Ambassador Haley speaks at the UN Security Council Stakeout following a UN Security Council Briefing on the Middle East, February 16, 2017

The Trump Administrations Wants to Save Money at the UN. But At What Cost?

At the Security Council yesterday, Nikki Haley announced that the United States would pay no more than 25% of the cost of UN Peacekeeping. Currently, the United States is assessed 28.4% of the cost of UN Peacekeeping. This is a rate that is negotiated every three years between UN member states, and a rate to which the United States under President Obama had agreed.

Nikki Haley wants the United States to pay less into the UN system. This will not end up saving the United States much money, but it may cede influence at the United Nations to America’s rivals.

This year, the rate at which countries are assessed up for negotiation once again and Haley has clearly stated that the United States wants a 3.4% reduction in US dues. In any case, that is what UN Peacekeeping is going to get this year because the omnibus budget recently passed in Congress appropriates $1.6 billion for UN Peacekeeping, which is about 25% of the total peacekeeping budget of $7.3 billion. That means the United States will go into arrears because the United States is billed at 28.4% this year, but only paying 25%.

From a budgetary perspective, this squabbling over percentage points makes very little sense.

UN Peacekeeping deploys over 110,000 troops to 15 global hotspots. Virtually no American troops serve in UN Peacekeeping missions. Rather, the boots on the ground come primarily from the developing world. Peacekeeping also has a track record of success, helping countries manage the transition from conflict to peace building. The most recent mission to successfully conclude was in Liberia, which worked itself out of a job. To be sure, peacekeeping has its challenges. But it is still an indispensable tool of global security.

It is also really cheap — at least from a US budgetary perspective. The total cost of UN Peacekeeping, $7.3 billion, is about 1% of the total budget of the Department of Defense. The total cost of US contributions to UN Peacekeeping, $1.6 billion, is 0.2% of the budget of the Department of Defense. In other words, US Contributions to UN Peacekeeping do not make a huge dent in the federal budget and UN Peacekeeping is not a place where you are going to find great opportunities for overall budget cuts.

What’s more is that the deployment of UN Peacekeeping troops to places like Lebanon and Mali comes a huge bargain to the United States. Just last month, the Government Accountability Office released a report demonstrating that UN Peacekeeping is eight times less costly to the US treasury than a comparable deployment of US troops.  If there is a global hotspot that the United States (by virtue of its position on the Security Council) deems to require foreign troops on the ground, UN Peacekeeping is a cost-effective way of stabilizing a conflict without putting US boots on the ground in a faraway land.

From a political standpoint, insisting on these budget cuts has opened the door to American rivals at the UN.

China has become the second largest contributor to UN Peacekeeping, paying about 10% of its cost. This was up from 6% just three years ago.  Since the Trump administration came to office last year emphasizing budget cuts and de-emphasizing human rights, China sensed an opening. Last year, it responded to Haley’s call for a trimming of the UN Peacekeeping budget by proposing to eliminate certain human rights officer positions on UN Peacekeeping missions.

Here is how Colum Lynch describes the trend

As China’s share of the U.N. budget has ballooned in recent years, its diplomats have sought steeper cuts in U.N. spending. Their efforts have disproportionately targeted posts with a mandate to protect human rights from U.N. headquarters to the field, where they have sought to eliminate human rights posts in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

At the same time, China has become more assertive in curtailing the ability of independent human rights advocates to have their voices heard at the U.N. Chinese diplomats have begun to insist, for instance, that groups seeking to be accredited to speak at U.N. functions publicly recognize Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

China has also set its sights on an effort by the UN Secretariat to ensure that human rights issues feature more prominently across the UN system. This iniaitiave, called Human Rights Up Front, was established by Ban Ki Moon in the wake of criticism that the UN secretariat failed to adequately emphasize human rights concerns in the brutal final days of the Sri Lanka civil war in 2009. China successfully used its clout in the UN’s budget committee to eliminate this office in December. The US, which itself has emphasized budget cuts, did not have the clout to stop this effort.

In the end, this focus on budget cuts does have broader political implications that run counter to traditional American interests at the United Nations. Yes, the US will save some money that amounts to a tiny fraction of the US federal budget.  But at what cost?