Susan Rice Fires Back at [Congressional] Critics of UN Funding

Fresh from her Twitter town hall yesterday, UN Ambassador Susan Rice is delivering what was billed as “major speech” to the World Affairs Council of Oregon this evening.

Much of the speech is devoted to making what you might call the economic case for continued American engagement at the United Nations.  In her prepared remarks, Rice repeatedly stresses the economic and financial value that the UN offers to American taxpayers.  “Main Street America needs the United Nations, and so do you and I, especially in these tough economic times,” her prepared remarks say. “America can’t police every conflict, end every crisis, and shelter every refugee.”

The timing here is interesting. Since taking control of Congress last month, Republicans have demonstrated that they would like to cut back American funding for the UN.  One of the first hearings called by the new Republican Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee was dedicated to finding faults with the UN, with the underlying premise that the United States should de-fund certain parts of the UN.  And just this week, GOP leadership failed to pass a bill that would have withdrawn about $180 million from US payments to the UN–most of which is earmarked for much needed security upgrades to the UN building in New York.

So, while Congress has clearly set its sights on UN funding, the Obama administration’s top representative there is making the case for sustained American support for the organization.

Here are some excerpts from her speech tonight.

Main Street America needs the United Nations, and so do you and I, especially in these tough economic times. America can’t police every conflict, end every crisis, and shelter every refugee. The UN provides a real return on our tax dollars by bringing 192 countries together to share the cost of providing stability, vital aid, and hope in the world’s most broken places.  Because of the UN, the world doesn’t look to America to solve every problem alone. And the UN offers our troops in places like Afghanistan the international legitimacy and support that comes only from a Security Council mandate—which, in turn, is a force multiplier for our soldiers on the frontlines.


Some critics argue that we should withhold our UN dues to try to force certain reforms, or that we should just pay for those UN programs we like the most. This is short-sighted, and it plain doesn’t work. The United States tried this tactic during parts of the 1980s and 1990s, and the result was that we were more isolated and less potent.  That is because great and proud nations like ours are judged by their example. They are expected to keep their treaty commitments and pay their bills.  When we shirk our responsibilities, our influence wanes, and our standing is diminished.  Imagine going to a restaurant, getting a pretty good steak that could have been cooked a little better, and then skipping out on the check.  We just cannot lead from a position of strength when we’re awash in unpaid bills. We cannot depend on UN missions in Iraq and Afghanistan to help our troops return home safely and in success—and then decimate the budgets to fund them. And, if we treat our legally binding financial obligations like an a la carte menu, we invite others to do the same.  So, instead of paying just 22 percent of the nearly half a billion dollar annual cost of crucial UN support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’d be stuck with almost the whole tab.


Put simply, some of the criticisms of the UN are overdone, and some are right on the money. Despite the UN’s flaws, it’s indispensable to our security in this age of tighter bonds and tighter belts.  Let me provide a bit of perspective.  Out of every tax dollar you pay, 34 cents goes to Social Security and Medicare, 22 cents to national security and our amazing military, and a nickel to paying interest on the national debt.  Just one-tenth of a single penny goes to pay our UN dues.  And here’s what that buys you.

First, the UN helps prevent conflict and keep the peace around the globe. Since 1948, UN missions have saved lives, averted wars, and helped bring democracy to dozens of countries. More than 120,000 military, police, and civilian peacekeepers are now deployed in 14 operations around the world, from Haiti to Darfur to East Timor. Of those 120,000 peacekeepers, just 87 are Americans in uniform.  Every peacekeeping mission must be approved by the Security Council—where America has a final say over all decisions. In Iraq and Afghanistan, UN civilian missions are mediating local disputes, coordinating international aid, and helping advance democracy—all of which helps us bring our soldiers home responsibly. UN “peacebuilding” efforts help rebuild shattered societies and prevent yesterday’s hatreds from sparking tomorrow’s infernos. And UN mediation has helped broker the end of conflicts, from Cambodia to Guatemala.

Each UN peacekeeper costs a fraction of what it would cost to field a U.S. soldier to do the same job. So what’s better, for America to bear the entire burden for peacekeeping, or to share the burden for UN peacekeepers and pay a little more than a quarter of the cost? Personally, I like shopping in places that give me 75 percent off. This is burden-sharing for a bargain price—a lifesaving way to enable others to join us in preventing the conflict and chaos that can breed terrorism, pandemics, and other 21st-century threats. It’s a whole lot more responsible to work together and share responsibility than to let threats multiply and innocents suffer.

Second, the UN helps halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In 2009, President Obama presided over an historic Security Council summit that unanimously adopted robust, binding steps to reduce nuclear dangers.  The International Atomic Energy Agency, another key UN agency, has exposed Iran and North Korea’s nuclear violations.  And in the past two years, with U.S. leadership, the Security Council imposed the toughest sanctions that Iran and North Korea have ever faced. Strong Security Council resolutions have provided a foundation for others—from the European Union to Canada to South Korea—to tighten additional sanctions of their own. And they warn governments that would defy their international obligations that they will face isolation and consequences.

Third, UN humanitarian agencies go where nobody else will go to provide desperately needed food, shelter, and medicine.  When polio erupted in Central Asia last year, health ministries were caught off-guard—but the World Health Organization vaccinated 6 million kids in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, at a cost of less than $2 million. Where young people are at risk from deadly disease, UNICEF provides vaccines to fully 40 percent of the world’s children and supplies millions of insecticide-treated mosquito nets in 48 countries to prevent malaria. When 125,000 Iraqi refugees were huddled in the winter chill, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees provided cash grants to buy heating fuel and warm clothes. When floods devastated Pakistan last year, the World Food Program helped feed 6.9 million people. UN humanitarian assistance doesn’t just save lives. It also helps break the devastating downward spiral of chronic desperation that fuels violence and threatens international peace and security.

Fourth, the UN helps countries combat poverty by supporting achievement of the lifesaving Millennium Development Goals by the year 2015.  These goals include cutting extreme poverty in half and slashing the mortality rate of children under 5 by two-thirds by 2015. We’re all more secure when people around the world have a shot at the better future we insist on for our own kids. It should trouble us all that half of humanity lives on less than $2.50 a day.  Desperate poverty and the lack of basic services can fuel war and turmoil, creating ready havens for terrorists, criminals, and drug traffickers.  Fortunately, UN development projects afford millions the opportunity for a more dignified future.  By investing in our common humanity, we simultaneously strengthen our common security.

Fifth, the UN helps foster democracy by providing expertise and oversight to strengthen fragile state institutions and support elections worldwide.  Through the UN, when the people of South Sudan vote for their own freedom, the world can lend a vital hand. And when a strongman like Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast tries to steal an election, the world can blow the whistle.

Finally, the UN is a place where countries can come together to advance universal human rights and condemn the worst indignities. U.S. leadership has produced important results in the UN General Assembly, where we have condemned Iran, Burma, and North Korea’s human rights abuses by unprecedented margins, fought and won protection for gay rights, and created UN Women, a new agency dedicated to advancing women’s rights.  Those steps and many more help rally the world to support bedrock U.S. values: liberty, equality, and human dignity