I was amazed to hear Bill O'Reilly recently mention on "The O'Reilly Factor" that he was "astonished" that America was being painted as a bad guy around the world. I wasn't sure if O'Reilly was just speaking about international reaction to the problems in Iraq or to U.S. foreign policy in general, but I was surprised anyone could be shocked by the negative perceptions of the United States.
While there are many possible reasons for these negative perceptions, there is one that stands above the rest: the U.S. government's disregard of the United Nations. The United States frequently cites U.N. policy when it fits Washington's purposes and ignores it when it doesn't.
Anyone with O'Reilly's access to the international news media - anyone who reads the newspaper on a regular basis - should be aware of this double standard, which existed prior to the war in Iraq. In the eyes of much of the world, the last straw was the unilateral way the Bush administration went to war.
The United States has earned a reputation for supporting and advancing democracy internationally. The credibility needed to make this happen suffers a huge blow when it is clear that the United States seeks to undermine a global democratic institution when it suits its purpose.
Why does this credibility matter? It is crucial not just because it threatens the advancement of democracy, but because nearly 30 percent of our economy is based on business with other countries, not to mention the billions of dollars in bonds that other countries hold that are financing our nation's mounting debt.
People around the globe understand history. Millions remember that the United States was instrumental in building the United Nations after World War II. American leadership pushed successfully to give the United Nations more power, influence and reach than the ill-fated League of Nations. As a result, the United States earned tremendous respect and gratitude around the world both for generosity in rebuilding Japan and Europe and for serving as the wise and resourceful midwife to the birth of the United Nations.
The U.N. founders recognized that it would add members. They presciently set up mechanisms to include other countries as full members as they came into being, perhaps not thinking these new members might sometimes actually disagree with them.
U.S. leaders and their counterparts in other countries championed the United Nations as an institution that should be respected. They promoted the belief that disputes should be brought to there, where mechanisms in place to work out disagreements among nations. As a result, the United Nations earned respect and credibility internationally as a fair, impartial institution that promoted peace and stability.
It is therefore hard for many people to understand why the United States is working to undermine the organization through unilateral actions abroad. Many are further astounded that the country that had so much to do with bringing the United Nations into being is failing to pay its dues.
The frustration that the United States has toward the United Nations occasionally makes headlines. The situation seems somewhat analogous to that which occurred during the development of the voting system when the United States went from only men with property being able to vote to any man voting to finally allowing women.
Any democratic system by definition is slow and cumbersome and requires great patience, compromise. This is especially true of an international body, dealing with many different cultures and languages.
Critics of the United Nations, such as O'Reilly, cite the organization's international reach as a potential threat to U.S. independence. They would do well to recognize the more serious danger posed by our growing debt - a burden that could soon compromise our sovereignty. That debt, combined with a growing resentment of the United States as a global bully, could weaken our country to the point of second-rate status in a matter of years.
As President Bush prepares to take his second oath of office, it is my hope that he will recognize the potential folly of continued anti-United Nations arrogance. Working with the United Nations as a leader and partner, instead of undermining the organization, would be a wise investment in America's future.