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Time to Bid the UN Farewell


President Clinton has announced a renewed U.S. commitment to the United Nations. In his attempt to show American enthusiasm for the world organization, Clinton has promised that the United States will pay the $819 million it is said to owe and he supports expansion of the Security Council. It will be no surprise if Clinton comes to accept other ideas floating around: watering down of the Security Council veto, UN involvement in international gun control, and even UN authority to levy taxes. That is because in the Clinton world-view, enlightenment requires unrestrained embrace of the United Nations.

But in fact, the United Nations is little more than an expensive way to impose obligations on an already burdened American people. Apparently it is not enough that the taxpayers are at the mercy of whatever domestic need or misfortune is discovered by Washington; they must also be ready to sacrifice blood and treasure whenever the “international community” says so. That is not the way it was supposed to be.

When George Washington warned against “entangling alliances” in his Farewell Address, he had in mind the sort of open-ended commitments embodied in UN membership. It was widely understood in Washington’s day that Americans couldn’t be really free if the government could commit them to participate in foreign conflicts whenever their leaders declared such participation to be in the national interest. Nothing is easier for a president than to announce that strife in Haiti, Rwanda, Somalia, or Bosnia impinges on the security of the American people. He may even believe it. The problem is that he can force the taxpayers to finance an intervention and send troops into a strange land torn by an obscure dispute, and there is nothing the American people can do about it. Even if they protest, it is unlikely their representatives in Congress will do much about it. Over the years, Congress has been reluctant to thwart a president in matters of foreign policy.

A common criticism of the UN is that it erodes American sovereignty. In a way, it is a little late to be complaining about that. The Senate approved treaty obligations to the organization when the United States joined the UN after World War II. Under the Constitution, treaties are part of the supreme law of the land. UN critics pointed this out at time, but they were not heeded.

To the extent the American people have obligations that come from membership in the UN, the unique political system built by the founders has been undermined. The Constitution set up a federal government whose powers are, in James Madison’s words, “few and defined.” But UN membership obligates the American people in ways that go far beyond what those few powers were intended to do. Their tax money is used to meddle in foreign civil wars, promote state power in the developing world, administer disaster relief, and even sponsor abusive “population control” programs. Authority for such missions is not found in the Constitution.

Concern about sovereignty is not the whole story. After all, the missions the United States has been involved in were not forced on reluctant American presidents. On the contrary, presidents use the UN to disguise essentially unilateral foreign adventures. If a president had tried to go it alone in Iraq or Somalia, the public and much of the Congress would have objected. But as soon as a president announces that a mission has been blessed by the “international community of nations,” much criticism is silenced.

Apparently, it is Neanderthal to dissent from the international community.

Thus, the real danger of the United Nations is that it licenses the executive branch of the U.S. government to make war in violation of the checks and balances built into the Constitution. Recall the war against Iraq. President Bush was able to circumvent the constitutional requirement of a congressional declaration of war by having the UN authorize the operation. Bush asked Congress for authorization only after the troops were in place and the UN had set a date for the launch of hostilities.

What can be done about this covert undermining of the Constitution? If we take seriously the limits on government power that the Constitution was intended to impose, there is only one thing to do. The United Nations is not a debating society. It is an organization dedicated to meddling in foreign disputes. As such it is costly in money and potentially in American lives. The United States should get out at once.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.