In New York’s East River, opposite the United Nations headquarters, the southern tip of Roosevelt Island has been transformed into a memorial to FDR. The spare and dignified approach culminates in a massive head of the man whose will brought the U.N. into being. Yet the head is walled off and faces away from the U.N. building behind it. That “social distancing” may or may not have been intended by the architect, Louis Kahn. But it makes its own comment about how the United States thinks, or doesn’t think, about the United Nations.
In the midst of a pandemic, for the World Health Organization’s (WHO) biggest donor — the United States — to cut off funding seems almost clownishly perverse. It would surely be unimaginable under any other president —yet, personal motivations aside, it may only be the latest and most extreme demonstration of a conflicted relationship between the world body and its most powerful member state.
It is one of history’s great ironies that the U.N. owes its existence to the leader of a country with “avoiding foreign entanglements” supposedly in its DNA. FDR himself was very much aware of isolationist sentiment, so much so that the State Department’s initial work on the U.N. founding documents was done in secret. The almost unanimous acceptance of his brainchild barely survived his death, and conservatives swiftly reverted to their old posture. An arm’s-length attitude to the U.N. is as much a part of the GOP brand as small government and low taxes.
Wariness of the U.N. on the right blurs into deep suspicion and outright paranoia as to its global reach and motives. This was a feature of American far-right politics in the beginning, more so after the organization expanded and ceased to be a more or less passive tool of U.S. policy from the 1960s on.
It was Richard Nixon who first acted on the idea, notably in the 1972 election, that hostility to the United Nations could have political dividends. As the governor of California pointed out to him at the time, “there is a little America out here that thinks the U.N. stinks to begin with.”
As that governor, Ronald Reagan, moved into the White House, this tendency moved into the conservative mainstream, with consequences for every aspect of relationships with the U.N. system.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the field of population and reproductive health. The U.N. Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) owed its existence to heavy U.S. lobbying, notably by Rep. George H.W. Bush, known to his House colleagues as “Rubbers” for his vigorous support for family planning. He was U.S. ambassador to the U.N. when the Fund became an organ of the General Assembly in December 1972, freeing its vigorous Executive Director Rafael Salas from U.N. Development Programme oversight.
But when Reagan moved into the White House in 1981, with Bush as Vice President, the “right to life” movement, moved with him. Focused in the first place on overturning the 1973 Roe v Wade decision establishing American women’s right to abortion, activists soon turned their attention to global affairs.
Their opportunity came with the World Population Conference in Mexico City in 1984. In a move described by the conference newspaper as “Voodoo Demographics” (to match Reagan’s embrace of supply-side or “voodoo” economics,) the U.S. delegation announced not only its opposition to abortion but the decision to withdraw support for UNFPA. Assurances that population policies were a sovereign matter for each nation, and that the international community would not support abortion services, had no effect. The decision was made, and Reagan’s popularity among anti-abortion (read “anti-family planning”) factions was assured. The “Mexico City policy” also prohibited funding for any organization supporting abortion in any way, to the horror of many supporters of family planning who had thought that Bush at least knew what this would mean for women’s lives and health in poorer countries.
The battle over funding for UNFPA has gone on ever since, on the basis of its alleged support for abortion services. The first action of successive Democratic presidents, for example, has been to restore funding to UNFPA: defunding has been equally automatic for Republicans.
Under Clinton, a Republican Congress cut funds for UNFPA in China and demanded repeated investigations of UNFPA programs there. (The combination of China and abortion was a sort of magic pill for those on the right who had never forgotten the Nixon-era battles over China’s admission to the U.N. in the place of Taiwan.)
These investigations — including one headed by Gen. Colin Powell — found no evidence that UNFPA supported China’s one-child policy, rather the opposite, that UNFPA was attempting by demonstration programs to show that voluntarism could succeed where coercion could not.
China’s policy was draconian. It included forced abortions, which breaches the globally-accepted standard that abortion is not a means of family planning; that family planning must be voluntary and that “coercion has no part to play” in national or international programs.
That standard, accepted by 179 nations in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, owes much to the leadership of the United States, notably Vice-President Al Gore. Over the months before ICPD his team used all the traditional stick-and-carrot means of international diplomacy in support of the consensus being laboriously put together by the Conference Secretary-General Nafis Sadik and UNFPA, which she headed after Salas’s death in 1987. In the end, even Pope John Paul II’s Holy See embraced the consensus, albeit at arm’s length.
The Conference and its outcomes, notably belated attention to the brutal practice of female genital mutilation, drew unprecedented media attention, and found broad support among the U.S. public. It certainly did not harm the Clinton-Gore ticket in 1996. Attempts at the time and in the run-up to the 2000 campaign to smear UNFPA and its U.S. supporters in the Clinton administration over engagement in China and elsewhere, notably the former Yugoslavia, had little effect. But the message sent to the incoming Bush administration was clear, and defunding duly followed.
The example of UNFPA shows how use of U.N.-related policy to secure or pander to domestic supporters has been a feature of Republican administrations ever since Nixon. Where Carter, Clinton, and Obama engaged with U.N. processes and sought to strengthen them, Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and of course Trump have detached from and increasingly disrespected consensus-building through the U.N. (Bush II’s adventures with the U.N. over Iraq deserve separate treatment.) Where Democratic administrations have tended to push back against public criticisms of the U.N., Republicans have cheerfully gone along and even encouraged them. In that sense, President Trump’s use of the WHO as a whipping-boy to excuse his own shortcomings and energize his “base” is not so much new as a greatly enhanced use of an old tactic.
Nixon’s description of the U.N. as a “damned debating society” made clear both his contempt for the organization and his ignorance of what it does. No doubt his words would be echoed by the present occupant of the Oval Office — but more than ever before, the lives of nations depend on our rejection of such language and the sentiments behind it.