Sen. Helms at the UN

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:26

    Helms?who lunched with top UN officials at the Waldorf Astoria after addressing the Council?has of course been the Senate's most outspoken critic of the UN and its decision-making process. The visit, then, was a kind of therapy session, a chance to improve relations between the Senate and foreign diplomats, which have long been strained by the U.S.'s refusal to pay the billion dollars in dues it owes the UN. Accusing the organization of being "dysfunctional" and of infringing on U.S. sovereignty?by establishing an international criminal court, for example?the powerful chairman of the Senate International Relations Committee has been pushing for the organization's top-down reform.

    It's a bizarre place, the Security Council. The wood paneling and the gigantic mural depicting animals and humans engaged in mysterious acts lend the hall a Soviet ambience, while the constant whisperings, schmoozings and backstabbings are straight from the court of Byzantium. The 15 countries that belong to the Council have spent the last month bickering over whom to appoint as the new chief arms inspector charged with dismantling Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

    The Council is an exclusive club inside the building?a convocation of international powerhouses in which business proceeds at a coffeehouse pace. Both journalists and diplomats engage in a lot of social gossip. You can kill a whole afternoon sipping the cheapest cappuccinos (they cost a dollar) and drinks in Manhattan and chatting about environmental waste issues and sustainable development?retro themes, but still popular in the building?while you enjoy a killer view of the East River.

    On the other hand, sometimes business intrudes. With the U.S. holding the Security Council presidency in January (the position is rotated monthly among the body's 15 member states), it was a particularly busy season at the Council. Holbrooke, who's notorious for liking the spotlight, booked Al Gore to address the Council about AIDS, which isn't traditionally a Security Council issue. He also scheduled, in the same week, visits by Nelson Mandela, Helms and other senators.

    "It is unbelievable to involve the Council in domestic American politics," a European diplomat with a French accent who wouldn't give me his name complained about Holbrooke. "I expect we will soon be having some music and popcorn inside."

    Resentment of Holbrooke's slick style is common, but most diplomats here know better than to publicly rebuke the man who could become secretary of state in a Gore administration.

    Cynical diplomats interpreted Gore's UN appearance as a campaign gimmick. But Helms' flagellation of the Council days later was more than most could bear. In addition to the Security Council members at their nametagged places behind the round table, the chamber held curious diplomats and envoys who filled the stadium seats to hear a U.S. legislator address the Council for the first time ever.

    The session went awry from the start. "Southern" is not among the five official languages at the UN, and perplexed-looking diplomats were soon flipping through the language buttons of their headsets as the Senator spoke.

    "I am not a diplomat," Helms informed them in an outburst that would circulate widely in the media. "I am an elected official with something of a reputation for saying what I mean and meaning what I say. So I trust you will forgive me if I come across as a bit more blunt than those you are accustomed to hearing in this chamber."

    Despite the warning, the envoys were unprepared for Helms' tough talk. "The American people," Helms claimed, resented "UN officials declaring absurdly that countries like Fiji and Bangladesh are carrying America's burden in peacekeeping." And, he said, they oppose setting up an international war-crimes court and other internationalist endeavors. They're also frustrated with the United Nations' lack of gratitude to the U.S.

    Sitting next to Holbrooke at the head of the roundtable, Helms spoke at a sadistically relaxed pace, accusing the organization of harboring "greater ambitions" than merely offering humanitarian aid and peacekeeping. Americans, he insisted, would not tolerate "global governance." And he raised the specter of American withdrawal from the organization.

    It could have gone better. When Helms and his young Republican aides entered the chamber, he'd socialized some with the ambassadors to the Council, including Russia's Sergei Lavrov, an envoy who's just as no-nonsense as Helms is, and who made common cause with Helms by mentioning that he was from the southern part of his country, too. The Ukrainian, Malaysian and Bangladeshi ambassadors paid their respects to the Senator as well, no doubt fearing the loss of his valuable support of their countries.

    Holbrooke, as is his wont, prefaced every introduction during the forum with flattery and thank-yous. Still, the smoke-filled air (the UN is a smoker-friendly place) was stale with tension throughout the session.

    Times are changing at the United Nations. Former U.S. ambassador Bill Richardson was a more mellow sort of diplomat, around whom people felt comfortable puffing cigars and lounging casually. Under the camera-loving, media-savvy Holbrooke, there's a new energy. For diplomats used to sitting around, puffing cigarettes and checking people out at the various cafes and bars inside the building, there might be a lot more running around to do.

    "I don't know what will happen to the Council," complained the disgruntled diplomat with the French accent. "Soon they might even open a McDonald's or Starbucks inside."