George Bush as United Nations Representative, 1971-72 - NARA

George H.W. Bush Was the Strongest Supporter of the UN of Any Modern US President

President George H.W Bush passed away today. He served as US President from 1989 to 1993 and was the only US president to have previously served as US Ambassador to the United Nations.

President Bush was among the strongest supporters the United Nations of any US president. In 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s army invaded neighboring Kuwait, the United States assembled wide support at the United Nations to mount a military campaign to evict Iraqi forces and liberate Kuwait. This was a broad multilateral response, lead by the United States, to confront a violation of international law and an affront to the principles of the UN.

At the time, he also developed a very strong personal relationship with then-Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar.

A few years ago, a reader was sifting through the President George H.W. Bush Library archives and passed along to UN Dispatch a few interesting links to conversations between President Bush and Secretary General Perez de Cuellar.  There were a range of issues discussed in these conversations (Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq). And it’s clear that an apparent personal relationship between President Bush and the Secretary General was quite strong.

Bush would call de Cuellar for advice on worldly issues, and de Cuellar would feel bold enough to call the White House directly and ask the USA to pay its bills at the UN. The two men were on a first-name basis.

Here is a September 1990 call between de Cuellar and President Bush. This was before the start of the (first) Iraq war and the Secretary General had just returned from a trip to Baghdad. de Cuellar knew that Saddam was not going to give an inch, but thought that the show of diplomacy was important nonetheless. President Bush agreed, and called the Secretary General to get his opinion of the situation in Iraq.

The President: Javier, how are you?

Secretary General: Hello, George. How are you?

The President: Welcome back, world traveler.

Secretary General: You know by the press about my trip — disappointing but as expected. But I wanted to expose them.

The President: You did a wonderful job. As we discussed before you left, it was a difficult job. But the fact that you went communicates interest in diplomacy while keeping our principles. On the surface, we agreed you were not going to get any progress. But the fact you went shows that we were willing to follow the diplomatic route. I think you had it right. Iraq is just locked into to its position. But actually, Javier, I called to get your insights and views.

Secretary General: I had two objectives: not to concede a word, not even to save time. They didn’t want to break the talks, but I didn’t want to be used either. I didn’t want to cede political points to them. I repeated to them international public opinion. I was not prepared to conceal the truth. I told him I would give him a change to go check with his leader to see if he could get something positive. I proposed that we go to Geneva in the next 2-3 days once he had a reaction from his leader. I was persuaded that he wanted to maintain his position,but not to break the channel of communication.    I told him I was at their disposal provided they did something positive.

The President: I don’t know where we go from here. He makes that I should talk to him. But I make that the United Nations should be the conferee and the Secretary General should keep his hands on this. I will help him to keep communications open with you. No one has been killed yet. And I think we need to continue to enforce sanctions. He gave a terrible speech today, Javier.


The President:    I want to thank you on the part of everyone for your leadership. If you ever want to talk to me about what we should do or shouldn’t do, I would appreciate a call. Are you in New York?

Secretary General: Yes; I just got back this morning. I had a difficult time with the- flu.

The President: One last thing, what about their guests, or the hostages, as we call them? What he is doing is a crime against humanity.

Secretary General: I told him it was not sufficient to keep women and children and hinder freedom of movement.    They are all human beings. I told him I can’t accept this human shield concepti it is against human rights. He said they were reconsidering on the question of the embassies in Kuwait. But it is not true. There has been no give at all. I think they are starting to feel the sanctions.

The President: That’s encouraging.

Secretary General: They asked me to convey to the Security Council — and I will do this tomorrow — their need. They want the paragraph in the resolution discussed so they can receive medicine. They asked me to do this. They also asked me to tell the President of the United States that they are not going to ignite a war. They asked that you withdraw immediately, and I said in the case of what. Why should they leave when they have no reason to unless you give them something in exchange? You must make the first step.

Mr. President: Well done. Thank you again for your mission.

As this conversation shows, de Cuallar and President Bush had a close relationship. A few months prior to his Iraq mission, the Secretary General called the White House to directly as the USA to pay its membership dues to the United Nations.

Perez de Cuellar: I want to ask you a favor. I’m having difficulties with my budget.

The President: Yes, I’m humiliated…

Perez de Cuellar: There is the $60 million that the U.S. has not paid on its 1989 commitment. I ask as a personal favor for you to exert your influence on the Senators, especially Domenici and [did not catch the second name], that they accept the bill for UN funding.

The President: I feel terrible. We’re in a big fight with Congress … I will personally do all I can to see that the bill is passed when they get back from vacation

there is no excuse. We’ve requested the funding … Congress is being stubborn. Javier, I didn’t understand what you said about the $50 million. . .

Perez de Cuellar: I wrote you a letter a few weeks ago, I don’t know if you saw it, it’s about the $60 million still unpaid on your 1989 UN dues.

The President: We can cover the funding if the bill gets through the Senate. I will personally work on it when the Senators get back … it is a priority.

The U.S. ought to pay its debts … I’m sorry ‘we’ve caused you this worry.

This (below) is from a September 1991 meeting at the United Nations between Secretary General Perez de Cuellar; UN under-secretary general Ron Spiers; President George H.W Bush, his secretary of State James Baker, UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering, and John Bolton, then the Assistant of State of State for International Organizations.  After chatting about the UN’s conflict mediation efforts in Afghanistan (the Soviets were on board!) and the impending breakup of Czechoslovakia, the Secretary General brought said he faced a financial crisis because the USA wasn’t paying its bills on time.

Secretary General Perez de Cuellar: I want to tell you that the UN is facing immediate cash flow problems.

The President: What is the status of our appropriations request?

Assistant Secretary Bolton: Appropriations are moving well in Congress and we should get full funding for the assessment and slice of arrears later this fall. The authorization conference is next week, so it is a matter of time.

The President: If there is a continuing resolution, can we get the Secretary General some money?

Assistant Secretary Bolton: We want a larger chunk than that.

Secretary Baker: There are large peacekeeping operations coming up for funding.

The President: Hungarian Prime Minister Antall told me that Czechoslovakia may split up as soon as next week. The Hungarians are also worried about refugees coming from Yugoslavia.

Secretary General Perez de Cuellar: We have no reserves (funds).

Under Secretary Spiers: There is a tough structural problem because the fiscal year of the US differs from the UN year. So the assessment payment comes late in our year.

Assistant Secretary Bolton: That is the result of a one-time budget maneuver in the previous administration. The only way to change it is to move it back a year, thus entailing a double payment in one year.

The President: We should look for opportunities to return to the prior appropriations schedule. The way to do it may be to get a big win out of Iraq and have Congressional emotions high.

In foreign policy circles, President Bush will be remembered for doubling down on his engagement with the United Nations and liberal world order at a time when US global power was at an all time high, un-matched and unrivaled.  The Soviet Union had dissolved and Saddam Hussein was successfully evicted from Kuwait in a US-led military operation. The world became uni-polar under his presidency —  but even as US power was unparalleled, he maintained a deep commitment to the United Nations and understood that a strong United Nations was a profound complement to American power.