Commentary Magazine

The U.S. and the UN

To the Editor:

Daniel P. Moynihan’s article [“‘Joining the Jackals’: The U.S. at the UN 1977-1980,” February] attacking the Carter administration’s UN record (and me as the architect of it—I was Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs from March 1977 to April 1980), raises two important questions: what was that record and what position should the United States adopt in international bodies when the government of Israel itself takes a position that is diametrically opposed to long-established U.S. policy?

On the record of the Carter administration, Senator Moynihan’s indictment is the following: The Carter administration was determined to be on the side of the UN majority. It “never” engaged in confrontation. Those in charge of UN policy could not “understand or support” the President’s triumph at Camp David because it did not elicit the majority support from the developing countries they had hoped to see. Their belief that the UN could serve U.S. foreign-policy purposes was misplaced. “One might have thought this assessment [that the UN could be useful] would be reflected in votes in the General Assembly or the Security Council. But it was not.” The reason is that hostility in the Third World toward the U.S. is “abiding” and may be “burgeoning.”

Now the charge that the United States was unwilling to stand alone in the UN during the Carter administration is simply not true. I accompanied HEW Secretary Califano to the World Health Assembly in 1979 where he warned the Arab caucus publicly and privately that the United States would leave the World Health Organization if the caucus, outraged by Camp David, succeeded in suspending Egypt’s or Israel’s right to participate. I sat in the room when Secretary of State Vance delivered the same message to other senior UN officials.

Much earlier, the United States succeeded in smothering an effort to revive the Zionism-racism doctrine in a declaration on racism being drafted in UNESCO by threatening to leave if this happened. The United States did walk out of the International Labor Organization during the Carter administration in part because of the way the organization had handled the issue of the Middle East. The United States virtually alone insisted that any UNDP (United Nations Development Program) monies channeled to the West Bank could not be subject to control by the PLO. The U.S. also stood up to the majority on many issues not connected with the Middle East. On North-South issues, the United States repeatedly stood alone or virtually so when the consensus sought did not reflect U.S. interests. The United States alone insisted on disrupting the West European desire for consensus with Eastern Europe on a Polish General Assembly resolution regarding disarmament and détente because we believed it would encourage state control of the media. The United States voted alone or in a tiny minority against several UN budget increases.

The list could go on, but these examples should demonstrate that the charge that the Carter Administration would “never” stand up to the majority is simply not true. It did this repeatedly. Very often it stoood alone in order to defend Israel, Egypt, and the Camp David process against unfair attack.

At the same time, the administration did believe that the United Nations was important—certainly a view Senator Moynihan in his own day and in his own way helped to promote. But we rejected his view that there was an “abiding” hostility toward the U.S. in almost all developing countries. Some were hostile. Others were not. Much depended on the issue even with those “hostile.” Indeed, there is ambivalence on this point even in Senator Moynihan’s article. On the one hand, he suggests an “abiding” Third World hostility toward the U.S. On the other hand, favorable developments in places like Jamaica make him more sanguine.

Was the Carter administration able to make use of the UN? The answer lies in an assessment given to the New York Times (September 7, 1980) by Senator Moynihan himself in judging Ambassador McHenry’s record: “We should use the UN in a tough-minded way. McHenry tried to. The fact is he got better votes from the UN than we’ve had in years. It’s largely a question of events. The Third World was scared by Vietnam’s invasion of Kampuchea and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. But credit to the man who got those votes.” There were some in the Carter administration who, like Senator Moynihan, feared that alleged Third World hostility toward the United States would ban any Third World support for the United States on the Iranian hostage question. Secretary Vance and Ambassador McHenry, however, pressed the opposite view. They were proved correct in a series of Security Council and World Court decisions favorable to the U.S.

All this is not to suggest that all of the administration’s actions in the UN were successful. In particular, the vote on March 1, 1980 in the Security Council concerning Israeli settlements was a serious setback for all concerned. How can that vote be understood?

In his discussion of this vote, Senator Moynihan curiously overlooks the principal dilemma the Carter administration faced on March 1, 1980: namely, that during the Carter years the Israeli government shifted its attitude on the settlements question and brought itself into conflict with the position firmly held by all U.S. administrations on this question since 1967, including those in which Senator Moynihan served. Thus, since 1967 the U.S. has maintained that under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel has signed, unilateral efforts to change the demographic character of the occupied territories are not legal. It was the moves by the Begin government to change the demographic character of the West Bank which brought on the crisis symbolized by the March 1 vote.

Thus in the three-and-one-half years between the October 1973 war and the Likud electoral victory in 1977, Israel established a dozen new West Bank settlements. With Begin’s victory in 1977, Israel tripled this rate and established 36 settlements. In addition, the Begin government made several provocative statements about East Jerusalem and in mid-1980 finally assented to the Knesset alteration of its status, in effect its unilateral annexation. But more to the point, the way in which Israel justified its position on West Bank settlements to the world totally changed. Under the Labor government Israel’s position was essentially that of Security Council Resolution 242, territory for peace. The smaller number of settlements in place was not presented to the world as a step toward annexation but as a security measure and a bargaining chip with the Arabs at the time of final Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank which would require some shifts in territory.

Under the Likud government, the settlements program began to reflect Begin’s annexationist philosophy. The Likud government began to question whether Security Council Resolution 242 applied to the West Bank. Prime Minister Begin, his associates in his own Herut party, and his allies in the National Religious party, viewed the West Bank as an integral part of the biblically promised Land of Israel. Explicitly annexationist ultranationalists—Arik Sharon, Itkzhak Shamir, and Yigal Hurvitz—were given key ministries. Important new settlements were placed precisely in those heavily populated areas of the West Bank that the Labor party had envisioned returning to Jordan as part of a territorial compromise. The situation became increasingly serious. By mid-February 1980, or two weeks before the critical vote, the editors of the Washington Post, whose views Senator Moynihan quotes so favorably in his article, were driven to write: “Further criticism of Israel on this issue is pointless. So is wristslapping. More direct tactics are called for. Why not put a measurable value on the settlements and let Israel decide whether it wants to forfeit that much from its American aid?”

In the face of Israel’s determination to create “new facts” on the West Bank, the Carter administration had two clear choices. It could reverse the long-standing U.S. position and declare that the settlements were “legal.” (In one of his first press conferences President Reagan attempted to do precisely this; the Arab states have requested an urgent clarification; Israel has announced new plans for West Bank settlements.) Or it could continue to adhere to the policy followed by all previous administrations, including those Republican administrations in which Senator Moynihan served, and maintain that the settlements were illegal. If it did the latter, it had to confront the issue of how to implement the policy.

The tragedy for the Carter administration was that with the vision of a final peace settlement in mind it did not believe it could reverse long-established U.S. policy, yet it did not have the ability to explain to concerned audiences why it was necessary to maintain that policy. In the UN it was therefore unable to adhere to its March 1 vote in the Security Council even though, as the New York Times pointed out a few days later (March 14, 1980), contrary public perceptions notwithstanding, “The references to Jerusalem that provoked President Carter’s disavowal last week are not the first of their kind that had won the approval of the United States.”

In effect, the President trapped himself on this issue. By citing the references to the occupied portion of Jerusalem as the explanation for his reversal, he gave the impression that the U.S. would now change its historical position on this issue. This it subsequently turned out his own administration was not prepared to do. When Secretary Vance went before the Congress, he was forced to concede that the sections of the resolution to which the President objected continued to reflect long-standing U.S. policy. A worse outcome for all concerned cannot be imagined.

We should all understand the stakes involved in the vote. Hermann Eilts, the former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and a participant at Camp David, has pointed out that had Carter at Camp David achieved a long-term freeze on settlements, “the general framework accord, by now heavily diluted, might still have retained sufficient credibility to gain the support of Palestinians and moderate Arabs.” The President knew this. Indeed, he thought he had persuaded Begin to agree to this freeze the final day at Camp David. When instead the Begin government pressed ahead with its settlements program, the President and all of his key advisers saw the success of his greatest triumph being steadily undermined, and the opportunity for a final settlement fading.

It was not the U.S. mission to the United Nations that destroyed the Carter Presidency. To the degree that the issues raised by Senator Moynihan did have the impact he asserts, then those responsible for the demise of the Carter administration have to be the officials in the Begin government who defiantly pressed ahead with the settlements efforts and officials in the Carter administration who were irresolute in their response.

A final point: one of the prices of public life in the United States is to be the target of attacks on one’s intelligence, foresight, or political skill. Fair enough. If the arguments are clear enough, even the intellectually slow may be converted. But an attack which accuses others of “not telling the truth” or behavior that is “malevolent” or “squalid” has a different effect. There is no possibility of dialogue. The contest is between those who are “evil” and those who are “good.” Senator Moynihan has one of the more gifted pens in public life today. It should be used to persuade his countrymen and ultimately to unite them, not to brand them and thus permanently divide them.

Charles William Maynes
Editor, Foreign Policy
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

Daniel P. Moynihan’s footnote concerning his book, A Dangerous Place, made me think of another book with an identical title. The other A Dangerous Place, by professors Abraham Yeselson and Anthony Gaglione, also about the United Nations, was published in 1974, about four years before Senator Moynihan’s. Although both books are highly critical of the UN, they differ fundamentally in their analysis of that institution.

Senator Moynihan’s footnote, which states that “as seamen are taught about the sea, the UN is not inherently a dangerous element, but is implacably punishing of carelessness” touches the key difference between his view of the UN and that of Yeselson and Gaglione.

Yeselson and Gaglione argue that indeed the United Nations is inevitably a dangerous place because, lacking as it does any judicial or police tools for resolving international conflict, by its very nature it can only promote conflict. They demonstrate that invariably conflicts are brought to the UN as a means of pursuing rather than resolving them; that the UN is used by combatants always as a diplomatic weapon, not a tool for peace; that in all cases local conflicts brought to the UN are exacerbated and globalized as countries with no direct interest are induced to choose sides; and that invariably, when opposing parties do decide to resolve a conflict, they remove it from the UN.

Though Yeselson and Gaglione’s A Dangerous Place impressively argued a novel thesis, it was so ignored by the national press that one could say it was the victim of “censorship by silence.” . . . Not a single publication of national renown reviewed the book. Consequently its thesis never even reached the marketplace of ideas. . . .

I mean to take nothing away from Senator Moynihan’s interesting article. But I do believe that the focus of discussion about the United Nations should be Yeselson and Gaglione’s proposition that the UN is intrinsically a dangerous place, that the possibility for peace in the world would be enhanced if it did not exist, and that sound policy should aim at minimizing the harm it is capable of doing.

Robert Kaplan
Flushing, New York



To the Editor:

Daniel P. Moynihan has firsthand experience with “joining the jackals.” It was, after all, our then-Ambassador to the UN, Daniel P. Moynihan, who set many of the events he now decries into motion when he voted in the Security Council, on November 30, 1975, to debate “the question of the Palestinians” on January 12, 1976. It was the same Ambassador Moynihan who agreed to allow a “Palestinian delegation” to send its representatives to the Security Council debate.

It is more than a little irksome to recall those posters, plastered all over New York for the 1976 senatorial campaign, which showed him raising his hand to vote. To vote for what? To “join the jackals”?

Gerald L. Houseman
Department of Political Science
Indiana University-Purdue University
Fort Wayne, Indiana



To the Editor:

As usual, Daniel P. Moynihan’s most recent contribution to COMMENTARY is lucid, well-written, and, most important, evocative. At least it evokes in me the urge to write this letter.

The central premise of Senator Moynihan’s article is that a peculiarly self-condemning attitude on the part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, among many others in the Carter administration, was responsible for a policy orientation that has done harm not only to the United States, but also to American allies, particularly Israel. As far as I am concerned, there can be no question that this is true. But what interests me is whether Senator Moynihan thinks that the source of the self-condemnation—the belief that Third World anti-Americanism is a legitimate response to U.S. neoimperialism and insensitivity—does or does not contain an element of truth. He does not say, and it cannot be taken for granted that he thinks it does not.

It can be argued that this is not a very important question because, regardless of the truth, many Third World nations would hate us anyway. This is probably true; “facts,” such as they are, generally play a subordinate role to beliefs in international politics. The reason the answer might be interesting, however, is that either way, the reader can still sympathize with . . . Senator Moynihan’s point of view.

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the United States is a neocolonialist power, standing in the way of “liberating” change in many parts of the world. Three attitudes, at the least, could develop from this: (1) We are neoimperialists and that is very bad. We must change our ways: if we do, we will again be loved and respected. (2) We are neoimperialists and that is fine. All goody-goody talk about a New International Economic Order aside, the world is a dangerous place and we must look out for ourselves. Our goal should not be universal fairness, but self-preservation and, if we have the choice, in more rather than less affluence. (3) We are neoimperialists, and this is neither bad nor good but inevitable. We are faced with the merciless choice between living up to the highest ideals of Western civilization and perishing as a consequence, or suppressing these ideals to survive in hopes that better times lie ahead.

The first attitude is obviously the wrongheaded one Senator Moynihan detects and decries in the Carter administration, not to speak of groups like the Institute for Policy Studies. The second attitude is zealously advanced by many self-proclaimed “realist” conservatives and, in some cases, thinly veils an avowedly predatory and racist outlook. The third attitude is more difficult to typify, but it certainly seems close to Isaiah Berlin’s thoughtful interpretation of Machiavelli, to wit: you must face the unhappy fact that the imperatives of an ethical life as defined by religious tradition have little in common with the imperatives of political life, and, with eyes wide open, you must make a choice.

Now, either Senator Moynihan believes that the neoimperialist accusation has no foundation whatsoever, or he may incline toward either the second or the third of the possibilities outlined above.

Since I would consider supporting Senator Moynihan for President in 1984, I should like to know his attitude on this matter. . . .

Adam Garfinkle
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania



To the Editor:

Daniel P. Moynihan’s “‘Joining the Jackals’: The U.S. at the UN 1977-1980” is a brilliant piece of historical writing and political analysis. Its message comes through loud and clear; one hopes that the Reagan administration will take it to heart.

The article exposes the bankrupt thinking of the Carter White House in one very important area: defending U.S. interests at the UN.

One of Senator Moynihan’s themes deserves expansion, namely, how Sadat and Begin, both realists, managed to make a (reluctant) hero out of Carter. To this day he is probably not satisfied with having achieved merely (I) an Egyptian-Israeli peace. And he probably is still perplexed that the Soviet Union and its allies are unhappy about Camp David.

Going to a deeper level, one should perhaps examine the roots of the Carter administration’s guilt feelings about the Third World and the role these played in its policies. A factor here would be the overblown fear of what Third World nations might do to the United States. I am thinking particularly of the myths of effective oil embargoes and of punitive price increases by oil-producing nations. Anyone who believes in an imminent and permanent oil “crisis” and talks of energy in terms of the “moral equivalent of war” is certainly badly informed—to say the least. Yet Carter’s policies—almost to the very last—served to turn any disruption into a disaster. Now, finally, the price of oil and oil products has been fully deregulated, which will make lines at gas stations obsolete.

It is in this area where more work is required by the new administration in Washington. One still detects the vague fear of what “they” might do to us—especially on oil supply and prices. A hopeful sign is the attitude taken by the Reagan administration on the Law of the Sea negotiations. It shows that we are not afraid of confrontation when it involves important national interests. This stance may have all kinds of salutary effects on the Third World and on the UN, effects which will spill over into other areas.

S. Fred Singer
Department of Environmental Sciences
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Virginia



Daniel P. Moynihan writes:

Charles William Maynes may have misunderstood the point I wished to make. Naturally, there were honorable exceptions to the policies I criticized, and I referred to them as such in my article. Mr. Maynes cites several of them. These deserved praise, perhaps more than they gained. But I believe one has to set a stiffer test of our policy at the UN: did the administration succeed where success was most vital? Did it prevent a rearguard action to scuttle Camp David within the UN? And failing to prevent it, did we oppose it? I believe the record shows that far from opposing it, we acquiesced.

That the Carter administration did so is clear even from Mr. Maynes’s account of these events. Referring to U.S. disagreements with the Begin government, he finds that the U.S. had either to join the UN condemnation of Israel or to reverse long-standing policy.

Is that truly the case? Until the Carter administration (ironically, until the Camp David peace), the United States had never voted for any resolution, in either the Security Council or General Assembly, which declared Israeli settlements to be illegal. In the past, U.S. representatives had voted in favor of resolutions that called on Israel to observe the Fourth Geneva Convention, but regularly voted no if the resolution found Israel to have violated the Convention.

There is, I need hardly add, the most serious question whether the Fourth Geneva Convention can be said to apply to the West Bank at all. But whether it does or not, the question is why the administration chose to depart from past policy so as to declare Israel guilty of crimes under international law. It appears from Mr. Maynes’s letter that the purpose was to up the ante of confrontation with the Begin government. “Wristslapping” was not enough and so forth. To pursue this Israeli-American quarrel in an international forum, and particularly when the charges are so grave, requires a special justification. But what does Mr. Maynes offer to explain it?

Remember that the authors of these resolutions did not come to the Security Council complaining in the best of faith that their eagerness to negotiate with Israel was made impossible by the settlements. Not at all. The authors of these resolutions were unhappy precisely because a framework of negotiation had been created. Their purpose was to sabotage Camp David. When the administration needed the courage or the wit to defend its own policy (and, as I have written, President Carter’s finest achievement), it lacked both.



I have criticized the past administration’s policy at the UN in a stubborn belief that this institution need not thwart American interests, and on this point I take issue with Robert Kaplan’s thoughtful letter. He may well be right that many of the UN’s defects are intrinsic. Yet so many of the problems we have faced there are of our own making that the more thoroughgoing critique he makes is, for the moment, moot. And if he is right that most international conflicts will not be adjudicated in the UN, its standards can count for something all the same. Resolution 242, after all, long served as the dividing line between the implacable opponents of peace in the Middle East and those whose policies can be changed by the right use of rewards and penalties. For this reason alone, it is worth protecting against those who would water it down.



Gerald L. Houseman has his dates, and that is about all. On November 30, 1975 the Security Council was considering the renewal of the mandate of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights, which was to expire at midnight. The Syrians and the Soviets wanted a crisis, or perhaps more accurately wanted to make clear that they could bring about a crisis by preventing the renewal of the UNDOF mandate. The hour of midnight approached (having long since passed on the Israeli-Syrian border!) and finally agreement was reached. The “price” was that the Security Council would agree to continuing the (unending) discussion of the Middle East on January 12, and with it the “question of the Palestinians.” This having been agreed, the Soviet Ambassador, who was then President of the Council (speaking, he said, for the Council majority), announced that representatives of the PLO would be invited to attend the January 12 session. I immediately stated the objection of the United States to any such invitation. However, under Security Council precedents, such an invitation is a “procedural” matter, not subject to the veto, and there was no way for the United States to prevent it. All we could do was to make our objection known.

Four days later, on December 4, PLO members were invited to yet another Council session. I asked for a vote, which we thereupon lost 9 to 3. Britain and Costa Rica voted with us; France, Japan, and Italy abstained. I explained the American position:

. . . [My] government is not prepared to acquiesce in an action which will undermine the negotiating process, which is the only process that can lead to peace. For the representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization have repeatedly . . . told the General Assembly of their disdain for systematic negotiation. They have openly declared their hostility—indeed their contempt—for the work of this Council. They categorically rejected Security Council Resolution 242 [1967] which for years has served as the only agreed basis for serious negotiations. . . . For those fundamental reasons we are totally opposed to inviting the Palestine Liberation Organization. To do so will disserve the search for peace in the Middle East.

The United States took the same position again on January 12, 1976. Again I insisted on a vote, and again lost (this time 11 to 1, with 3 abstentions). Mr. Houseman’s students are advised to check his facts.


Adam Garfinkle, who must love to argue, asks that we entertain for the sake of argument the idea that “the U.S. is a neocolonialist power standing in the way of liberating change.” I dispute the characterization. End of argument.



Finally, I want to thank S. Fred Singer for his generous words. As he may know, I myself have been calling for years now for a strategy to break up OPEC. The Nixon and Ford administrations failed, the Carter administration failed, and we can only hope that a new and more successful assault on the cartel will be made by the new administration.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.