The US is boasting about cuts to the UN budget – but will it come at a diplomatic cost?
‘No one in the White House seems to understand how to use the carrots of international diplomacy. It’s all sticks’
When the Trump administration in the US claimed credit this week for budget cuts at the United Nations, some critics of the organisation saw the prudent oversight of American taxpayers’ money, while others questioned Washington’s determination to be seen wielding a big stick.
And they warn that any savings could come at a diplomatic cost.
The US mission to the United Nations on Sunday hailed the operating budget of US$5.396 billion for 2018 and 2019, slightly less than the US$5.4 billion requested by Secretary General António Guterres. In a statement, the mission said the United States had negotiated US$285 million in cost savings as well as reducing “bloated” management and support functions.
“We will no longer let the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of or remain unchecked,” said the US Ambassador Nikki Haley, calling the cost-cutting historic and promising more to come.
Using a calculation based on the size of its economy, the United States pays 22 per cent of the UN’s operating budget, and 28 per cent of its peacekeeping operations. That makes it the largest contributor among member nations, followed by Japan, China, Germany, France and Britain.
The Trump administration has been highly critical of spending at the United Nations, but it is not alone in its concern about costs. Guterres, who took office shortly before US President Donald Trump, has vowed to bring efficiencies and reform to the bureaucracy.
“This is all so misleading,” tweeted Bathsheba Crocker, who under former US president Barack Obama headed the State Department office responsible for international organisations such as the UN “The US fights hard, together with other countries, every year to cut UN budget & regularly does. This is neither new nor a US ‘decision.’ ”
Negotiations over the UN budget were months in the making. A US official said US pressure helped bring about cuts to peacekeeping missions in Darfur and Haiti, freeing money to create a new special envoy for Myanmar to focus on returning the Rohingya people to their homes. It also involved a number of more esoteric reforms such as a flexible workplace initiative and pension fund oversight to increase accountability.
“These cuts are positive news for the US-UN relationship,” said Peter Yeo, head of advocacy for the United Nations Foundation, which supports UN causes, noting they were not imposed unilaterally but in negotiations with member states.
“The cuts demonstrate that the UN is capable of tightening its belt to reflect budget constraints in donor capitals, including the US” he added. “Ambassador Haley has formed a real partnership for reform with the Secretary General.”
The budget was finalised Sunday, days after Haley and Trump suggested that the United States would link US aid to countries that supported them in significant votes. That rankled several countries that did not side with the United States in a 128-to-9 vote condemning Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“This reflects a bias in the administration that we see elsewhere in its foreign policy,” said John Glaser, director of foreign policy at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Namely, that the way to elicit compliance from both adversaries and allies is to browbeat them, threaten them and economically coerce them. No one in the White House seems to understand how to use the carrots of international diplomacy. It’s all sticks.”
Glaser said the administration’s approach is isolating the United States from its allies even though US leadership at the UN can be helpful in pursuing American interests.
“They are throwing this UN budget cut out as red meat for Trump’s base, which loves the idea that Trump is a successful businessman imposing efficiency on wasteful government elites and anti-American international institutions,” he said.
When Haley first became ambassador, she said the United States would be looking for ways to make the organisation more efficient, and could cut US contributions to causes and agencies it considers hostile to US interests, such as those that have levelled a disproportionate share of criticism on Israel.
Mark Dubowitz, head of the conservative Foundation for Defence of Democracy, called that a legitimate use of US resources and power.
“It’s been quite successful” as a tactic, he said. “There were 66 countries that opposed, abstained or didn’t show up for the UN vote on Jerusalem. Those were historic numbers. It worked. It should not be a shock the US has decided to play power politics at the UN, like all other countries.”