Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

Patrick assesses the future of world order, state sovereignty, and multilateral cooperation.

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Trump’s UN Executive Order Would Cut Off America’s Nose to Spite Its Face

by Stewart M. Patrick
January 26, 2017

A United Nations logo is seen on a glass door in the Assembly Building at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. (Mike Segar/Reuters)


As first reported in yesterday’s New York Times, President Donald J. Trump’s White House has prepared two executive orders that would slash U.S. funding for the United Nations and place a moratorium on any new multilateral treaties. Both of these draft documents (which this author has seen) are consistent with Trump’s hyper-nationalist, “America First” agenda. As such, they will play well with his populist base. But they reflect a short-sighted conception of U.S. national interests and signal a reckless abdication of U.S. global leadership.

The most problematic of these orders is titled “Auditing and Reducing U.S. Funding of International Organizations.” It calls for the establishment of an International Funding Advisory Committee, including the secretaries of state and defense, attorney general, Office of Management and Budget director, director of national intelligence, and national security advisor (but interestingly, not new UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who testified at her confirmation hearing: “I do not think we need to pull money for the UN.”). The committee’s mandate would be to determine which UN agencies and other international bodies merit continued funding and which should be cut. Most startlingly, the directive instructs the committee to slash voluntary contributions to UN agencies by 40 percent. It also envisions placing numerous conditions on continued U.S. support for the United Nations’ regular and peacekeeping budget—legally binding obligations that are assessed annually—potentially placing the United States in violation of its treaty obligations under the UN Charter.

The document is couched in the language of fiscal stewardship and patriotic nationalism, promising to “help identify wasteful and counterproductive giving” and avoid supporting a “United Nations [that] often pursues an agenda contrary to American interests.” But the executive order is at once blunt, narrow-minded, and myopic. It grossly exaggerates the financial burden that UN bodies impose upon U.S. taxpayers. It ignores the multiple practical benefits the United States obtains from its support for multilateral bodies. And it is based on false premises about the purpose of international organizations and the nature of multilateral diplomacy. If implemented, the executive order would undermine multilateral mechanisms upon which U.S. citizens depend every day to advance their security, prosperity, well-being, and values.

Here is the reality:

U.S. support for international organizations is modest. The United States is indeed the UN’s largest financial contributor, supporting approximately 25 percent of its expenditures (amounting to approximately 8 billion dollars in recent years). This percentage is only slightly higher than the U.S. share of the global economy. The draft order describes this financial commitment as “particularly burdensome given the current [U.S.] fiscal crisis and ballooning budget deficits and national debt.” Here, a little perspective is in order. Federal expenditures in 2016 amounted to 3.54 trillion dollars (out of a 15.6 trillion dollar economy), meaning that U.S. support for the United Nations accounts for less than one four-hundredth of the federal budget. By comparison, Congress in 2015 provided the Pentagon with a budget of $598 billion—nearly 75 times what it allocated to the United Nations agencies and activities.

It is also money well spent. What does the United States get for this modest outlay? Quite a lot. U.S. funding supports dozens of agencies, programs, and initiatives doing invaluable, often unsung work. Consider the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which has helped reduce global child mortality rates steeply. Or the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and World Food Program (WFP), which help protect and feed the more than 65 million people currently displaced by conflict or natural disaster. Or the World Health Organization (WHO), which tracks and combats new and emerging infectious diseases—like Zika—before they can become global pandemics. The list goes on and on.

Equally important, the United States leverages its UN contributions four-fold, since for every quarter it allocates to the United Nations, it effectively gets a dollar’s worth of effort, thanks to others’ payments. Thanks to the UN, the United States can share global burdens to advance foreign policy goals that it would otherwise need to pursue on its own—or not at all. Consider peacekeeping. Globally, more than one hundred thousand UN “blue helmets,” in sixteen missions, are helping to reduce human slaughter, despite often being outgunned by combatants. Peacekeeping is hardly perfect—and it needs both reform and resources. But it also permits the United States to help bring stability in places where atrocities would otherwise be rampant, without putting its own soldiers on the line. And as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the United States must authorize every single operation.

The administration’s proposed slashing is arbitrary and counterproductive. Without any apparent rationale, the president’s draft order directs his administration to seek “at least a forty percent overall decrease” in annual voluntary funding for the United Nations, “whether by reduction or outright termination of current funding.” This ill-considered directive will require draconian cuts to critical agencies like WHO, WFP, and UNHCR. Why establish such an arbitrary target before the administration actually conducts its review of UN programs—which is slated to be completed by January 1, 2018?

There are two immediate problems with this edict. First, the United States will be forced to choose between imperatives—either feeding refugees or responding quickly to disease outbreaks, for instance. Second, other UN members will surely follow the U.S. lead, cherry-picking their own priorities and giving short shrift to UN missions the United States favors.

Renouncing assessed contributions is unwise—and potentially illegal. The directive’s most reckless guidance is that the new interagency committee recommend strategies to shift any U.S. funding for the UN that is currently assessed on an annual basis to a purely “voluntary” basis. This radical step has long been the dream of UN skeptics like Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and former U.S. envoy to the United Nations John Bolton, who proposed just such a move following Trump’s election. While international legal opinion is divided, many lawyers regard such a unilateral step as a violation of solemn U.S. legal obligations under the UN Charter and other, agency-relevant international agreements.

Beyond wreaking havoc on the UN budget, this rash move would undermine U.S. diplomatic influence at the United Nations, including Washington’s ability to shape the UN agenda. It would also set a terrible precedent, eliciting copycat behavior. Were the U.S. to declare peacekeeping support to be purely voluntary, others would do likewise, inevitably resulting in dwindling financial or (in the case of large troop contributing countries like India) military contributions to UN operations. Alternatively, UN members could renounce their assessments for the International Atomic Energy Agency, weakening its capacity to monitor and inspect states suspected of violating their commitments to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Or they might reduce their contributions to the International Civil Aviation Organization, endangering the safety of airline passengers—including in the United States.

The UN is flawed and frustrating—but also indispensable to the United States. Pervading this hastily drafted document is a troubling, black-and-white vision of the United Nations. The Trump White House appears to believe that UN agencies must either do U.S. bidding or be cut off. This is, frankly, a juvenile attitude unbecoming of the world’s only superpower. By all measures, the United States is the most influential player in the United Nations. But that does not mean that it always gets its way in complex negotiations over contentious topics. The 193-member UN General Assembly, where the United States sometimes finds itself on the losing end of symbolic but typically meaningless resolutions, can be particularly infuriating. But there is little evidence that “the United Nations often pursues an agenda contrary to American interests,” as the draft executive order claims. Quite the reverse. The United Nations seldom pursues an agenda contrary to American interests.

That could change, however, if the Trump administration begins to withdraw U.S. financial and diplomatic support from the world body—or to treat it as no more than an instrument of narrow U.S. nationalism. By abdicating leadership at the United Nations, the United States will simply pave the way for other powers—not least China and Russia—to set the agenda, to the detriment of U.S. interests.

The hard reality is that multilateral diplomacy is frustrating. It requires expending a lot of shoe leather, not simply in New York but in member state capitals. That is especially true when it comes to the perennial challenge of UN management reform. President Trump’s draft executive order sets a year-long deadline for reporting back on specific UN cuts. Let’s hope he uses that time, working with Congress, to adopt more mature approach to the United Nations.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Ralph SIegler

    Author is confused, UN already provides anti-US agenda venue to Russia and China. It funds parasites on the back of the American tax payer, and is a threat to U.S. sovereignty.

  • Posted by John Nieminen

    I think UN can go by the way of brontosaurus.

  • Posted by Madeleine Burnside

    Our contribution to the UN is a small price to pay for our major role in maintaining world order and the Pax Americana. Let this slip and we clear the way for China to take leadership of the 21st century and for Russia to take all that it wants from Europe. World stability is not a commodity to be bought and sold with dollars, the buy-in requires commitment and a much longer view of the health of the world than that of which the Trump administration appears capable. This narrow view was never the one that made America great, instead it will set us back 300 years.

  • Posted by S.lakshma reddy

    There is nothing surprising in this US president Trump executive order.It is in fact US democratic mandate to Trump.US General will was shifted to the “US national interests first”.this shift has developed is based on cost benefit analysis by an ordinary main street US citizen contrary to wall street er.but in real life,the casualty of mainstreeter and their life,liberty,employment is linked to wall street er interest.Now it’s apparently diconnected and political mandate reflected it.

    For Trump presidency it has no exceptions to it economic logic of national may be UN or NATO or terrorism or any international obligations from past as long as it is not domestic binďing law.In deocracies it is phased reaction to economic crisis ridden debt burdens and falling standards of life and security in the growing international economic and military competition and competitors.It’s a temporary defeat to vacillating disunited globalist feces and leadership.but history is on move to globalists side and to global constitutional democracy or to use Hobbies leviathan a new global sovereign for a better civilised global free world in the place of present growing international “state of nature” with no global political centre and present UN is a non sovereign moral preaching or as Trump rightly said a talking centre.

    What is the task before global academic intellectuals and globalist corporate interests and public? To enlighten the global public about the “state of international affairs as akin to Hobbies state of nature and need for a global sovereign to tame the nation’s to state of rule of law for world peace,security and human progress.

  • Posted by Alberto Knox

    This is what it is like to be governed by talk radio, where answers are easy and bold moves have no negative consequences.

    God help us.

  • Posted by Gene Dewey

    The new administration holds promise of recovering for the United States its exceptionalism, so mocked and marginalized by Obama. Persons like myself who have worked with the UN, both from inside, and outside in the US Government, know that American exceptionalism on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable, without a voice or vote, works best when the US gets productivity out of the “people parts” of the UN system. I witnessed the model for this when I served in the State Department during the Reagan administration, and I practiced this model as assistant secretary of state, population, refugees, and migration in the George W. Bush administration. We proved we could effectively lead the UN “from alongside”, but only only when we were faithful in paying our roughly 23% of the UN’ assessed costs, and regularly badgered the dead-beat wealthy nations into paying their fair share of the UN’s voluntary contribution budget (e.g., for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance) – lifting much this otherwise heavy voluntary contribution burden off the back of the American taxpayer.
    We had two major objectives in this constructive leveraging of our investment in the UN: 1. To achieve UN productivity on behalf of the world’s innocent victims of bad national leaders and humanitarian catastrophes; and, 2. To reduce the huge costs of the voluntary budget to US taxpayers by relentless pressure on laggard wealthy states to do more.
    The UN is unlikely ever to undergo sufficient reform to be put on auto-pilot. Realistically, the above goals are achievable only when the JUS, in league with a few like-minded allies, re-learns how to monitor and goad the UN leadership and its agencies on a near daily basis to get them to produce. We achieved this result under President Reagan’s leadership, not because we liked the UN, but because we knew how bad it was, and we learned how to “lead it from alongside” to make it work. We were able to achieve similar results in the famously unilateralist George W. Bush administration, by smart leveraging of our UN contributions. And by proving to the Bush unilateralists that compassionate conservatism was no match for constructive multilateralism in protecting both the victims of humanitarian emergencies and the American taxpayer.
    We discovered the future for US-UN engagement under Reagan and George W. Bush – and it worked! Our mission now must be to get the Trump administration back to that future.

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