There is perhaps no greater boogieman for Republican lawmakers in Washington than that bloated monstrosity of a bureaucracy called the United Nations. This year, the Trump administration appears to be deadly serious in curtailing the UN’s resources—a campaign that, if successful, would severely handicap the amount of influence that the United States currently possesses within the international system.
In the most idyllic depiction, the UN is: a global community that protects the world’s most vulnerable people, a forum for states to sit down and resolve their differences peacefully, and a place to prevent territorial disputes from deteriorating into full blown warfare. To many Americans, however, the United Nations is nothing more than a bureaucracy on steroids, where American taxpayer money is misappropriated or mismanaged. Indeed, United Nation’s diplomacy has undergone a bad run lately. If you asked Syrians, Yemenis, and South Sudanese about their opinions on the UN’s effectiveness, you shouldn’t be surprised to get answers that describe the organization in a pitiful light.
For many GOP lawmakers in Congress, the UN Security Council’s decision to pass a resolution last year condemning Israel for settlement building was a reaffirmation of their strong belief that the entire institution is rotten to its core. Several bills have already been filed that take aim at the UN by either cutting off US dues to the global body entirely, or adding conditions before they could be paid. Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham, for instance, introduced a bill that would suspend US financial dues to all UN agencies until the Security Council repeals the resolution on Israeli settlements.
Before Congress or the Trump administration decides to decrease funding to the UN, however, they should remember one important fact: just because the organization is often times frustrating, inefficient, and powerless, it still performs valuable functions that the United States would be unwilling to do on its own.
Keeping the peace where America won’t
The long, bloody, and costly military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have soured the American people’s appetite for global interventions—so much so that a mission involving any hint of nation-building or peacekeeping would be unlikely to receive much support in Washington. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, 57% of Americans believe that the US should focus on problems at home and let other countries deal with their own issues the best they can. After sixteen consecutive years of war halfway around the world, the American public is general is wary about further military intervention of any sort, particularly in places that don’t directly affect US national security interests.
Unfortunately, some of the bloodiest conflicts in the world at the present time fall under that category. You will be hard-pressed to find Americans walking around today who would support deploying US soldiers to keep the peace between warring ethnic factions in South Sudan, militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or sectarian communities in the Central African Republic—and yet all three countries have experienced so much killing that genocide is a more than a distinct possibility. However, thanks to UN peacekeeping troops, the day when genocide occurs is delayed as the blue-helmets patrol combustible neighborhoods, protect civilians from combatants on all sides of the war, keep belligerents away from one another, and facilitate the beginning of a peace process.
Approximately 100,000 UN peacekeeping troops are involved in sixteen separate missions around the world, nine of which are in Africa. Were it not for the UN, Washington would be badgered to pick up more of the financial tab and called upon to deploy its own soldiers to these war zones.
Protecting American interests at the top
Under the United Nations Charter, the Security Council is responsible for “the maintenance of international peace and security.” More often than not, however, the Security Council’s permanent members are more concerned with using the council to defend their own national interests–a key tenant of the way the UN system is structured.
Russia, for instance, has leveraged its status as a permanent member of the Security Council to ensure that resolutions against the Assad regime in Syria aren’t sanctioned for war crimes. The US does the very same thing when the Security Council discusses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; indeed, absent America’s own veto power, it would be far easier for the international community to censure or perhaps even adopt economic penalties against Israel for continued settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territories.
US participation in the UN is therefore vital not only for aesthetic reasons, but because it’s in the national security interest of the US to use its position to shield its closest allies from unfair punishments that could potentially be disastrous for conflict resolution in the future. By virtue of its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the US generates goodwill from its friends, allies, and partners, which Washington can use as chips to cash in later.
Good bang for your buck
Fiscal conservatives in Washington view the UN as an unaccountable, money-sucking menace whose leadership is ungrateful for all of the funds that the US pumps into the multilateral system. Whether or not that description is accurate or is just conjecture doesn’t mean that there isn’t at least some truth underneath the sentiment; the US, after all, underwrites 22% of the UN’s regular budget every year, a far cry from the second-largest contributor (Japan) at just over nine percent. When the US is late in paying its dues on time, UN bureaucrats often go out of their way to depict Washington as a debtor nation unwilling to meet its financial commitments—the definition of ungratefulness if there ever was one.
And yet we shouldn’t overlook the notion that the check Washington sends over to East Side of Manhattan ($7.36 billion in FY2014) is a good investment in relative terms. The tens of millions of dollars that the US devotes to the International Atomic Energy Agency is absolutely crucial to preserving nuclear non-proliferation as a global norm.
Imagine, for instance, how difficult it would be for IAEA inspectors to monitor Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities if the US pulled funding from the agency. In addition, the UN’s peacekeeping budget—the resources that pay for the troops deploying into the theater, the equipment, ammunition, and weapons that they use, and the bases that they operate from—would be neutered virtually overnight, forcing UN headquarters to either limit access to war-zones to save money or to withdraw personnel altogether.
The $2-$3 billion spent for UN peacekeeping operations is a drop in the bucket compared to the billions of dollars that the US spent every month during its occupation of Iraq. Certainly these are figures that the most fiscally hawkish member of Congress can appreciate.
Does the UN need reform in its budgeting practices?
Absolutely. Are accountability mechanisms often introduced in response to scandals rather than as proactive measures? Clearly. But however imperfect the UN is, it would be far less perfect without America’s active involvement and leadership. As nine previous US Ambassadors to the UN have written to House and Senate leaders, “[w]ithholding or slashing funding for the UN, by contrast, weakens our hand, alienates allies whose support is critical to our reform priorities, undermines essential UN activities that promote core American interests and values, and costs us more over the long term.”
The Trump administration would be smart to listen to diplomats who have served in the UN and have seen up close and personal how instrumental the global body can be in meeting America’s foreign policy objectives.