Poor Investments: Is the U.S. Getting Their Money’s Worth of the U.N.?

In the days of tax reform and the talk of investing in the U.S. economy, another long term entanglement of the United States is looking less fruitful.  President Trump has stated that he intends to make major cuts in the U.S. United Nations budget.  This, like much of everything that he does, garnered the ire of his opponents.  They leveled platitudes about the importance of the world body and the good it does against the proposal, claiming that the cuts would lessen the United States’ international reputation and could impede its personal diplomatic efforts.  The administration pushed back by pointing at the U.N.’s cost overruns, relative inefficiency, and lack of return on investment.  The Trump administrations budget has not been fully released, established, or debated, but the qualms of the administration and of their opponents are both plainly visible.

The United Nations was founded by the victors of WWII in an effort to quell any spark of struggle that could ignite another global conflict.  When it was founded in 1945, it consisted of 51 members, but its numbers quickly grew throughout the 60’s as the structures of colonization disintegrated.  The organization had some early success in the establishment of the State of Israel (1948) and in the success of the Korean War (1950), but the deepening of the Cold War stifled their influence.  The problem was with the inherent structure of the U.N. in that the body that makes peacekeeping decisions is the Security Council and that council consistently grinds to a halt.

There are 15 members in the U.N. Security Council; 10 that are voted in for two-year terms by the General Assembly to represent different regions and 5 that are permanent members.  The permanent members are those victors of WWII:  The U.K., The U.S., Russia, formerly the U.S.S.R., China, and France.  These permanent members were and are the reason for the council’s inefficiency.  In the Security Council, a permanent member has veto power over any resolution brought before the Council, meaning that a single permanent member could defeat any resolution that it disliked regardless of the number of ‘yes’ votes received.  During the Cold War, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were at irreconcilable odds and, as permanent members, each of them had veto power to defeat any proposal that would benefit the other.  This relegated the U.N. to smaller tasks as the two superpowers settled most things bilaterally, e.g. the Cuban Missile Crisis, and as the numbers of the General Assembly swelled with impoverished and undeveloped nations in the 60’s, their mission became less focused on their original goal of peacekeeping and more focused on economic and social development.

With the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the end of the Cold War, the U.N. donned a renewed focus on their primary peacekeeping objective and the Security Council broke out of its perpetual deadlock.  The next decade of action was a mixed bag of results, with both great victories and terrible defeats.  Peacekeeping missions oversaw post-Apartheid elections in South Africa and the first elections following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, but they also failed in Bosnia, Somalia, and in the prevention of the tragedy in Rawanda.  The discussion of whether these conflicting results balance out or whether one outweighs the other is a personal and nonconstructive, but knowing the cost of the results is important to both sides.

The amount of money given to the world body by the United States is impossible to fully calculate.  Of the overall regular budget, the U.S. contributes the maximum amount allowed by U.N. regulations, 22%, which is more than the combined contributions of 178 of the 193 members.  The next closest country in this section is Japan who contributes 9.7%, followed by China at 7.9% and Germany at 6.4%.  After that, there is no country above 5%.  The Peacekeeping budget is an entirely separate area.  The U.S. pays 28.7% of that budget which is almost three times the second highest contributor, China at 10.3%.  These two budget areas combine for a total of nearly 3 billion dollars in cost for the U.S.; however, that is not our country’s total contribution.  These two areas comprise the “assessed contributions” of the U.S., which are the taxes placed on the U.S. in proportion to their national income, but beyond that the U.S. makes “voluntary contributions,” which are undisclosed amounts of money given to various organizations within the U.N. bureaucracy.  This was not always the case.  Until 2010, the State department was required to report all the money that went to the U.N.  That year, the U.S. payed 2.7 billion in assessed contributions, but 7.7 billion in total, meaning that the U.S. voluntarily payed 5 billion extra dollars to the U.N.  Since then, the government has had no requirement to report what money is flowing into what part of the U.N., and considering the former administration’s favorable position on the U.N., it would be fair to assume that the voluntary contributions grew substantially.  These undisclosed contributions could explain why the budget of the State Department in the last year of the mandatory reports, 2010, was $16.4 billion and in the last year of the Obama Administration, 2016, grew by over 3x to $50.3 billion.  If the organization had an entirely stellar record of action, this would be a justifiable cost, but, as briefly stated above, that is far from the case.  In fact, in recent years, the problems appear to be growing more frequent and more troubling.

On January 12, 2010, a massive magnitude-7 earthquake decimated Haiti, striking just west of the capital of Port-au-Prince.  The human and structural destruction were immense and the U.N. rightly sent aid to the already needy region.  They sent their Peacekeepers and aid workers and were doing a good job, but a new threat was discovered among the people.  A severe cholera outbreak, a disease absent from the island since the 1960’s, appeared in the displaced populous and spread quickly, infecting over 200,000 within the first year.  The source of the disease was not immediately apparent, but it was soon found that the Artibonite River was infected.  The investigation was focused and rumors soon spread that a U.N. camp of Nepalese Peacekeepers on a tributary of that river was not following proper protocol for wastewater disposal.  The U.N. immediately pushed back against the claims and said that they had complete confidence in the protocols of the camp.  The next day, an AP reporter visited the camp and witnessed major discrepancies between the statement and reality.  There were water tests being taken, active maintenance on waste pipes, and obvious problems.  The U.N. still denied culpability.  Later in the year, the specific strain of cholera was identified and its origin was found to be from South Asia, yet the U.N. did not claim responsibility.  It was not until December of 2016, after a sluggish response to the outbreak that helped it spread, after Hurricane Matthew caused a resurgence of the disease in October 2016, and after hundreds of thousands of infections and over 10,000 deaths, that the U.N. issued a tepid apology for not doing enough to stop the spread of the disease.  The apology was carefully prepared by lawyers to ensure that the organization could not be held accountable due to their fear of class action lawsuits, which they had already seen and defeated with a diplomatic immunity defense.

The Syrian gas attack of April 4th, covered extensively here, demonstrates another symptom of the increasing issues of the U.N.  Relations between the U.S. and Russia have been deteriorating for years and may have come to a point as low as those Cold War stalemates.  As a result, the Security Council has again become unable to pass resolutions as straightforward as condemning those gas attacks.  The proposal applied no blame to any party and simply labeled the action as unacceptable, but the Russians vetoed the resolution.  In recent years, they would have been joined by the Chinese, but in a possible diplomatic win for the Trump Administration, they abstained.  The disagreement was not about a serious issue, even if the underlying atrocity was, but points to the larger problems that loom for the organization moving forward.

Beyond the Security Council, the U.N. has also shown their other functions to be increasingly ineffective.  For example, the U.N. Economic and Social Council, a council of 54 members elected by the General Assembly for staggered three year terms, recently elected Saudi Arabia to their Commission on the Status of Women.  On its face, this may not seem unusual, seeing as the CSW has 45 members, 11 from Asia alone, serving overlapping 4-year terms, but when comparing the goal of the Commission, which is “promoting women’s rights in political, economic, social, and educational fields,” to Saudi Arabia’s historical and continuing track record on women’s rights, the two seem in conflict.  Saudi Arabia is a Middle Eastern kingdom with Islam as its state religion.  Their system of law has strict interpretations of sharia law at its foundation with royal decrees and highly variant tribal laws offering supplementary code.  Beyond that, the judges of the country are not held by judicial precedent, a function of sharia law, and often render contradictory opinions, sometimes even differing with their own previous decisions.  This all amounts to women being restrained by oppressive laws.  Everywhere they travel outside the home, they are required to have a male chaperone and they are required to have male approval for a variety of everyday things, such as some medical procedures, their pursuit of education or employment, and even opening a bank account.  How this ongoing reality can qualify a country for a seat of the CSW is unknown.

The problems plaguing the U.N. from the U.S.’s perspective continue on in various degrees of severity.  After the success of founding the state of Israel, the body has done little to support it, and has become increasingly hostile to it in recent years, labeling Zionism racist and Israeli settlements illegal.  A random U.N. bureaucrat with the title of “Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” which probably sounds better in French, sent a letter to the U.S. government in February telling it that a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, could violate international law; an action that seems to be an attempt to micromanage a 1st world national government.  In spite of all of these past and continuing issues, the U.N. remains a great place of opportunity.  If the organization was restructured or their rules refined, the U.S.’s contribution could be more fruitful and the U.N. more useful; however, the odds of major changes to the massive U.N. bureaucracy seem slim to none.

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