The announcement that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2005 has been awarded to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to its chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, should remind us of the crucial activities performed by the United Nations.

The IAEA, of course, is the U.N. agency that has worked, with considerable effectiveness, to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Hundreds of nuclear facilities are monitored by the IAEA in over 70 countries. Among its other activities, it led the search for what the U.S. government claimed were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and, in 2003, reported that it could not verify the U.S. contention. If the Bush administration had listened to its advice rather than to that of individuals who lied and distorted the truth about such weapons, the United States would never have rushed into a bloody, expensive, and futile war in that land.

But this is only a small part of the U.N. record. Consider the following:

  • The U.N. has vigorously promoted economic and social development in impoverished nations. UNICEF alone is active in 157 countries, pouring $1.2 billion a year into child protection, immunization, fighting HIV/AIDS, girls’ education, and other ventures.
  • The U.N. has sponsored free and fair elections, including monitoring and advice, in numerous lands, including Cambodia, Namibia, El Salvador, Mozambique, South Africa, Kosovo, and East Timor.
  • Since the General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the U.N. has fostered the enactment of dozens of comprehensive agreements on civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.
  • Over the years, the U.N. has dispatched 60 peacekeeping and observer missions—16 of them currently in operation–to world trouble spots, saving millions of people from mass violence and war.
  • The U.N. assisted in negotiating some 170 peace settlements ending regional conflicts, including the Iran-Iraq war, civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, and the use of Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
  • The U.N. facilitated the decolonization of more than 80 countries, with almost a third of the world’s population.
  • Through its imposition of international measures ranging from an arms embargo to a convention against racially segregated sporting events, the U.N. played a key role in bringing an end to apartheid in South Africa and in transforming that country into a democratic nation.
  • Through the efforts of the U.N., more than 500 international treaties—on human rights, terrorism, refugees, disarmament, and the oceans—were enacted.
  • The U.N. has aided more than 50 million refugees fleeing war, famine, or persecution, including over 19 million of them—mostly women and children—who are today receiving food, shelter, medical aid, education, and repatriation assistance.
  • The U.N. sponsored world women’s conferences that set the agenda for advancing women’s rights, including the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which has been ratified by 180 countries.
  • The U.N.’s World Food Program, the world’s largest humanitarian agency, feeds some 90 million hungry people in 80 countries every year.

And these are only some of the many accomplishments of the world organization.

For Americans, this worldwide program is quite a bargain. The cost to every American of the regular budget of the United Nations is slightly more than $1 a year—less than the price of a soda. Actually, the cost is lower than it is supposed to be. U.N. budget contributions are calculated according to each nation’s share of the global economy which, in the case of the United States, is 34 percent. But the U.S. government has unilaterally set a cap on its contributions at 22 percent. By contrast, the Japanese pay closer to $2 per person. That $1 a year for the U.N. might also be compared to the annual cost of the U.S. military budget to every American man, women, and child: $1,600!

Unfortunately, the U.S. government doesn’t appear to consider U.N. activities a bargain at all. In June 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation (H.R. 2745) mandating cuts to the U.S. contribution to the U.N. and blocking U.S. contributions to new U.N. peacekeeping missions if the world organization does not agree to a list of items dictated by Washington. More recently, similar legislation was introduced into the U.S. Senate (S. 1394 and 1383).

Nor is such behavior limited to Congress. The Bush administration has also sought to undermine the U.N. By nominating John Bolton—a U.S. government official who repeatedly expressed contempt for U.N. operations–to serve as U.S. ambassador to the world body, President George W. Bush made this clear enough and, thereby, created a scandal of major proportions. When the choice of Bolton proved too much for even the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate to stomach, Bush gave Bolton the job through a recess appointment.

In the context of the furor over Bolton’s nomination, one would have expected him to adopt a cautious, low-key approach at the U.N. Instead, however, Bolton threw months of delicate negotiations over the September 2005 U.N. summit conference into disarray by proposing more than 700 changes to what seemed to many countries to be a near-final agreement. Ultimately, the agreement unraveled, and a number of potential advances went down the drain.

The Bush administration has been just as critical of the U.N.’s Mohamed ElBaradei, who, by talking of the responsibilities of the nuclear powers as well as the non-nuclear powers under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, has refused to accept the U.S. government’s double standard as to nuclear weapons. As the New York Times reported on October 7: “Mr. ElBaradei won a third term as chief of the I.A.E.A. earlier this year despite opposition from Washington. He had overwhelming support from the rest of the world community.” Commenting on his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, ElBaradei was less direct about his difficulties with the U.S. government, but his meaning was clear enough. “The prize will strengthen my resolve and that of my colleagues,” he said, “to speak truth to power.”

And so the Cinderella story of the United Nations continues. Despite the U.N.’s vital role in world affairs, the United States and—to a lesser extent—the other great powers are determined to keep it weak and impoverished. Unfortunately, in this case there is no Prince Charming to push past the wicked stepmother and stepsisters and reward Cinderella for her virtue. But, hopefully, the public, like the Nobel committee, recognizes that, despite the arrogant, self-interested, and reckless behavior of powerful nation-states, a global institution exists that serves all of humanity.

Dr. Wittner, a Nuclear Age Peace Foundation Associate, is Professor of History at the State University of New York, Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press).

Originally published by the History News Network.