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July 20, 2012 2:49 am

What America Gets for Its U.N. Blank Check

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avatar by John Bolton


WIPO headquarters, Geneva. Photo : Yann.

Leave it to a small, little-known agency to prove just how out of control the United Nations can get.

We learned last month that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which oversees multilateral treaties involving patents, trademarks and copyrights, has been delivering computer hardware and “technical assistance” to none other than Iran and North Korea. The U.N. body’s actions are in blatant disregard of Security Council sanctions on Tehran and Pyongyang, prompting House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to call last week for freezing U.S. contributions to the organization.

WIPO says it is merely fulfilling its responsibilities, in this case by improving the capabilities of Iranian and North Korean intellectual-property agencies. Translated: U.N. bureaucrats believed (or pretended to believe) that Pyongyang and Tehran wanted computer networks to beef up their patent offices, surely real beehives of activity. Whistleblowers who revealed the transgressions by going public with what they knew now face reprisals that could imperil their jobs.

Multiple Security Council resolutions sanctioning Iranian and North Korean nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs prohibit not only direct assistance but also “items, materials, equipment, goods and technology . . . which could contribute” to those programs. Preventing dual-use technology from falling into the wrong hands has long been central to arms embargoes (including Cold War efforts like “CoCom” to deny sensitive materials to the Warsaw Pact).

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Consider the audacity of Iran and North Korea, taking candy from babes. By evading sanctions within the U.N. temple itself, these nuclear proliferators show how to defeat even broadly supported sanctions regimes through death by a thousand cuts.

Only the most willful or obtuse U.N. official could fail to grasp the delicacy of programs in rogue capitals like Tehran and Pyongyang. It defies credulity that WIPO would expend agency funds without bothering to check with its members—especially Washington, given America’s global intellectual-property leadership. The lack of effective U.S. oversight only underlines the seriousness of the problem throughout the U.N. system.

One can only guess how other U.N. bodies are also undermining sanctions. As the whistleblowers revealed, WIPO initially did not feel restricted by the Security Council’s sanctions. This reaction is symptomatic of attitudes throughout U.N. secretariats and in academic circles that U.N. bodies are not of and for their member governments, but above them.

WIPO could be disdainful of its members partly because of its funding channels—mostly licensing fees from treaties it administers, rather than from direct member-government contributions. Most U.N. agencies, by contrast, rely on “assessed” (that is, effectively mandatory) contributions from governments, allocated as percentage shares of each agency’s total budget.

The current U.S. share is 22%, easily the highest. For years, because all members have one vote regardless of their assessment level, Washington has been unable to constrain U.N. budget growth even when it has tried.

The U.N. generally sees our 22% “tax” as a secure entitlement, with all the inevitable downsides created by the entitlement mentality. Only switching to voluntary contributions, where each member determines on its own how much to contribute, could fix this problem and restore American influence.

As harmful as the assessment system is, WIPO’s license-fee funding makes matters worse. Such uninterrupted, fee-based funding systems, independent of member governments, constitute the “global governance” crowd’s great dream. They hope to end even the residual possibility of Congress slashing assessed contributions, and they see voluntary funding as sure poison for their supranational objectives.

This debate is far from hypothetical. The main funding channels for the Law of the Sea Treaty—which President Obama has vigorously pushed the Senate to ratify—are analogous systems of royalty payments from undersea mineral production. This calls into question whether the treaty’s decision-making provisions really give America the leverage that treaty advocates claim.

While the budgeting of international organizations may seem arcane, it is precisely in there where America wins or—far too often—loses its U.N. battles.

Mr. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

A version of this article appeared July 17, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: What America Gets for Its U.N. Blank Check.

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