The United Nations headquarters in New York City.

“Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice? It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”

—George Washington’s Farewell Address (September 19, 1796)

GEORGE WASHINGTON and his successors understood government’s role to be securing the liberties of its citizens. They took their inspiration from the nation’s founding document: “To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” The United States would go to war only when its domestic interests were at stake, opting to enter temporary alliances when necessary but shunning occasions to enter permanent multinational treaties. Liberty at home meant, as it does today, protection abroad. But it also meant, as it does not today, protection against entanglement.

The United States used its physical distance from European wars to carve out an ideological distance, unencumbered by the turmoil of the mother continent, allowing its citizens to be free at home and independent abroad. As Pulitzer-winning historian Walter MacDougall writes, “The exceptional calling of the American people was not to do anything … but to be a light.” The United States would interact with the world, but it would do so on its own terms and for its own interests. In other words, it would act unilaterally.

We see clearly, in the example of the United Nations, how entanglement leads the U.S. into situations it would otherwise avoid. In its charter, the U.N. resolved to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, [and] practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors.” One need not be a foreign policy expert or anti-U.N. partisan to see that the U.N. has failed to be any of the above. It has not prevented a single war in 63 years, and attempts to reason with Sudan in this decade have been as fruitless as attempts to mitigate the Rwandan genocide were in the last.

Today, this “tolerant” body has become the leading platform for anti-Semitism. In 2001, for example, the U.N. held “Durban I” in South Africa. Ostensibly a forum for addressing racism, the conference quickly devolved into a sounding board for anti-Semitic and anti-American sentiments. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “I know that you do not combat racism by conferences that produce declarations containing hateful language, some of which … supports the idea that we have made too much of the Holocaust.” As if Durban I was not enough of a failure, the U.N. will hold the Durban Review Conference (“Durban II”) this April in Geneva, with human-rights violators Libya and Iran serving as co-chairs.

The damage the U.N. does to its own objectives goes deeper than words. According to its own report, funds appropriated by a U.N. agency (UNRWA) have compensated families of suicide bombers, and UNRWA employees have left their posts to run as Hamas-affiliated candidates in Palestinian elections. UNRWA-funded schools have also been launching pads for countless Palestinian rockets. Similarly, in 2007, the Wall Street Journal discovered that the United Nations Development Program was indirectly but substantially funding the Kim Jong-il regime in North Korea through kickbacks and unrestricted grants.

No wonder Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former U.N. ambassador, titled his memoir on the U.N., A Dangerous Place.

Despite providing 22 percent of the U.N.’s operating budget, the United States still has but one vote in the Assembly, and its position on the Security Council is hamstrung by the idiosyncrasies of the Council’s rotating members. Membership in the United Nations demands that the United States forego its commitment to the interests of the American people, and in the process leaves Americans both financially and morally exposed to oversights and atrocities.

American foreign policy should return its focus to preserving liberty at home. That is the ultimate check on American unilateralism. The same principle that calls on us to shun foreign entanglement also cautions us against making Icarian decisions that will make our flag the scourge of world affairs. As John Quincy Adams said in 1821, America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” American unilateralism is, ultimately, a doctrine of restraint and responsibility.

The U.S. cannot extract itself from all entangling alliances overnight, and even if it could, it would be ill-advised to do so. It is our responsibility to keep existing commitments in good faith, but there are steps the nation should take to disentangle itself from other nations’ affairs.

Congress could, for example, pass the United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act, a bill authored by Congresswoman Ilena Ros-Lehtinen that would give the United States more say over where its money is spent and more freedom to act in accordance with American ideals.

Last week, the new President took a bold but largely unnoticed stance against the tyranny of entangling alliances. Over disagreements from several key advisers—notably U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and NSC adviser Samantha Power—the Obama administration announced that the United States would join Israel and Canada in boycotting Durban II after rounds of negotiations ended with a resolution draft that had gone “from bad to worse” and was, by that point, “not salvageable.” This is a welcome development. American presence at this conference would have lent an air of legitimacy to the proceedings and the ideas espoused. In withdrawing from Durban II, State Department spokesperson Richard Wood also chastised the U.N. Human Rights Council for its “repeated and unbalanced criticisms of Israel.”

Whether the U.S. should have joined the United Nations, like the question of whether the U.S. should have invaded Iraq, are questions for historians, not policymakers. The question our leaders must answer today is: How do we protect American interests while operating as a member of the world community? These are two positive steps towards reform, and surely there are more. But a problem cannot be addressed until it is recognized.

 
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