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In a preview of President Trump’s message to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly next week, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster on Friday repeatedly uttered two words: “sovereignty and accountability.” The United States believes in the UN’s mission to promote peace and prosperity, he explained. But the world body will only be successful if it protects the independence of its member states and commits itself to serious reform.
President Trump will drive this message home in his much anticipated speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday morning. But the two themes will also be front and center on Monday, when the President hosts more than 120 world leaders that U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has rallied to support the reform agenda of UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres.
The defense of sovereignty—and specifically American sovereignty—has been the most consistent refrain in the administration’s often chaotic foreign policy. The president and his surrogates have invoked the need to preserve U.S. independence to justify numerous controversial policy stances. These include leaving the Paris Climate Agreement, renouncing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, criticizing alliances like NATO, threatening to ignore the World Trade Organization, and proposing a moratorium on any new multilateral treaties.
As the most important international organization, the United Nations is the fattest target for this “sovereigntist” critique. For Trump’s populist base—as well as conservative nationalist pundits like Breitbart executive chairman, and former White House official, Stephen K. Bannon—the UN is a globalist conspiracy to tie down the United States like Gulliver. In this view, the UN has forgotten its original purpose—namely, to serve as a platform where independent nation states cooperate on matters of common interest. Equally bad, the UN bureaucracy is out of control, no longer beholden to its national governments.
The Trump administration intends to change that. “Sovereignty and accountability are the essential foundations of peace and prosperity,” McMaster declared on Friday. “America respects the sovereignty of other countries, expects other nations to do the same.” Beyond insisting that “all governments… be accountable to their citizens,” the United States is determined to bring the United Nations itself to heel.
The Trump administration’s panic over sovereignty is overblown. As I write in my new book, The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World, the United States is in no danger of subordinating its hallowed Constitution to the authority of the UN—or any outside body. More fundamentally, the U.S. decision to join any intergovernmental organization is not an abdication of sovereignty, but indeed its expression. In the case of the United States, it reflects the democratic will of the American people, as embodied in their elected leaders—namely, the President and Congress.
That said, international organizations do complicate U.S. sovereignty, and they require vigilance on the part of the United States to make sure that they both stick to their purposes and reflect the will of the American people.
By overwhelming majorities, Americans share the ideals embodied in the UN Charter and support U.S. membership in the world body. But too often, the UN’s performance falls far short of its noble principles and purposes. When the UN Security Council refuses to act in Syria, or when UN peacekeepers abuse those they are supposed to protect, or when scandals like Oil-for-Food expose corruption and cronyism, or when bodies like the UN Human Rights Council go off the rails, the understandable response is outrage.
To understand why the UN so often disappoints—and why Trump is calling for reforms to ensure greater accountability—it helps to consider two phenomena that dilute America’s capacity to realize its sovereign preferences within any international organization. These are the phenomena of delegation and pooling.
The concept of delegation is pretty clear. All contractual relationships—think of your sister’s relationship with her broker, or your town’s arrangement with its snowplow service—involve a limited delegation of authority from a principal to an agent empowered to act on the former’s behalf. But, as anybody who’s hired a contractor knows, agents don’t always do what they’re told. They often shirk responsibilities or act contrary to our wishes.
The same thing happens within the U.S. government. Executive branch agencies (and their private contractors) sometimes resist accountability to congressional paymasters—to say nothing of their ultimate principals under the U.S. Constitution, the American people.
But ensuring accountability is even tougher when it comes to international organizations. In joining any multilateral agency, like the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. government must delegate some authority to its secretariat—in this case, the WHO’s director general. In general, as the chain of delegation gets longer, global agencies are more likely to behave in ways that depart from the wishes of American citizens and their elected representatives in the White House and Congress.
As if delegation dilemmas weren’t tough enough, there is the related problem of pooling. Most UN agencies are supervised by an intergovernmental board of member states, which is supposed to provide guidance and oversight. This means that the United States is hardly the only national player seeking to call the shots: it is forced to “pool” its authority with other governments. Even when U.S. power is taken into account (as in the veto the United States enjoys in the UN Security Council or its heavier voting weight on the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund), the United States does not always prevail.
The challenge is even tougher in more encompassing, egalitarian bodies like the UN General Assembly or the Human Rights Council, which operate on a one-state-one-vote basis and often give free reign to irresponsible, anti-American nations like Cuba, Iran, and the like.
This doesn’t mean that UN reform is impossible. But it does suggest that any successful reform effort will require two things: First, the United States should insist on ramped-up oversight of UN agencies, including independent inspectors general, to compensate for problems of delegation. Second, it should work with like-minded countries on a common reform agenda that mitigates the downside of pooling sovereign authority with multiple member states.