Joe Biden (right), Vice President of the United States of America, opens the Security Council’s high-level meeting on Iraq. Seated beside him is Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Joe Biden and the United Nations

Joe Biden has a long history with the United Nations. As Vice-President from 2009 to 2017, he was a fixture at the UN General Assembly, accompanying President Obama to New York for the flurry of high-level summits and bi-lateral meetings at UN Headquarters in New York. In the later years of the Obama administration, Biden showed a particular focus on UN Peacekeeping. This includes leading a summit in 2014 that brought world leaders together to strengthen and enhance their commitments to more effective UN Peacekeeping.

But Biden’s most important imprint on the United Nations so far has come from his time in the United States Senate. Biden served as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a decade, from 1997 to 2007. A law that bears his name offers key insight into how President Biden may structure America’s relationship with the United Nations.

The “Helms-Biden” Law has guided America’s relationship with the United Nations for over two decades

The “Helms-Biden Law” was the result of a crisis imposed by Republicans in Congress who refused to pay American dues payments to the United Nations.

The United Nations funds its operations from dues payments from member states, and each member state is obliged to pay at a rate that countries negotiate amongst themselves. The amount is roughly aligned with the size of their economies.

In the late 1990s, Republicans refused to appropriate America’s dues payments to the United Nations, insisting on certain reforms to the UN and also that the US proportion of the UN budget be reduced. Leading the charge was the arch-conservative (and very racist) senator form North Carolina, Jesse Helms. Soon, the United States was accumulating significant arrears — nearly one billion dollars.

Then-US Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke secured an agreement with other UN member states to slightly reduce America’s dues payments going forward while Joe Biden leaned on Helms to release the billion dollars of back dues.  It worked. The “Helms-Biden” law was passed unanimously in the US Senate and America’s arrears were paid.  The expectation was that the United States would not become a deadbeat at the UN once again.

But there was one problem, particularly for UN Peacekeeping. As part of the Helms-Biden deal, Holbrook secured an agreement at the UN that the US would pay about 27% of the cost of UN Peacekeeping. But in the mid-1990s, Congress passed a law imposing an artificial “cap” on US payments to UN Peacekeeping, stipulating that the United States could not pay more than 25% of the cost of UN Peacekeeping. For many years (as part of the Helms-Biden law) Congress would work with the State Department to lift that cap; but in some years — particularly in years when Republicans controlled Congress —  the 25% cap was enforced. The roughly 2% difference between what the United States was billed and what it paid resulted in the accumulation of arrears once again.

The Time Joe Biden Wrote a Guest Post for UN Dispatch

Thus was the situation in July 2006, when then-Senator Joe Biden wrote a guest blog post on UN Dispatch.  Here it is in full.

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.

Once again the United States is accumulating significant arrears to UN Peacekeeping

Since the Trump administration came to office in 2017, Congress has declined to lift this 25% cap so the amount of US arrears have increased year-over year.  As of November 2, 2020, the United States is about $900 million in arrears to UN Peacekeeping, which is fielding about 80,000 blue helmets across 13 missions around the world.

These arrears are having a deleterious impact on the ability of the UN Peacekeepers to carryout their missions in several hotspots around the world. The UN Secretary General has warned of a deepening liquidity crisis in some UN Peacekeeping missions, meaning UN peacekeeping missions are cash strapped.

Persistent cash-flow problems stemming from the non-payment or late payment of dues from key UN member states (chief among them, the United States) has been a defining challenge for the United Nations during the past few years.  When Joe Biden is sworn in there is a decent chance that these arrears will be paid and future payments will be made on time and in full. This will provide an immediate boost to the UN’s work around the world and significantly enhance America’s relationship with the United Nations, which has declined during the Trump years.

To be sure, most presidents do not get into granular detail about UN budgetary processes. But Biden may be different —  the guiding legislation, after all, bears his name.