Biden and the United Nations


Let me throw my support behind Ezra Klein’s analysis that “Elevating Biden suggests that the Obama campaign has decided to have an argument…an argument about which set of ideas is better for the future of the country. And in Biden, they’ve engaged at the point of greatest vulnerability and opportunity for Democrats: National security.”

So what would a Biden national security argument look like? I think it’s fair to call Biden a committed multilateralist; his actions and words over his long Senate career shows strong (but not uncritical) support for the United Nations, international law and diplomacy. I also think it’s fair to say that his commitment to working with our allies and through international institutions is not born from ideology, but pragmatism. His words and deeds suggest that he supports the United Nations not only for its own sake, but because it is in American self-interest to do so.

Consider the lines of the following argument, published on UN Dispatch last year, in support of legislation he sponsored on the somewhat arcane subject of American arrears to the United Nations.

Ten years ago, I stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate to introduce a bill, which eventually became known as the “Helms-Biden law”, to authorize the payment of nearly $1 billion in back dues to the United Nations. Securing its passage was a hard-fought, but worthwhile, initiative.

Unfortunately, we are again in arrears to the UN. For over a year, we have not been paying our full contribution for its peacekeeping operations — missions in places like Lebanon, Sudan, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kosovo — that advance our national interests while sharing the human, political and financial costs of peacekeeping with other nations.

The Peacekeeping arrears — $117 million to date — are due to an outdated cap which prohibits the U.S. from paying more than 25 per cent of the United Nations’ peacekeeping budget. However, the UN is billing us at just under 27 percent (a reduction from 31 percent, negotiated by U.S. Ambassador Holbrooke in 2000, under the terms of my legislation). If we continue to let the arrears stand, these critical missions could suffer, the nations who have been contributing their troops as peacekeepers might begin to balk at future requests, and our standing to press for further UN reform will be diminished. This is why I introduced a bill to correct the cap problem and pay our arrears, S. 392, which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved on June 27.

Ironically, while our arrears are rising, the importance of UN peacekeeping is rising too. If the UN didn’t conduct these missions, we might have to — at a much higher financial cost and burden on our over-stretched military. Our yearly dues to UN peacekeeping, which support missions in 18 conflict zones, are just over $1 billion — less than the cost of a week in Iraq, and less than 0.5 percent of our entire Defense budget.

The UN ‘blue helmets’ are literally on the front lines in conflicts that are the worst of the worst: protecting civilians, monitoring cease-fires, clearing mine fields, and disarming combatants. We vote time and again in the UN Security Council, and rightfully so, to support these critical missions — and our financial support should be in harmony with our policy. We can not, in good conscience, continue to shortchange these operations.

Supporting increased funding for United Nations peacekeeping is a pretty thankless task. It tends to be a subject about which the political right can get pretty riled, while the middle and the left generally do not take notice. But Biden is not passive about his support of the United Nations. He embraces it. The photo above, for example, is one of only five photos in the Senator’s press kit.

I, for one, am greatly looking forward to the rest of this campaign. With Joe Biden on one of the tickets, we can expect a passionate and articulate defense of engagement and international cooperation before a very large audience. Here’s hoping that the GOP will take a similar leap toward international engagement.