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We Need to Change Our View

An interview with veteran Senior U.S. Ambassador
Alvin P. Adams, Jr.

s diplomats go, there are few still living who are as accomplished and experienced in the American Foreign Service as Alvin Adams. Over a period of three decades of service, his assignments ranged from diplomatic service in Vietnam to serving on the White House National Security Council and in the offices of several Secretaries of State. As a member of the Senior Foreign Service, he held three ambassadorships (Djibouti, Haiti and Peru). In 1990, he played a pivotal role in pulling off Haiti’s first fully democratic elections in 186 years of independence. In 1992, he was awarded the State Department’s Award of Valor for his role in saving the life of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“I felt that this organization [the United Nations Association of the United States of America] was one that could make a difference – that it has a potential which isn’t fully realized.”

     Three years later, he stepped down from government employ, and in 1996 he assumed the role of President of the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA), a citizens’ foreign affairs forum and support group as old as the United Nations itself. UNA-USA, conceived as the lobbying group which would represent the interests of the American public before the United Nations, was championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, among others. Today, as a member-supported, grass-roots organization, it has 175 chapters and 30,000 members across the country.

     Ambassador Adams spoke to Aron Mason, editor of Freedom, during his first visit to Southern California as President of UNA-USA. He shared his unique insight on foreign affairs, the role of the United States and of the United Nations, and also spoke of the mission of his Association.

. . .

     Freedom: What led you to decide it was time to leave the foreign service?

     Adams: After three decades, I had seen quite a bit of the career and gone about as high as one could go in the American Foreign Service. And, because of budget constraints, very few of us could get promoted to the one or two levels above where I was—about one in 200 get promoted. I felt there was something else to move on to that would be of value.

     I had originally planned to go to the University of Texas and teach for a year, but then I learned that the position of UNA President was vacant and that I was considered a candidate for the job. After some discussions, I took the job on October 1, 1996.

     Freedom: What attracted you to UNA-USA?

     Adams: I felt that this organization was one that could make a difference—that it has a potential which isn’t fully realized. I hoped then—and still do—that I can help make that difference in advancing and defending the proposition that the United States has a broad role to play beyond its own borders.

     Frankly, I also feel that this position draws on abilities I have developed and used over the years while at the same time pushing me to do things that are new to me—like raising funds. In my line of government, one is much more used to spending money than making it. So it was a reach, but not an uncomfortable one.

     Freedom: How does UNA’s representation of U.S. interests at the United Nations differ from the U.S. government’s own position at the United Nations?

     Adams: Well, we take a different approach. UNA was the idea of President Franklin Roosevelt as an organization that could build grass-roots support for the charter of the United Nations and avoid the failure of the League of Nations treaty, which was defeated by one vote.

     We take no money from the U.S. government or the United Nations. We are a friend of the United Nations, but not a spokesman for it, so we can and do criticize it when we think that is in order.

     Freedom: There was considerable rancor over the issue of whether or not Boutros Boutros-Ghali would serve a second term as U.N. Secretary General. The United States took the position that he should not and ultimately prevailed; Kofi Annan has since been installed to the position. Why was there so little support for the U.S. position?

     Adams: I think that there was something of a false impression surrounding this. There actually was a fair amount of agreement on the U.S. position, and Boutros-Ghali’s support on the Security Council was short lived. Following tradition, every continent gets to see two terms served by one of its own, and the African nations ultimately nominated Kofi Annan, a candidate whom the United States was pleased with and voted for.

     The U.S. position, particularly vis-a-vis Congress, is that the United Nations is sorely in need of reform. Boutros-Ghali was seen as ineffective in terms of bringing about reform, so the U.S. government made it clear that it would not support him for a second term. Since Annan’s assumption of his post, President Clinton has stated publicly that the United States’ payment of its dues—which it has been withholding to the tune of $1 billion—can now move forward.

NEW SECRETARY GENERAL: “Following tradition, every continent gets to see two terms served by one of its own, and the African nations ultimately nominated Kofi Annan, a candidate whom the United States was pleased with and voted for.”
     Freedom: During the debate over the Secretary General appointment, Secretary of State Madeline Albright explained that the United States is the “indispensable nation” of the United Nations. Is this accurate, and why?

     Adams: It is true, partly because the United States is the world’s most powerful and prosperous nation and is assessed 25 percent of the U.N. budget as its dues—far more than any other nation. The United States also pays 25 percent of the costs of peacekeeping efforts.

     But this goes well beyond money. The United States is unquestionably a world leader. It has responsibilities far beyond its borders, built into the Constitution. It can send a military force halfway around the world, provided our constitutional norms are complied with. And, maybe most fundamentally, the United States was the prime mover in the forming of the United Nations, if you look to the early leadership of presidents Roosevelt and Truman.

     Freedom: What do you see as the United Nations’ priorities at this time?

     Adams: Kofi Annan is working on enhancing the United Nations’ financial standing and stability—and correctly so. He has also said that he wants to review U.N. internal operations and resolve disagreements with member countries in this regard. This may lead to reductions in staff or functions and other reorganizational steps.

     He also needs to re-motivate United Nations staff—resolve the staff morale problems which have existed for some time.

     I am sure he will be turning to disarmament issues, Bosnia, Rwanda and other issues of traditional U.N. concern.

     Freedom: Where have you seen the United Nations to be ineffective and in need of further reform or reorganization?

     Adams: I think the problem isn’t so much one of ineffectiveness as expecting too much, or the wrong things, of it. This is not unlike a common domestic situation of Congress mandating something and then not funding it. The U.N. Security Council has frequently directed actions but not funded them, as happened in the Balkans a couple of years ago. This doesn’t leave the United Nations looking very “effective,” and, in this sense, there is some truth.

     In Somalia, on the other hand, it did not help that when rangers under U.S. command were killed they were wrongly presented as being under U.N. command—thus tarring the image of the United Nations.

     Really, in terms of effectiveness, the United Nations has not been bad. One has to remember that it is there to facilitate friendly relations, achieve international cooperation in solving world problems, to promote and encourage respect for human rights and to harmonize the actions of nations in attaining these goals.

     The United Nations has frequently done very well in promoting U.S. interests, in some cases taking our chestnuts from the fire. An example was Haiti; another was the peace operations in Central America, including the Guatemalan peace accord; yet another was the elections in Nicaragua. Our successes in Mozambique and Angola also owe a great deal to the United Nations. I have not seen that the United Nations gets very much credit in this regard, but still the work is done.

     The overall picture is one, I think, where the world is a better place thanks to the presence of the United Nations.

     Freedom: You mentioned encouraging respect for human rights. What can and should the United Nations do when faced with human rights issues?

     Adams: The U.N. Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, are really the central points of activity in terms of resolving Human Rights problems. They can call attention to problems and their need for resolution through diplomatic pressure, appointing rapporteurs to investigate allegations of abuse, and also the publication of reports on those abuses—in short, cause international alarm and embarrassment for those who are truly flouting human rights. The United Nations has made inroads in this regard with issues like women’s and children’s rights, but there is certainly more it can do.

     One thing that citizens can do through UNA-USA is to bring attention to problems needing U.N. action, and we can, where we deem it necessary, commission studies or pass resolutions to help bring about awareness and action on the issue.

     Freedom: What do you see as the major challenges for the United Nations in the immediate future?

     Adams: Everyone, both inside and outside the United Nations, seems to agree that reform is needed. Newt Gingrich recently noted that we have to reform the United Nations, but that we also have to pay for it.

     I think this is a very key issue. The United States has allowed its arrears to the United Nations and other international organizations to accumulate for more than a decade. These debts are legal treaty obligations. While some countries have followed our poor example and likewise have been remiss in the payment of their dues, it also is true that most other Western governments treat their obligations more seriously by paying their assessments in full and on time. We are not “making friends and influencing people” by virtue of our neglect. In fact, reneging on our funding responsibilities has resulted in a bitter environment at the United Nations in which many other countries, including our closest allies, are appalled by our delinquency.

     We need to change our view in terms of how we deal with issues like this; we can’t continue the unilateral way in which we have been doing business in the international community. The United States would care very much if other countries took such a casual approach to trade or arms-control agreements or bilateral investment treaties. The United States wants reform; well, it should pay its bills at the United Nations to be the strongest possible advocate for reform.

     Every president since Franklin Roosevelt, both Democrat and Republican, has recognized the value of the United Nations to the United States and has used the United Nations to promote global security, prosperity and peace. We should preserve and enhance our leading role by paying our obligations and conducting the debate on U.N. reform from a position of strength. End

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