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United Nations: Analysis From Washington -- Money Talks In Private Foreign Policies

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 21 November 1997(RFE/RL) -- An American businessman's formation of a special foundation to handle the distribution of the $1 billion that he has pledged to the United Nations over the next decade highlights a new trend in world affairs: the privatization of foreign policy.

On Wednesday, Ted Turner, the founder of Cable News Network (CNN), announced the creation of a new group to be called the U.N. Foundation to handle his gift. And he said that Timothy Wirth, currently undersecretary of state for global affairs, would resign that position at the end of the year in order to head it.

In response to Turner's initiative, the United Nations announced that it had named a special representative to the new foundation. Further, U.N. officials said that they had given Turner a list of ten areas in which they hoped his foundation would concentrate.

Turner's use of his personal wealth to promote a particular foreign policy agenda is not unprecedented. The activities of financier George Soros in promoting democratic change in former communist countries if anything have been even larger and more dramatic.

Since the collapse of communism in Europe, Soros has spent millions of dollars from his personal fortune to train journalists, support human rights activities, and promote a free media where none had existed.

On the one hand, of course, these actions in the foreign policy arena by wealthy individuals are nothing new. Numerous wealthy individuals have used their resources to promote one or another foreign policy goal, be it helping refugees or setting up educational facilities in foreign countries.

But on the other, the actions of Turner and Soros simply by virtue of their unprecedented size raise several new issues for both individual countries and for the international system as a whole.

In ways that their predecessors could not imagine, the resources that Turner and Soros have been able to commit are certain to give them a voice in the affairs of international bodies that will certainly rival or, in some cases, even exceed that of most countries.

Moreover, both men have made it clear that they have very specific policy goals, some of which are at odds with those of many governments. Indeed, there was widespread speculation in the U.S. press this week that Wirth had decided to go to work for Turner precisely because he was finding himself increasingly at odds with the U.S. government.

And finally, the involvement of just these two individuals in such activities has led some national governments to conclude that they can do less in these areas precisely because individuals like Turner and Soros can make up the difference.

More than one commentator in the United States, for example, suggested that Turner's promised contribution should relieve the U.S. of having to pay the dues that it owes to the United Nations.

In general, both governments and opinion leaders have hailed the generosity of both these men, but in doing so, they have generally failed to ask three questions that may loom ever larger in the future.

First, should the very wealth either as individuals or as corporations have the ability to set a foreign policy line, however attractive it may be, without the constraints that both governments and the international organizations the latter create inevitably have to operate under?

Second, how will governments react if other extremely wealthy individuals or multinational corporations decide to use their resources to promote goals that either individual governments or international bodies might consider objectionable or even abhorrent?

And third, what will be the longer term consequences of this partial privatization of foreign policy on the international system? Will private contributions improve the situation or will they allow unregulated private power increasingly to play a harmful role?

Throughout history, governments have struggled to regulate and control the impact of enormous wealth on domestic political arrangements, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But until recently, they have not had to confront the possibility that they would have to do the same thing in the international arena.

If the activities of Turner and Soros do not force this issue, the actions of others, equally wealthy but less high-minded, may very well do so in the near future.
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