THE United Nations' British second-in-command was at the centre of a furious diplomatic row with the United States yesterday.
The UN deputy secretary-general, Mark Malloch Brown, antagonised Washington after suggesting that the US administration was happy to use the UN as a diplomatic tool while failing to defend it from critics at home.
Mr Malloch Brown told a conference in New York that "the prevailing [US] practice of seeking to use the UN almost by stealth as a diplomatic tool while failing to stand up for it against its domestic critics is simply not sustainable. You will lose the UN one way or another."
Washington, he said, was too happy to tolerate "too much unchecked UN-bashing and stereotyping".
His comments provoked a furious response from John Bolten, the pugnacious American ambassador to the UN. "I spoke to the secretary-general this morning, I said 'I've known you since 1989 and I'm telling you this is the worst mistake by a senior UN official that I have seen in that entire time," said Mr Bolten.
Mr Malloch Brown told reporters after his speech. "You [the US] have to engage to help make this institution a better institution. And you need to engage, if I dare say so, with your own public opinion to explain better why the UN matters to American interests."
He argued that good news about the UN rarely reached the US. "Much of the public discourse that reaches the US heartland has been largely abandoned to its loudest detractors such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News."
"The UN's role is in effect a secret in middle America even as it is highlighted in the Middle East and other parts of the world," he said.
A recent Gallup poll reported that 64 per cent of Americans had a poor opinion of the United Nations and the organisation is frequently and routinely portrayed as an anti-American body that coddles and makes excuses for dictatorial regimes around the world while proving itself unable to live up to the lofty goals it sets itself. Sex scandals involving UN peacekeepers, the corrupt administration of the UN's oil-for-food programme in Iraq and the organisation's reluctance to support the US-British invasion of Iraq have all fed American dissatisfaction with the UN.
"Americans complain about the UN's bureaucracy, weak decision-making, the lack of accountable modern management structures and the political divisions of the general assembly here in New York," acknowledged Mr Malloch Brown. "And my response is, 'guilty on all counts'."
However, he said he UN could only change and reform its practices if the US were committed to the organisation. "In the eyes of the rest of the world, US commitment tends to ebb much more than it flows. And in recent years, the enormously divisive issue of Iraq and the big stick of financial withholding have come to define an unhappy marriage."
Tensions between Washington and the UN will come to a head later this month when its budget runs out. Washington, by far the biggest financial contributor to the UN, has insisted that it implement reforms before the US will agree to fund a new budget.
Mr Malloch Brown's "condescending, patronising tone about the American people" was the worst part about the speech said Mr Bolton.
"Fundamentally and very sadly, this was a criticism of the American people, not the American government, by an international civil servant," Mr Bolton said. "It's just illegitimate.
"When a member of the [UN] secretariat criticises ... the intelligence of the people of a member government, that's a very questionable activity. Even though the target of the speech was the United States, the victim, I fear, will be the United Nations."
He called on Mr Annan to "personally and publicly" repudiate his deputy's speech. But Mr Annan's spokesman said the secretary-general stood by Mr Malloch Brown's comments.
Mr Malloch Brown's speech was delivered at a conference sponsored by two think tanks, the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation.