Commentary

Putting the United Nations on Notice

Zealous supporters of the United Nations are again trying to give that organization powers it does not need and should not have. A new U.N. report asserts that imposing a global tax on “speculative” currency transactions is an idea that deserves consideration. Such “speculative” transactions-a term the report does not define-could easily net some $150 billion a year for the United Nations’ coffers.

The currency tax proposal is not new. A number of outspoken internationalists have floated the idea for years as a means to give the United Nations an independent source of revenue so the organization is not dependent on payments by member states. Proponents cite the refusal by the U.S. Congress to pay the amount the United States supposedly owes the world body as a reason why the United Nations needs a taxing authority. The report, though, is the first time the U.N. bureaucracy itself has sent such a trial balloon aloft.

That balloon should be punctured. Advocates of the tax assure skeptics that it would be imposed at a rate of only 0.1 percent-a minuscule burden on wealthy international currency speculators such as George Soros. The American people and the U.S. government must not succumb to such blandishments. We should remember that the federal income tax began as a small assessment on only the wealthiest Americans. Today, it is a voracious monster that devours a major portion of the earnings of ordinary citizens.

The same thing is likely to happen if the United Nations ever gains the power to tax. Merely redefining what constitutes a “speculative” transaction a few years from now could net the United Nations additional hundreds of billions of dollars. Leaving aside the danger of escalating taxation, the United Nations should not have an independent taxing authority on general principle. The United States and other Western countries that pay the bulk of the organization’s expenses have precious little say over what the General Assembly or the corrupt and ill-managed U.N. bureaucracy does. They would have nearly no input if the United Nations had its own source of funds.

The proposed taxing authority is one of several ideas advanced by those who want the United Nations to become more powerful. Other prominent schemes include creating a standing army, which the Security Council could use for peacekeeping and nation-building missions, and diluting or ending the veto power used by the United States and other permanent members of the Security Council.

Officials of the United States should put the United Nations and its enthusiastic boosters on notice that pushing such changes will endanger American support for the organization. Some conservatives advocate U.S. withdrawal from the world body. That step is premature. The United Nations has achieved some positive results. It helped facilitate the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, orchestrated the transition to democracy in Namibia, and helped effect a reconciliation between warring factions in El Salvador. Also, it is a good idea to have a place where governments can gather to air grievances.

At the same time, the extent of the United Nations’ value must be kept in perspective. The United Nations is not “mankind’s last best hope for peace” or the “conscience of humanity” as asserted by its supporters. It is merely an association of the world’s governments created for a limited purpose. The United Nations is a minor player in the international system, and that is how it should remain. Kept within such confines it can do a modest amount of good; outside those boundaries it would be an embryonic superstate that would menace liberty.

It is not yet necessary for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations. But if the world body attempts to acquire a taxing authority, raise a standing army, or dilute America’s veto in the Security Council, the United States should end its membership. That is the message-indeed, the ultimatum-that needs to go to the United Nations without delay.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and editor of Delusions of Grandeur: The United Nations and Global Intervention.