The United States should seek to preserve its influence in the United Nations.
The Barack Obama administration did great damage by abstaining from the United Nations Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements. The anger in Washington across much of the political spectrum is palpable and understandable. There is an obvious desire to “strike out,” protect Israel, and undo the resolution. As Congress contemplates defunding the U.N., members need to determine if such a step will undo the resolution. Taking out the buzz saw to slash all U.N. funding is a mistake. Rather, the United States should take a scalpel to its relationship with the U.N. in order to preserve influence over the world body. To be sure, some U.N. specialized agencies should be closed, but largely for reasons other than this recent vote.
The U.N. has a terrible reputation in Washington. Some criticisms stand: The U.N. is overly bureaucratic, more driven by process than results, cumbersome, slow to acknowledge reality, and often driven more by the desires of international civil servants than by bill-paying governments. There is also a sense that the U.N. is vaguely anti-American. These are legitimate concerns.
This vote and the subsequent reaction come at a terrible moment for the United States, because there are a series of critical decisions that need to be made by the incoming Donald Trump administration in the next six weeks, and over the next year. There is also a practical consideration: Zeroing out certain U.N. agencies would mean more global migration or a world less prepared for the next pandemic.
The United States writes dozens of checks to the U.N. and U.N. specialized agencies each year. Most importantly, we write a $600 million check each year for the U.N. Regular Budget. This sum pays for about 20 percent of the U.N. bureaucracy. Would the U.N. collapse or would U.N. bureaucrats be thrown out on the street in New York if we zeroed that out? Probably not, and it is likely that other governments would pick up the slack. Would eliminating our funding to the U.N. influence the votes of the other 14 member states that voted against Israel? Would we get our calls returned and would our influence over other U.N.-related issues that we care about diminish? It is very possibly we would not get our calls returned and that our influence would lessen.
There is another problem that the new administration will need to consider: the changing of the guard in the office of the secretary-general. We should operate as if newly elected Secretary-General António Guterres is someone with whom America will be able to work. He has said some good things about pursuing reforms of the U.N. system around transparency and accountability. The new secretary-general will need America’s help to do that. If we defund the U.N., we are not going to be able to help him very much.
New secretary-generals, like U.S. presidents, make a series of appointments. These under secretary-generals run the U.N. system. If the United States cuts funding, then we take the United States out of some critical discussions on U.N. personnel. The Ronald Reagan administration adage that “personnel is policy” also matters in the U.N. context. For example, the West (currently the French) usually holds the under secretary-general for peacekeeping position. This is one of the most important U.N. jobs and it is one we should care about. China and Russia are making a big play for it. Holding everything else constant, does the United States want a Chinese general or a French general running the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations? I know which one I would choose.
In addition to the immediate personnel concerns in New York, there is a related problem with a series of jobs coming open in the next year. The United States will want a say in determining who holds them. There is a global refugee crisis. There are several U.N. specialized agencies that provide burden sharing, so that America does not have to, and if these agencies are weakened, the United States and a coalition of willing countries are not going to want to take on the messes in their place. Those agencies are: the World Food Program, the High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Children’s Fund (UNICEF). We should not cut our funding to these agencies under any circumstances. We should, in fact, consider increasing funding to these agencies given the gravity of the refugee crisis.
Historically, an American has filled the roles of head of the World Food Program and of UNICEF; both of these positions will open in the next thee months to a year. If we go too far in defunding the U.N., it will negatively impact our ability to get our people into these posts. It would be a mistake to lose these slots in the U.N. system over a specific vote. In theory, the current head of the World Food Program, an Obama appointee, should leave in the Spring. There are rumors she wants to remain by convincing board members to renew her at a moment of distraction in Washington. This has happened before. The current head of UNICEF is slated to retire in a little over a year. Although less urgent, finding a suitable American replacement is critical, because UNICEF is a front line agency dealing with pandemics, diseases such as Polio, and the global refugee crisis.
It may feel gratifying to defund the U.N. in retaliation for the Security Council vote. Some cuts and eliminations are probably inevitable given this vote. But Congress and the new administration should not underestimate the value of U.S. influence in the U.N. If we are not careful, some (but not all) of the cuts will actually hurt U.S. interests, and there are some real personnel issues connected to core U.S. interests. Cutting U.N. funding takes us out of those conversations at the wrong time.
We should find other, more direct, more effective ways to mitigate this wrongheaded Security Council vote’s damage to Israel. Some options could include a mix of economic sanctions to entities or countries that boycott Israel, rethinking the assistance we give to the Palestinians, and I am sure there are others. It is important to remember that the perpetrator of this Security Council resolution against Israel was not the U.N., but its member states, and sadly, the United States via the Obama administration. There will certainly be other, better options than defunding the U.N. to protect Israel and to undo this damage.