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 United 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 -