The occasion seemed merely routine—a simple housekeeping meeting to prepare for last week’s opening of the United Nations’ 38th General Assembly. Then, citing Washington’s refusal to allow Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to land at the airport of his choice, Soviet delegate Igor Yakovlev suggested that the United States was acting as a poor host. That brought an unusually sharp retort from Charles Lichenstein, the deputy U.S. representative. If other nations considered themselves ill-treated, said Lichenstein, then they should “seriously consider” moving the UN to another country. “We will put no impediment in your way,” the ambassador added sarcastically. “We will be at the dockside bidding you a fond farewell as you set off into the sunset.”
Both the White House and the state department quickly dismissed Lichenstein’s remarks as personal opinion, not official policy, although Ronald Reagan himself, on the eve of his annual trip to the UN, was sympathetic to the outburst.
But the affair created a tense backdrop for last week’s opening of the assembly. It sharply
heightened members’ concerns about the current chill in superpower relations, fears that had already caused Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to schedule two two-hour minisummits, Sept. 27 and 29, to stave off a further deterioration in relations.
Meanwhile, the hostile mood generated by Washington’s snub to Gromyko, itself a sequel to the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by the Soviets on Sept. 1, breathed new life into Washington’s long-standing debate over the UN’s usefulness. For years liberals have bemoaned the global body’s inability to settle international disputes and its stridently anti-American rhetoric. Conservatives believe that the UN now serves Soviet bloc or Third World causes exclusively.
Indeed, by a lopsided margin of 66 to 23, the Senate voted last week to cut Washington’s contribution to the UN budget by nearly $500 million over the next four years. Washington now provides more than $350 million annually for UN
0 activities. “If we’re going
1 to get constantly criticized,” said liberal Democrat Pat Leahy of Vermont, “maybe someone else should pay for it.”
Leahy and others in Congress are particularly upset that while the United States foots some 25 per cent of the UN’s annual budget, the Soviet Union contributes only 15 per cent.
Defending her deputy last week, U.S. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick informally proposed that the UN divide its time between New York and Moscow, spending six months a year in each city. President Ronald Reagan endorsed that idea, telling a conference of broadcasters, “It would give all those delegates an opportunity to see two ways of life.” The president even had kind words for Lichenstein’s impetuous remarks. He said the diplomat “had the hearty approval of most people in America.”
However, an ABC television poll last week showed 72 per cent of Americans favor keeping the UN in the United States. Not only that, but Reagan himself, in advance of his address to the General Assembly, was expected to tell UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar that Washington is committed to the UN, while warning him against its further politicization.
As the UN’s 157 nations began work on an imposing 142-item agenda, the world body’s under secretary-general for special political affairs, Brian Urquhart, observed that the superpower conflict made the UN all the more indispensable. “In a technological age,” Urquhart declared, “survival is the premier requirement. And survival is dependent on communication.”
India’s Gandhi apparently shares that viewpoint. She invited representatives of the 101-nation Nonaligned Movement, which she heads, as well as leaders from East and West to her gatherings. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised to appear, as did French President François Mitterrand and leaders of 28 other countries. But Reagan sent his regrets, as did Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, leaving prospects for the Indian initiative clouded.
The General Assembly’s planned agenda includes debate on disarmament, North-South issues and conflicts in the Middle East and Central America. But diplomats from many countries conceded last week that the downing of the Korean airliner—and Gromyko’s decision not to attend—had cast a deep pall over the gathering. Observers saw it as a disturbing portent that the annual U.S. reception for visiting diplomats included no invitations to the Soviet delegation. Under United Nations protocol, the White House explained, representatives can attend only if the chief delegate—in this case Gromyko—is also present. But that seemed merely a pretext for yet another skirmish in the current tit-for-tat exchanges between the superpowers.
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