Attack of the primitives: the Tea Party and the U.N.
The Obama administration pays its U.N. bills on time, embraces many U.N. treaties, and routinely praises the sacrifices of UN field workers — it has even raised the prospect of placing American GIs in blue helmets again. U.S. relations with Turtle Bay have rarely been better. But the emergence of the Tea Party, a nascent ...
The Obama administration pays its U.N. bills on time, embraces many U.N. treaties, and routinely praises the sacrifices of UN field workers -- it has even raised the prospect of placing American GIs in blue helmets again. U.S. relations with Turtle Bay have rarely been better.
But the emergence of the Tea Party, a nascent conservative political movement concerned primarily with the size of the U.S. government but also hostile to the United Nations, provides a fresh reminder of the heartland's deep well of antipathy for the world organization. It should provide a cautionary lesson for those who manage U.S. relations with the U.N.: they can turn bad on a dime, particularly at times of economic stress and national uncertainty. Indeed, after a brief respite, U.N.-bashing is back.
In the run up to mid term elections, Tea Party candidates have called for the withdrawal of the United States from the U.N., cited U.N. plots to rescind Americans right to bear arms, and decried so-called socialistic programs that promote bicycle rental programs in the heartland in an effort to curtail American freedoms. Dan Meas, a Tea Party candidate who just won the Republican primary in Colorado, charged earlier this month that Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's promotion of an internationally-backed bike ridership program was "converting Denver into a United Nations community."
The Obama administration pays its U.N. bills on time, embraces many U.N. treaties, and routinely praises the sacrifices of UN field workers — it has even raised the prospect of placing American GIs in blue helmets again. U.S. relations with Turtle Bay have rarely been better.
But the emergence of the Tea Party, a nascent conservative political movement concerned primarily with the size of the U.S. government but also hostile to the United Nations, provides a fresh reminder of the heartland’s deep well of antipathy for the world organization. It should provide a cautionary lesson for those who manage U.S. relations with the U.N.: they can turn bad on a dime, particularly at times of economic stress and national uncertainty. Indeed, after a brief respite, U.N.-bashing is back.
In the run up to mid term elections, Tea Party candidates have called for the withdrawal of the United States from the U.N., cited U.N. plots to rescind Americans right to bear arms, and decried so-called socialistic programs that promote bicycle rental programs in the heartland in an effort to curtail American freedoms. Dan Meas, a Tea Party candidate who just won the Republican primary in Colorado, charged earlier this month that Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper‘s promotion of an internationally-backed bike ridership program was "converting Denver into a United Nations community."
The Tea Party is a loose coalition of fiscal, social and Christian conservatives who share a deep suspicion about the role of international treaties and organizations, principally the United Nations, that they fear will curtail American freedoms, undermine American values, and siphon America’s wealth into unnecessary foreign pursuits. It has made inroads into the GOP, with Tea Party candidates winning Senate and gubernatorial primaries in North Dakota, Kentucky, and Colorado. The Maine Republican Party issued a platform that echoes the Tea Party’s positions, including its call to "oppose any and all treaties with the U.N. or any other organization which surrenders U.S. sovereignty."
Rand Paul, a Kentucky GOP Senate candidate and a standard bearer of the movement, has derided the U.N. as a "forum for dictators like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya to insult the United States…. I believe that the United States should withdraw from and stop funding altogether those U.N. programs that undermine legitimate American interests and harm the cause of freedom around the world." He has also borrowed some proposals from John Bolton, a prominent conservative critic of the United Nations and former U.S. ambassador, saying U.S. funding to the organization should be voluntary and that it was a mistake for the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to join the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, which includes many countries with poor human rights records, including Cuba and Saudi Arabia.
Sharon Angle, a Republican Senate hopeful in Nevada, suggests she would take a scalpel to the U.N.’s finances if she is elected. . "I don’t see any place in the constitution with those priorities about the United Nations," she says. "So when we start talking about cutting programs, five percent per year, I think the United Nations fits into that category.
Angle, Meas and Rand follow a long line of American conservatives who have tapped into anxieties about foreign threats to U.S. sovereignty to gain votes at the ballot box. While their numbers are small, they have had an outsized impact on the American political discourse, particularly during periods of high unemployment and political and economic uncertainty. They have done so by mining ia deep reservoir of suspicion among less educated constituencies that America’s elite foreign-policy practitioners are conspiring with foreign elites to rob ordinary Americans of their rights, according to U.N. experts.
"I was waiting for something like this," said historian Edward Luck, the author of Mixed Messages: American Politics and International Organization, which traces the history of anti-U.N. movements back to the founding of the League of Nations. Luck recalled that a similar embrace of the United Nations by Bill Clinton’s administration triggered a virulent backlash against the U.N. in the late 1990s. "The parallels are quite eerie; you had two internationalist Democrats coming into the White House at a time when U.N. peacekeeping and other institutions are surging. And so the temptation to pull back, particularly when you get economic pressure, is enormous."
American suspicion about internationalism has deep roots in American culture. In his farewell address in 1796, George Washington warned against "permanent alliances," and counseled U.S. policymakers to limit pacts with foreign powers "for extraordinary emergencies."
"It is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another," Washington wrote, reflecting the anxieties of a young country struggling for survival in a world dominated by quarrelsome and ambitious European powers. "It is an illusion which experience must cure."
As America emerged a major world power in its own right, its leaders have become far more willing to embrace a world of treaties, multilateral organizations, and international laws. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a victorious war president, led efforts to set up the United Nations to manage the peace after World War II. Only two isolationist senators from the farm belt, William "Wild Bill" Langer and Henrik Shipstead, voted against ratifying the U.N Charter in 1945. Shipstead, a Minnesota farm advocate who had also opposed U.S. involvement in World War II, was defeated during his reelection battle the following year, in part because of his vote on the United Nations.
But the U.N.’s standing in the United States has never been entirely secure. As an institution that draws the largest collection of foreign representative together on U.S. soil, it has been a natural target of American nationalists. In the years following its founding, American conservatives like Senator Joseph McCarthy, who led a purge on American nationals working in foreign affairs, on the grounds that they were communists, and Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, developed the intellectual underpinnings of the anti-U.N. camp. The historian Elmer Bendiner, Luck recalled, said the trend was reinforced by "American suspicions that it was the honest country bumpkin being taken by the wily city con man of internationalism."
"It’s always been very much as a fringe element in terms of American politics even if some more conservative administrations have benefited from these moments," said Luck, who also serves as a U.N. advisor. He said some of these U.N. detractors have ignored the extent to which international agreements and institutions — including efforts to fight the spread of infectious disease, weapons of mass destruction, and international terrorism — advance American interests. Moreover, the fortunes of an ordinary worker in middle America depend greatly on U.S. engagement with the rest of the world. "It is built on ignorance about how the world is actually built and an extremely dysfunctional sense of American interests," Luck told Turtle Bay.
McCarthy viewed the organization more darkly, as a bridge for the import of Soviet influence into the United States. During the Red Scare, U.S. nationals working at the United Nations were required to sign an oath of loyalty to the Un
ited States — a violation of the U.N. Charter, which requires international civil servants to check their national allegiances at the door. Ralph Bunche, the top U.S. official at the United Nations, was required to testify before a grand jury on his alleged links to the Communist Party during the 1930s.
McCarthy targeted Dean Acheson — the architect of the Cold War containment strategy –– for defending Alger Hiss, a State Department expert on the United Nations, from charges of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. In response, Acheson described the McCarthy affair as the "attack of the primitives," and derided McCarthy as "a lazy small-town bully." But his tactics cowed the United Nations, persuading Trygve Lie, the U.N.’s Norwegian secretary-general, into allowing the FBI to set up its own office at U.N. headquarters to interview and fingerprint American employees.
While most U.N. officials were cleared, the affair undercut Lie’s standing among his staff, ruined the careers of some American officials, and ultimately cost the life of the U.N.’s top lawyer. Abraham Heller, a New Deal lawyer who served as Lie’s legal counselor and committed suicide at the height of the Red Scare. "Abe was regarded with suspicion by the witch-hunters and the hunted," Brian Urquhart, a retired top U.N. official, wrote in his memoir A Life in Peace and War. "The strain proved too much, and he jumped out of a window in his apartment in the autumn of 1952."
While the excesses of the Red Scare subsided, the anxiety that fueled it survived, steadily creeping into the mainstream. Luck recalls the broadcast of a 14-hour 1987 ABC mini-series that portrayed a plot by the Soviet Union to conquer the United State and occupy the heartland with U.N. peacekeepers in black helicopters. The program was so provocative that a group of former Reagan administration officials, including Jeane Kirkpatrick, Alexander Haig, and Robert McFarlane, complained to ABC about its "portrayal of United Nations peacekeeping forces as brutal aggressors."
Reagan did little to rein in anti-U.N. sentiment in Congress and even within his own administration. He appointed Alan Keyes, who had characterized the U.N. as the bastion of America’s enemies, as his ambassador to the organization’s Economic and Social Council. "I went there as a warrior on behalf of this people, to make sure that our values would not be destroyed," Keyes later recalled. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the U.N.’s Peruvian former secretary-general, frequently voiced frustration with Reagan’s unwillingness to defend the organization from conservative legislators who starved the U.N.’s financing by withhold U.S. funding to the organization. "Will it be said that one legacy of the Reagan administration will be the destruction of that which Roosevelt started?," he wondered in his memoir, Pilgrimage for Peace.
In contrast, George H.W. Bush, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, rallied the American public behind the United Nations, making it an important piece of his vision of a post-Cold War "New World Order." Even conservative critics of the U.N. endorsed the Security Council resolution authorizing the 1990 Persian Gulf War in supporting Bush’s effort to drive Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait. But it was short lived. Bush’s decision to send a U.N. peacekeeping force to Somalia ended in failure when his successor, Bill Clinton, presided over a military operation that led to the deaths of 18 American Rangers.
The Somali debacle darkened views against the United Nations, making it politically costly for Democrats and Republic internationalists to embrace the U.N. In the 1996 Republican primary debate, Patrick Buchanan launched a virulent attack on the U.N. and other international organizations, which, he later recalled in his book The Great Betrayal, had ensnared America "in a web that restricts its freedom of action, diminishes its liberty and siphons off its wealth." Even moderate conservatives internationalists like Robert J. Dole succumbed, tapping into U.S. frustration over the Rangers’ deaths, even though the combat troops served under U.S. command. Dole’s biggest applause lines came when he mockingly uttered the foreign sounding name of the U.N.’s Egyptian secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The Contract with America, a Republican platform that accompanied the GOP’s 1994 return to power in the House of Representatives, included a provision — known as the National Security Restoration Act — which called for restricting the ability of U.S. soldiers to serve under a foreign U.N. commander.
"Many foreign diplomats, dismayed by attacks on the United Nations, say that the GOP has allowed the debate to be shaped by ‘the black helicopter boys.’ That is a reference to the reports that have circulated in right-wing circles for the past four or five years about black helicopters belonging to the United Nations allegedly flying clandestine missions over different parts of the United States," the Washington Post reported in 1996. "U.N. and U.S. officials say that some of these stories stem from mistaken identification of American military helicopters flying low-level training missions and that others have no basis in fact. The story about trucks, they add, appears to involve Canadian vehicles that were being sent to a U.S. port for shipment to an overseas U.N. mission."
Mark Malloch Brown, who would later serve as U.N. deputy secretary general, criticized this practice by U.S. leaders of using the United Nations to serve their personal interests while doing little to defend it from the demagoguery of its most virulent foes. He blasted the Bush administration for doing too little to highlight the U.N.’s role in managing 18 peacekeeping operations and operations missions that served U.S. interests.
"The UN. role is, in effect, a secret in Middle America, even as it is highlighted in the Middle East and other parts of the world," he said. "That is not well known or understood, because much of the public discourse that reaches the U.S. heartland has been largely abandoned to its loudest detractors, such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. To acknowledge an America reliant on international institutions is not perceived to be good politics at home.
In some ways, the latest resurgence has intellectual roots in the John Birch Society, which had started a campaign back in the late 1950s to "Get the United States out of the United Nations and Get the United Nations out of the United States." "What on earth is wrong with the United States simply minding its own business?" the society’s founder Robert Welch said in a 1974 speech. "A part of that plan of course is to induce the gradual surrender of American sovereignty piece by piece and step by step to various international organizations, of which the United Nations is the outstanding, but far from the only, example."
Welch’s movement championed a little-known representative, Ron Paul, a Texas Republican and forefather of the Tea Party – and literal father to Rand Paul, the Kentucky Senate candidate. A film produced by the Birch Society documents Ron Paul’s quixotic campaign to pass legislation that would force the United States to withdraw from the United Nations. Paul warns that the U.N. is seeking to curtail American rights to bear arms and own property, and enjoy religious freedom. The ultimate goal was to bring about the end of the United States. "They are a threat to us. They would confiscate our guns. They would literally repeal the Second Amendment," Paul says in the video. "We’re moving in that direction, where eventually
we will not have a United States of America. We will be nothing more than a pawn of the United Nations."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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