What Matters is Not the Secretary General’s Word Choice

In a meeting with congressional leaders yesterday, the Secretary General, apparently used the term “deadbeat” in a discussion of America’s arrears to the United Nations. He later clarified by saying that although “the United States is the most generous contributor to the United Nations, it is also the largest debtor.” The House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ ranking member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen “took umbrage,” to the comment, saying, “We certainly contribute a whole lot of U.S. taxpayer dollars to that organization. We do not deserve such a phrase.” No doubt more partisan opportunism will follow. Here are the facts:

The United States is the UN’s single biggest donor and is assessed for dues that amount to 22% of the UN’s regular budget and 26% of the UN’s Peacekeeping budget. These percentages are not arbitrary. American delegates at the United Nations came up with those figures themselves and agree to them bi-annually. The problem is, the United States is perennially late in paying up. This, in part, is due to prior restrictions on UN funding imposed by the pre-2006 Congresses (which had Republican majorities.) Over time, this has led to the accumulation of significant American arrears to the United Nations to the point where the United States owes the organization about $1 billion.

That’s a whole lot of money. Even more so when you consider the UN’s regular budget (which excludes peacekeeping) is under $5 billion annually. These are funds that keep the lights on at UN headquarters, pays the salaries of translators, buys paper for the photocopy machines, etc. Most of America’s current arrears are toward UN Peacekeeping, which fields 17 missions around the world at a cost of about $8 billion. These missions are in places that the United States (by virtue of its position on the Security Council) decides are worthy of foreign intervention but is not willing to send American troops.

Now, $1 billion is not a trivial sum in US budget terms, but it is not exactly bank-breaking either. I personally think the United States congress can be doing a much better job of settling its debt with the United Nations. And frankly, considering what the United States gets in return — like the entire edifice of international cooperation post World War II — the UN is well worth the modest outlay. Congressman Bill Delahunt, who chairs the International Organizations subcommittee framed the issue nicely.

“Clearly they have an interest in the United States meeting its responsibility. In terms of peacekeeping, we’re about $670 million behind, and I think the argument is well-stated,” Delahunt said.

He noted America backs U.N. peacekeeping operations — and said it loses credibility if it doesn’t provide financial support. “And at the same time, we have to recognize that there are no American troops involved in the 17 different venues where there are peacekeeping operations,” Delahunt said.

The issue here is not the Secretary General’s word choice (which he regrets) but whether the United States will meet its obligations to the United Nations.

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe