As a sign of the times, the United Nations building in New York, a post-war legacy, needs to be thoroughly renovated. It is not (only) a question of removing the microphones of Blair, Bush and others. Almost 60 years after its conception, while the silhouette remains elegant, the interior is outdated and totally unsuitable for the functioning of a modern administration. So we’ll have to review everything. It will also be necessary to build a new building opposite to accommodate the thousands of international staff of the Secretariat for five to ten years.
No one denies the need, no one has challenged the project or its cost: $1.2 billion. And everyone turned to the United States. Some had in mind the post-war enlightened America: at the time, Rockefeller had offered the land, the government had granted a zero interest loan on almost the entire amount, an international team of architects, including the Frenchman Le Corbusier, had set to work on the East River. Others, more realistic, argued that all host states should put their hands to the pocket. It is in their best interests to do so. Switzerland, Germany, France or Italy know something about it. For New York, the direct benefits of the UN’s presence in Manhattan are estimated at $3 billion per year.
This was probably overestimating the capabilities of the Bush administration, which has just announced its “offer”: agreement to concede $1.2 billion… on condition that the United Nations reimburse them in full over 30 years, at a rate of 5.4%. Given the rates on the market (less than 5%), the financial package would amount to transferring $800 million to the US budget! The Americans remind us that they really need it, at a deficit of 500 billion… Cynicism in the arguments, arrogance in the manoeuvre, total lack of vision. Obviously unacceptable, one might say. Not so simple, according to initial reactions.
The United Nations Secretariat is squirming: how can we refuse an offer from the Americans, at the risk of taking the responsibility of postponing or even cancelling the project? Kofi Annan’s assistant in charge of the budget, who is of course American, welcomed the announcement, mentioning only timidly the level of the rate applied. The developing countries, which will only pay a modest ecot anyway, do not see the point of entering into a confrontation that is not their own. The Japanese and Canadians are waiting to see. So there are still Europeans.
There, the classic configuration within the European Union: the Member States all deplore the American calculation but are divided in the answer. Broadly speaking, Germany, France and Belgium are asking for a firm response, with alternatives. Why, for example, not transfer the agencies currently in New York (UNDP, UNICEF, etc.) to Europe? Bonn still has a lot of space to sell. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands, which know how to count, are frightened and call for moderation and dialogue. Maybe we’ll lower the rate a little, in exchange for a smaller amount? If we could wait a little while, pass the presidential elections in November and decide on the outcome… It is forgetting that the Congress can decide at any time, and that it will still be there after the elections. It also means playing into the hands of an administration that had undoubtedly anticipated this pusillanimity. It’s mostly about missing history.
The metaphor seems too beautiful: the need to reform the United Nations while preserving its principles; the evolution of the United States in a world that has changed profoundly since the Second World War; the place that Europeans deserve in the great rebalancing and that they do not dare to take. And yet this case is the most authentic. In fact, a European position is expected in the coming weeks.
So? Let the Europeans take the bull by the horns! It is not just a few agencies: if the United Nations is obviously no longer welcome in the United States, it would make sense for the entire headquarters to return to Europe. Moreover, the Americans should admit that when it comes to political construction, they have passed the buck, and that innovation is indeed on the European Union’s side. The rest of the world understands this well, this world which is geographically closer to Europe than it is to distant New York. So, Geneva? All that remains is to spread the idea….
Who would lose? The city of New York (but let it be known!) and diplomats. But they will certainly be able to sacrifice themselves for the future of multilateral cooperation, which is still the salvation plank of the profession!