For a case study of misguided Congressional efforts to micromanage U.S. foreign policy, look no further than H.R. 2829. If it became law, The United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011 (PDF)—introduced this week by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—would destroy U.S. leadership at the United Nations and undermine critical U.S. national interests. It would alienate U.S. allies, encourage other nations to adopt similarly irresponsible policies, and impose heavy costs on U.S. taxpayers. Fortunately, the bill has zero chance of becoming law.
The proposed legislation contains several problematic provisions. It would forbid any new or expanded UN peacekeeping operations, unless a series of unilateral U.S. demands are met. It would withhold U.S. funding for (and prohibit U.S. membership in) the UN Human Rights Council, despite unprecedented progress over the past year in getting that (still imperfect) body to hold rights abusers to account. It would end U.S. funding for any UN agency that does not sign a special “transparency certification” with the U.S. Comptroller General. And it would cut U.S. funding to any UN entity tasked with implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
But the bill’s most egregious provision is a proposal to cut assessed U.S. contributions to the United Nations by 50% unless the world body moves to a “voluntary” funding model. Currently, the UN regular and peacekeeping budgets are financed through annual assessments on member states, roughly proportional to their share of global GDP. The United States, given its relative wealth, sustains approximately 22% of the UN’s regular (and 27% of its peacekeeping) budget.
A long-cherished goal of the UN’s most ardent critics—John Bolton foremost among them—has been to require the United Nations to shift to an entirely voluntary funding scheme. This would give the United States a pass to pick and choose among UN entities and initiatives, supporting those it prefers and un-funding those it considers problematic, irresponsible, or beyond salvage. In principle, proponents argue, such an a la carte approach would make the United Nations more sensitive to U.S. preferences, introduce healthy competition among UN agencies seeking U.S. dollars, and provide an incentive for greater UN transparency and accountability.
At first blush, sounds reasonable. So what’s wrong with this rosy picture?
To begin with, abrogation of U.S. financial obligations to the United Nations would do grievous damage to the global reputation of the United States and its perceived legitimacy as the world’s natural leader. The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to repair U.S. relations with the UN, which reached a nadir during the tumultuous Bush years. Were it to become law, H.R. 2829 would undo this progress, reinforcing the U.S. image as a coercive hegemon determined to impose its will unilaterally on the world body.
Even the Bush administration, for all its skepticism of the United Nations, recognized the limitations of withholding funding as a weapon to impose UN reform. By contrast, the new legislation would set the United States and the United Nations on a financial collision course reminiscent of the mid-1990s, when a Republican-controlled Congress led by Jesse Helms repeatedly withheld U.S. dues, leading to an arrears crisis that poisoned the diplomatic atmosphere at the UN.
Second, other nations would inevitably respond in kind, by adopting their own, selective approach to financing the United Nations. The likely result would be reduced funding for UN programs that the United States finds valuable, from global health interventions to counterterrorism cooperation. UN member states might respond in other, counterproductive ways as well. Indian officials have suggested privately that if the United States cuts its peacekeeping support, they may provide fewer peacekeeping troops. Cherry picking, in other words, could prove a dangerous game.
Third, the House bill would impose material, as well as reputational costs, on the United States. GOP advocates of withholding UN dues present themselves as wise stewards of the federal budget. But crippling the UN’s finances would likely increase the cost to U.S. taxpayers, by forcing the United States to spend more of its own resources to achieve its global ends.
Today, UN programs and agencies support U.S. interests and values in countless ways, from stabilizing political transitions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya to delivering life-saving aid to starving Somalis, keeping tabs on Iran’s nuclear program, and monitoring emerging infectious diseases. And all this activity comes at a relative bargain. Total U.S. spending on the United Nations amounts to approximately $3.5 billion annually—a bit more than the United States spends each week in Afghanistan. And thanks to global burden sharing, each quarter dollar of U.S. spending actually leverages a dollar of international effort.
By crippling the UN’s finances, the United States would face a painful dilemma: either accept a world without UN services on which the United States depends, or devote greater U.S. resources to compensate for their absence. Viewed in this context, the GOP’s bill is myopic in the extreme.
Luckily for the United States, H.R. 2829 will never become law, thanks to Democratic control of the Senate and White House. (Indeed, it would lack the support of critical GOP Senators, not least Richard Lugar, ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a committed internationalist).
So if the bill has no chance of passing, why bother even introducing it? Simply put, the legislation plays well within the GOP’s activist base, which is skeptical of the Obama administration’s “engagement” strategy and increasingly mistrustful of the United Nations—an easy target in the best of circumstances for sovereignty-minded nationalists. H.R. 2829 is a piece of red meat intended to galvanize Republicans heading into the next election cycle. From a partisan perspective, the legislation is all gain, no pain.
From a national standpoint, however, the bill is a costly distraction. At home, it diverts official and legislative attention from more practical efforts to ensure the UN’s effectiveness in advancing U.S. interests. Abroad, it leads governments and others to question the U.S. commitment to responsible global leadership. The United Nations needs reform. But this ham-fisted approach is not the way to go about it.