The Public Policy

So Much for the Good Neighbor Policy

Not only do the pests at the United Nations not pay their parking fines, they're now trying to prevent U.S. farmers from using an essential pesticide.

By 11.1.06

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According to New York City's Department of Finance, 159 of the Union Nations' 199 member-states owe their American host city some $18 million in unpaid parking fines. Leading the way with more than 17,000 of the 150,000 unpaid citations: Egypt, a deadbeat to the tune of nearly $2 million.

Not that our friends at the UN are in any hurry to settle their debts. Four years ago, an angry New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg threatened to start towing illegally-parked consular vehicles. The Republican Congress, no fan on what goes on inside the big square building on Upper East Side, soon passed a measure under which U.S. foreign aid could be withheld from scofflaw members.

There are two things worth noting in regard to the UN and its single-minded approach to double-parking.

First, when it comes to coddling the UN, there are few matters on which Republicans and Democrats are more polarized. Last summer, the House of Representatives voted on a measure requiring, among other things, an end to diplomatic immunity for UN officials charged with serious criminal offenses. Only seven Republicans opposed it; a mere eight Democrats backed it.

Second, while the double-parking double-standard may not strike home unless one happens to be a Manhattanite, to many Americans its strikes a nerve. Since 9/11, it's increasingly apparent that the U.S. and UN have a dysfunctional relationship based upon the perception that the latter takes more than it gives to its host country.

There's a good example of this mentality at work, not counting America's frustration in trying to enlist the UN in the war on terror. And that would be the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which was signed in 1987 (if you know that, then you're also likely aware that every September 16 is the "International Day for Preservation of the Ozone Layer," honoring the accord's anniversary). As the long-winded title indicates, the agreement exists to limit or eliminate various chemicals deemed harmful to the environment. That includes the phasing-out of methyl bromide, an important pesticide used both in the U.S. and internationally for pest control.

And that, in turn, raises the question of which matters more to the UN: the pursuit of political correctness, or America's well-being? One problem with phasing out methyl bromide is there's no reliable fallback for farmers and growers (the U.S. Department of Agriculture has devoted more than $120 million to finding a replacement, with no luck). That's not a reasonable risk either for growers or consumers. Meanwhile, there's economic collateral damage -- primarily, the large growing states of California and Florida. The USDA's Agricultural Pesticide Impact Assessment Program estimates that a phase-out for pre-plant soil fumigation would cause $1.5 billion in annual lost production in the U.S -- and that doesn't take into account lost jobs and the difficulties in easing other nations' quarantined products into the U.S. market.

UNFORTUNATELY, AMERICA'S GROWERS can't count on the UN -- much less their own government -- for relief. Under the terms of the Montreal Protocol, the only way for growers to continue using methyl bromide is the granting of so-called "critical use exemptions" (CUE's), which is what the U.S. has been doing every year since 2003. But with a catch: the quantity requested by American growers has been reduced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by up to 50% -- a figure that's more in line with Central Europe than California's Central Valley.

If this trend goes on -- and environmental piety continues to trump economic reality -- then there's trouble ahead for an American population that just passed 300 million. Over the past three years, U.S. field inventory has decreased by 6,448 metric tons, meaning less food grown. But does it also mean a growing ozone layer? No. According to NASA, the ozone hole is expected to decrease annually, a trend it attributes to "year-to-year variations caused by Antarctic stratosphere weather fluctuations."

The question, then: who's the real villain when it comes to ozone-depletion -- and who wants to be a hero? If all man-made methyl bromide were to be eliminated overnight, more than 80% of the current volume would still be produced. So rather than target growers, perhaps it's wiser for the UN and Washington to consider their needs for change. For example, rather than phase-out methyl bromide, why not consider a ready reserve for times of emergency, such as a hurricane laying waste to Florida's strawberry fields?

Both the UN and Congress have this in common: they're deliberative bodies, and more prone to debate than action. But in this case, the fix is simple. First, the EPA can ask the UN for use-exemptions lasting beyond the current one-year limitation. Second, rather than being further pared to reach the UN's mandate, production levels instead could be maintained at a reasonable level while science searches for a credible alternative.

WOULD THE U.N. EVER ACCEDE to such reasonable demands? Don't count on it. Sixty years ago, it began with the promise of a peace-keeping body that would hold the world to a higher moral standard. Today, as a body unable to police its own finances -- much less the world community -- it demonstrates selective morality at best: sometimes, tyranny is denounced; oft-times, oppression and genocide go ignored.

All of which is worth considering as the country considers a regime change in Congress -- a Democratic regime that sees the UN in a different light than the present Republican majority. The question of methyl bromide and what's best for America puts that relationship to a test. Ideally, the UN would recognize its mistake and come to America's rescue.

But if the UN cares not where it parks, why think it's in a hurry to move its vehicle?

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About the Author

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.