White House Budget Threatens Cuts To UN

The Trump administration released the proposed White House budget for the 2018 fiscal year this week, signalling cuts to the US’s contributions to the United Nations (UN). These proposed reductions in US contributions to the UN are part of a broader projected cut to the foreign affairs budget by just below 30%, including the State Department and foreign aid portfolios. Though not providing specific figures on the cuts, the budget follows sweeping announcements by administration officials that the US would cut funding to international organizations that “work against US foreign policy interests,” according to Reuters.

The financial contribution currently made by the US constitutes 22% of the UN’s total operational budget of $5.4 billion. While this figure is the largest contribution of all member states, it reflects the large size of the US economy and is agreed-upon by participating member states.

In addition, the US contributes an even larger portion of the UN’s peacekeeping budget, funding approximately 28% of the $7.8 billion total budget for the organization’s ‘blue helmet’ peacekeeping missions. If the proposed White House budget were to be approved as it stands, it is estimated that the US’ peacekeeping contribution would fall to 25% of the total UN fund for peacekeeping. This represents a drastic cut of $1.3 billion – more than half of the current US contributions to peacekeeping – as reported by Time.

The proposed budget released earlier this week needs to pass Congress in order to be enacted but it is unlikely that such drastic cuts to the foreign affairs portfolio will garner wide support on the Hill. The budget, however, provides a strong indication of the broader priorities of the Trump administration going forward and casts doubt on the value the administration places on the UN and its involvement in such international bodies.

Such proposed budgetary reallocations occur in light of one of the central themes seen during Trump’s presidential campaign, involving the proposed redirection of resources away from the international sphere, to be more inwardly focussed on addressing domestic issues. In line with this, spending on military, defence and the Homeland Security would be significantly bolstered under the proposed budget.

Prior to the release of this most recent budget, the Trump administration articulated in March that it would cease funding the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which plays a vital role in protecting female reproductive health globally. Given that the contributions of member states to many other important UN agencies such as the UN Development Program (UNDP), UN Women and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are voluntary, in the absence of specific figures it would be logical to assume that such agencies could bear the brunt of proposed US funding cuts as well. Such cuts would likely serve a harsh blow to international development and the work being undertaken by these UN bodies.

The budget announcement has been met with strong dissatisfaction from leaders within the UN, as epitomized in a firm statement by the spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Stephane Dujarric, who noted in a UN press briefing that the proposed budget, “would make it simply impossible for the UN to continue all of its essential work advancing peace, development, human rights, and humanitarian assistance around the world.”

Financially, withdrawing funding to the UN would hamper its plethora of programs and initiatives currently at play. In terms of peacekeeping for example – an area that the US budget has been clearer on in terms of future funding intentions – the UN currently oversees 16 peacekeeping missions worldwide, which involves around 100,000 blue-helmeted personnel. These missions play an important role in preserving peace and security in conflict-prone regions, allow for the protection of civilians and remove much of the burden of conflict-prevention from member states themselves.

Yet the US’ motions to financially draw back from involvement with the UN represent a more symbolic disregard of the organization itself – or at least suggests that it plays a role of waning importance –  and implies a lack of belief in what the UN can do to address multilateral issues that challenge the international system at present. While the operational nature of the UN is often criticized for being slow-moving and in need of reform, withdrawing financial support by a major world player like the US is not an effective way forward to resolve both the nature of the organization itself nor the plethora of challenges facing international system more generally.

Disapproval of the proposed US cuts to the UN has been shared by a number of former US ambassadors to the UN, who penned a letter to Congress in April highlighting the risks such cuts could pose to broader US interests and security. Former UN ambassador and Secretary of State Madeline Albright, said in a press conference regarding the letter to Congress, that now “is not the time for cuts,” and continues to say that “the US needs to be doing more, frankly, not less in the world.”

Picking-and-choosing to fund aspects of the UN that best suit US policy objectives may appear to be a logical approach for a nation that seems to be increasingly inwardly-focussed under its new administration. Yet this approach undercuts the very essence of what it means to be a globally-engaged and responsible member of the international system of states, let alone a world superpower. As noted in a recent report by the Brookings Institution, such an approach to international relations and diplomacy sets a dangerous precedent for other nations – especially those with fewer resources to contribute, compared to those the US enjoys, by demonstrating that though the burden of international security must be shared, states can chose when to bear the brunt of said burden. This approach is an ineffective way to combat urgent international issues as it threatens to undermine the pursuit of collective action. In a period marked by global challenges from climate change, increasingly widespread famine and starvation, a refugee crisis and a number of violent intra-state conflicts, multilateral action is perhaps the greatest tool to achieving global peace, development and security.

The UN, irrespective of the needs for reform, is essentially the closest thing to a global government in existence and is thus perhaps the greatest existing mechanism through which collective action can be facilitated. The US should embrace its role as a global leader and rather than withdrawing support from the UN, as its budgetary visions would imply, should use its position and influence and push the organization for more efficiency, both fiscally and operationally.