The United Nations is the world’s main organization for deliberating on matters of peace and security, but its work encompasses far more than peacekeeping and conflict prevention. The UN system includes scores of entities dedicated to areas ranging from health and humanitarian needs to economic and cultural development. As a founding member of the United Nations and the host for its headquarters, the United States has been a chief guide and major funder of the organization for more than seventy years.
In 2016, the United States remained the largest donor to the United Nations, contributing more than $10 billion, roughly one fifth of its collective budget. The arrival of the Trump administration, however, has raised questions about how much the United States will continue to contribute. If President Donald J. Trump is able to follow through on his proposed cuts to foreign aid spending, the United Nations will likely need to undergo significant changes.
How is the United Nations funded?
All 193 members of the United Nations are required to make payments to certain parts of the organization as a condition of membership. The amount each member must pay, known as its assessed contribution, varies widely and is determined by a complex formula that factors in its gross national income and population.
These mandatory contributions help fund the United Nations’ regular budget, which covers administrative costs and a few programs, as well as peacekeeping operations. The United States pays 22 and 28 percent of these budgets, respectively. Assessed dues also finance other UN bodies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Trade Organization.
Members may also make voluntary contributions. Many UN organizations, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the World Food Program (WFP), rely entirely on discretionary funding.
How much does the United States pay?
In 2016, the U.S. government contributed more than $10 billion to the United Nations, of which about $6 billion was voluntary and $4 billion was assessed. (This represents roughly twenty percent of the $50 billion the United States spends annually on foreign aid, which, in comparison, is also about what the government allocates annually to the U.S. Coast Guard.)
The United States is responsible for a significant portion of many UN agencies’ budgets. For many of them, especially those that depend on voluntary funding, cuts in U.S. contributions could be quite painful.
What cuts to UN funding has President Trump proposed?
The Trump administration signaled early on its desire to reduce payments to the United Nations. In March 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said at a Council on Foreign Relations event, “There are places we can cut. Everybody knows there’s fat at the UN. Everybody knows there’s fat in the peacekeeping missions.”
President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal [PDF] would take a knife to several UN bodies. It would halt all U.S. payments to UN climate change programs and cap the U.S. contribution to the peacekeeping budget at 25 percent, down from the 28 percent currently required from the DPKO. Trump has also proposed [PDF] paring back the United States’ voluntary payments to many other UN entities, including UNICEF, which could see a 16 percent decrease in its total revenue.
But it remains unclear how much of the president’s proposals will survive the federal budget process. In September, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill that would keep in place payments to the UN climate body and United Nations Population Fund. That same month, during his first speech at the UN General Assembly, Trump said, “The United States bears an unfair cost burden, but to be fair, if [the United Nations] could actually accomplish all of its stated goals, especially the goal of peace, this investment would easily be well worth it.”
The next opportunity for the United States to negotiate its assessed contributions with the UN will be fall 2018.
Is this a new debate?
Past U.S. presidents and lawmakers have sought to pare back the United States’ UN payments. In the late 1990s, for example, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) led an effort to force reforms at the United Nations by withholding U.S. contributions. The United States nearly lost its vote in the General Assembly as millions of dollars in unpaid assessments accrued. This period of instability culminated in a legislative compromise struck by Helms and Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) that, in combination with agreement with the United Nations to address assessment rates, reduced the U.S. share of the UN administrative budget from 25 percent to 22 percent. The law required that the United States pay no more than 25 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget. For many years Congress has waived this ceiling to keep up with rising assessments from the Department for Peacekeeping Operations.