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.