Cutting UN Funding is Like Punishing Madison Square Garden When the Knicks Lose

There is word that Congress may threaten to withhold dues payments to the United Nations over the vote last month in the Security Council that condemned Israeli settlement expansion an obstacle to the two state solution. The USA abstained from that resolution, letting it pass 14-0-1. This subsequently set off a firestorm in Congress. Yesterday, the House passed a resolution condemning the vote. Apparently, however, some members of Congress want to extract blood and are moving to curtail US funding to the UN.

The problem is, the hurt they will inflict will affect not the 15 members of the Security Council who voted for the measure, but the millions of poor, vulnerable people who turn to the UN as their last source of food, water, medicine and protection. Furthermore, the UN’s election organizing, conflict mediation and nation-building work in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali and Somalia — where the US military is still active and works in partnership with the UN to fight terrorism — would be fundamentally undermined by such a budget cut.

This move–to paraphrase Richard Holbrooke —  is like punishing Madison Square Garden when the Knicks lose.

Each UN member state must pay annual dues to the UN to keep its vote. The scale of the dues assessments is based on the wealth of the country. The US is the largest single contributor to the UN budget, paying about 22%. This will come to about $610 million next year. (UN peacekeeping operations are assessed separately. The USA covers 28% of the Peacekeeping $7 billion budget. For comparison’s sake the entire budget of the Pentagon is around $600 billion). 

Though it’s a drop in the bucket for the American budget, a 22% across the board cut to UN operations would strangle the UN. Food rations could be cut. Peace building projects put on hold. Translators laid off. Childhood vaccine projects halted–and basically every other thing the UN does would be curtailed in some way or another. Also, the USA would eventually lose its vote in the General Assembly if it’s in arrears for too long ceding its ability to advance its interests, including defending Israel.

If the cuts are extended to peacekeeping operations, then the UN’s frontline work fighting terrorism in Mali, stemming genocide in South Sudan, or providing a buffer between Israel and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, would be fatally undermined.

The USA is the host country and the largest funder of the UN. This makes it by far the most powerful country in the world body. It is more able to sway votes in its favor than any other country. It is more able to advance its own national security priorities at the UN than any other country. It is more able to leverage the unique capabilities of the UN to serve its own prudential interests than any other country. It is not omnipotent sometimes votes do not go in the US’s favor. But the vast majority of times when the USA leads at the UN, the world follows.

Cutting funding to the UN over a single vote of the 15 member security — a vote in which the USA did not even oppose — is a kind of self-abnegation that would not only cede the mantle of global leadership, but allow global threats, diseases, starvation, abject poverty and conflict to fester unresolved. And it would be only a matter of time until the fallout from those ills reach America’s shores.