The United States averted another government shutdown last week when Congress passed a budget that was swiftly signed into law by President Trump. The headlines out of this budget battle were dominated by Trump’s demand for a boarder wall. But the budget also has big implications for US foreign policy in general — and for the United Nations in particular.
The United States is the single largest funder of the United Nations, so decisions in Congress have outsized influence over how the United Nations and its many agencies operate.
Here is what you need to know about how the budget deal between President Trump and Congress will impact the United Nations.
UN Peacekeeping is underfunded.
The budget deal includes$1.551 billion for the “Contributions to International Peacekeeping Activities” account. This is the budget line that funds most of America’s contributions to United Nations peacekeeping operations, including key missions in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon and more.
UN Peacekeeping is funded through contributions from member states of the UN. The exact amount each country is called upon to contribute is based upon a formula agreed to by member states every few years. The United States is the single largest funder of UN peacekeeping operations, and is on the hook for 27.9% of the total UN peacekeeping budget.
The $1.551 billion appropriated by Congress falls short of this rate by nearly 3%. At issue is an arbitrary “cap” of 25% that Congress imposes on US dues to UN peacekeeping, despite the fact that at the UN, the US had agreed to pay 27.9%. The gap between what is assessed and what is paid by the United States results in an underfunding of UN peacekeeping operations and the accumulation of arrears by the United States, now to the tune of $750 million.
This underfunding of UN peacekeeping is contributing to a major cash crisis for UN Peacekeeping operations. Last month, the UN Secretary General sent a letter to every UN ambassador, warning them that a $2 billion shortfall means the UN only has a few months of cash on hand to sustain its peacekeeping operations. This budget passed by congress only adds to the these uncertainties facing UN Peacekeeping.
The UN regular budget is properly funded
The “Contributions to International Organizations” account funds the regular budget of the United Nations and also the core budgets of some UN agencies, like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization. The Congressional deal includes over $1.3 billion for this account, which represents a funding level commensurate with the rates the United States is assessed as a dues paying member of the UN. In other words, it is the proper funding level.
The caveat here is that the Trump administration may still try to withhold, or slow walk, the disbursement of these funds in an attempt to punish the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Last year, the White House sought to withhold $27 million in payments to the UN, which it calculated was roughly the amount that the UN would spend to fund the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and also the UN Human Rights Council. Both entities have been political targets of the Trump administration, hence the budgetary animus. The budget deal contains some language directing the Trump administration to consult with congress before such a withholding, but it is unclear whether or not that language would actually prohibit the administration for withholding the disbursement of those funds.
The Budget Deal Thwarts the Trump Administration’s Attempt to Kill UNICEF
In its budget request last year, the White House sought to completely eliminate an account known as “International Organizations and Programs.” This is the vehicle through which the United States makes contributions to a number of health, development and humanitarian entities, including the UN Environment Program, UN Women and the UN Development Program.
UNICEF is also funded through this account, meaning that the Trump administration sought to eliminate funding for the world’s largest children’s welfare organization.
Congress did not agree to these gratuitous cuts, and maintained a funding level for this account consistent with previous budgets, to the tune of $340 million. The budget also includes consistent funding levels for global health programs like the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Additionally, the budget includes consistent levels of funding for refugee related programs, including the UN Refugee Agency and the UN Relief and Works Agency, which supports Palestinian refugees. (Alas, it is likely that the administration will nonetheless withhold the disbursement for UNRWA for political reasons.)
In sum, with the exception of UN Peacekeeping, American commitments to the United Nations remained consistent with America’s traditional role as the indispensable member state of the UN.