Cutting the U.N. Budget Is (Still) a Bad Idea

Pulling Away from the Institution Would Hurt Us at Home and Abroad

Lawmakers pondering U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations need to realize how critical the multilateral institution is to U.S. policy goals, write Sarah Margon and Martin Wolberg-Stok.

Members of the U.N. Security Council take their seats at the  opening of a meeting at U.N. headquarters on July 9, 2003. The fiscal year State Department and Foreign Operations appropriations bill headed to the Senate floor this week is sure to stir debate over U.S. funding for the United Nations. (AP/Gregory Bull)
Members of the U.N. Security Council take their seats at the opening of a meeting at U.N. headquarters on July 9, 2003. The fiscal year State Department and Foreign Operations appropriations bill headed to the Senate floor this week is sure to stir debate over U.S. funding for the United Nations. (AP/Gregory Bull)

As the Palestinians continue their campaign for full-fledged membership at the United Nations, the U.S.-U.N. relationship is once again making media headlines due to a longstanding law that requires the United States to cease funding U.N. agencies that recognize Palestine as a full member. And while the Palestinian bid appears to be deadlocked, there is an equally worrisome anti-U.N. assault taking place in Washington, D.C., that has lawmakers on both sides of the aisle trying to use the deficit problem to undercut a cornerstone of U.S. international engagement.

These lawmakers need to know that withdrawing from the United Nations is misguided and shortsighted. And it’s not what Americans want to see.

This week the fiscal year 2012 State Department and Foreign Operations appropriations bill heads to the Senate floor. It is all but guaranteed that there will be attempts to reduce U.S. contributions to the United Nations. These efforts are expected to go far beyond the legislative requirement that prohibits U.S. funds from going to any U.N. agency that grants membership to Palestine, which UNESCO, the United Nations’ social and cultural agency, did last month.

The Palestinian bid for membership at the United Nations comes at an already woefully difficult time for foreign assistance in Washington, D.C. The United Nations and other international affairs accounts are particularly vulnerable to a range of drastic cuts. The State Department’s budget, for example, is already worryingly underfunded, but that hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from trying to cut funding for this vital institution under the guise of “national security.”

Some members, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), have already signaled their intention to introduce amendments that would reduce our contribution to U.N. peacekeeping and other U.N. entities that remain critical to our foreign policy agenda. The super committee’s looming deadline of November 23 means we may see even stronger calls for cuts in the very near future.

Grasping at straws in a tough fiscal environment, many lawmakers have come to believe that cutting funds to multilateral organizations will help America address its deficit not only because they think the money is unwisely spent but because they also think such institutions undermine our sovereignty. The United Nations is admittedly not a perfect organization but without the United States working hard to help bring about greater reform, it’s likely to be even less effective.

Americans want their country to remain a part of the United Nations. A 2010 Better World Campaign poll showed that the public strongly supports the institution and recognizes the vital role it plays with conflicts, peacekeeping, and humanitarian relief from Afghanistan to Liberia.

Equally important is the role the United Nations plays as a forum for debate and discussion on matters that affect all of us—whether nuclear proliferation, intellectual property rights, global health, or international peacekeeping requirements.

Consider, for instance, the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, which just this week released a new report on Iran’s nuclear program.

Speaking at the Atlantic Council this September, Paul Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the CIA and now a professor at Georgetown University, highlighted the IAEA’s vital role in providing policymakers with information about Iran’s nuclear program:

[T]he single best source of information about programs of this sort – this was true of Iraq, it’s true of Iran – is an international inspections regime. … so my concluding observation would be, if we want to try to increase our collective confidence about what we can say about this particular program in Iran, the best way to do that would be to strive for a more inclusive and more extensive intentional inspections regime.

In response to the latest IAEA report, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for stricter measures against Iran, including strengthening the current set of sanctions or even sanctioning Iran’s central bank.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) said, “[The report is] of enormous concern to everybody and a lot of conversations are taking place right now about how to respond.” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) noted that “the first thing we should do is talk to the Russians and the Chinese and tell them to get with it and pass the increased sanctions through the U.N.”

Indeed, while unilateral sanctions can contribute to the overall pressure, they are far more effective when part of a multilateral U.N.-sponsored sanctions regime.

Tim Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation, aptly points out that:

Should the United States stop paying membership dues to the IAEA–which it could be forced to do under current legislation if Palestine is admitted as a member — the United States would give up our vote on the executive board. It would literally lose a seat at the table during the next nuclear crisis.

For obvious reasons, withdrawing from the IAEA—either automatically if Palestine becomes a member or willfully if we cut our contributions to the organization—would be a grave mistake and severely hinder our ability to counter Iran.

But aside from the IAEA, there are a number of other U.N. bodies that are equally as important to U.S. interests.

The World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, adjudicated dozens of cases brought forth by U.S. companies in recent years, and our participation in the organization is vital to maintaining our economic competitiveness abroad.

Among its many important roles, the World Health Organization coordinates with U.S. entities including the Centers for Disease Control to keep infectious diseases from reaching America. It also helps bring vaccines to children around the world who wouldn’t otherwise have such access.

Importantly, the United Nations is a critical player when it comes to conflict prevention and reconstruction missions. It does these missions at a fraction of what it would cost if the United States were to go at it alone—and often with greater legitimacy than if it were U.S. troops. A 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office showed, for instance, funding the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti was eight times less expensive than it would have been to send a comparable U.S. force.

Further, if the United States were to severely reduce its contributions to the United Nations or withdraw completely, other countries would undoubtedly step in to fill that leadership void. They would potentially try to move the United Nations away from some of our top foreign policy objectives.

As for the institution’s flaws, the Center for American Progress has argued in the past that “robust U.S. engagement [in the United Nations] is actually the best way to reform the institution.” From a position of strength, and by regular engagement, the United States can help address administrative and personnel weaknesses while also encouraging specific steps to enhance the organization’s transparency and accountability.

To take such reactionary measures as turning our backs on the United Nations because it doesn’t always vote in alignment with U.S. interests would be in the same spirit as one political party deciding to stop participating in Congress because it can’t win every fight.

And U.S. foreign policy challenges will not suddenly diminish because we are in an era of increased fiscal constraints. Inevitably, in the coming years we will continue to face complex and interconnected challenges that are of mutual interest to many of our allies. Continuing to cement our leadership at the United Nations will enable us to work closely with a range of friends and allies around the globe. It will help American foreign assistance go further—and reach more people—than if we were on our own.

Cutting resources to what has proven to be a cost-effective, multilateral way to further U.S. foreign policy objectives makes no sense. With both the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development being asked to “do more with less,” lawmakers should seek to foster greater multilateral commitments and look for ways we can make smart investments that advance our foreign policy objectives in an era of increased austerity.

Sarah Margon is the Associate Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Martin Wolberg-Stok is a graduate intern with the same program.

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