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World

Cokie Roberts On The History Of The United Nations

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The world's leaders are addressing one another in New York this week at the United Nations. The U.N. often grabs the spotlight during the General Assembly, but there's a delegation of American diplomats based there year-round. One of the most memorable diplomats from years past was former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In 1945, Mrs. Roosevelt was named to the first U.S. delegation to the United Nations. Here she is, at the end of her service, reflecting on the importance of the U.N.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: The world profits by this annual reminder of those things which must be thought about and worked on during the months between our sessions.

GREENE: Well, apparently, some of you had questions about the United Nations. You sent your questions to us, and we posed them to commentator Cokie Roberts for our regular Ask Cokie segment.

Cokie, let's get to a question that really speaks to the reason we have a United Nations. And here it is.

DARREN SOWARDS: Darren Sowards, Detroit, Mich. Does the current U.N. still align with the original purpose of the original U.N., and is there a way to fairly gauge this?

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Well, the United Nations was really the idea of Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted to replace the failed League of Nations. He died six months before the U.N. was formed, but the purpose he had in mind is enshrined in the charter - to promote international peace and security, friendly relations among nations, better living standards and human rights.

GREENE: Well, what about the second part of that question? I mean, is there a way to gauge whether the institution is still living up to its original purpose?

ROBERTS: Well, clearly, it hasn't been able to keep the peace. I mean, we've had the...

GREENE: I guess that's true.

ROBERTS: ...Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Balkans, now Syria, Iraq. But the U.N. does have peacekeepers around the world, the so-called blue helmets, and they do make a difference in guarding borders and staffing refugee camps, things like that.

And in terms of the other purposes, the U.N. placed a measuring stick for itself with the ambitious Millennium Development Goals, which were aimed at eradicating extreme poverty, combatting disease, promoting education. And it set up mechanisms to try to achieve those goals. Obviously, there's still ways to go in all of those areas, but there are some dramatic successes - infant mortality rate has been cut in half, huge reductions in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. So there are places where you can point to success.

GREENE: Part of the goal, you mentioned, friendly relations among nations - that's somewhere else where the reality of today doesn't seem exactly to be living up to the words. And we got another question about that.

BRIAN KEARNEY: My name is Brian Kearney. I'm in Oak Forest, Ill. Syria and Russia had killed civilians in the war that the whole world was watching. And I'm curious why they got to remain at the U.N. And has a country ever been expelled?

GREENE: Good question. Cokie?

ROBERTS: The answer is no.

GREENE: OK (laughter).

ROBERTS: The charter does provide for expulsion for a country that has, quote, "persistently violated the principles contained in the present charter." And the mechanism is the Security Council recommends throwing the country out, and the General Assembly then approves it. But it's never happened.

But that question gets at the fundamental problem, David, which is that there's no real sanction for bad actors unless the major powers, the permanent members of the Security Council - the United States, Russia, England, France, China - agree. And that doesn't happen very often.

GREENE: Cokie, let me bring up one other thing that President Trump talked about yesterday. He was complaining about the U.S. share of the U.N. budget. And one listener, J. Shane Newcombe, wanted to know - why does the U.S. continue to pay way more than other nations pay?

ROBERTS: Because we're the richest. We pay 22 percent, and we have 27 percent of the GNP of member nations. But look, that's been a big source of upset in the American electorate and in the Congress for years. But polling shows a vast majority of U.S. voters support the United Nations and our continued support for it. So it's here to stay.

GREENE: Cokie, thanks as always.

ROBERTS: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That is commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work. Just email us. The email address is askcokie@npr.org. Or you can tweet us. Just use the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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