. Obama’s first speech promised that the U.S. was well on its way toward comprehensive energy reform, a promise he abandoned—or was forced to abandon—when the economy collapsed. He said he would work quickly to bring Israel and Palestinians back to the bargaining table directly, and has failed to do so.
As much as the legitimacy of the United Nations is at stake when it fails to fulfill the vision of its charter, the U.S.’s influence is limited when it cannot make good on its own promises.