NEW YORK – This Christmas, America’s gift to the world was a $285 million cut in the United Nations’ regular budget. Technically, the UN regular budget reflects a consensus decision of the body’s 193 member states, but the United States was clearly the prime mover in pushing for the cut. Indeed, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, accompanied the Christmas Eve announcement with a warning that the US would be on the lookout for further reductions.
Ebenezer Scrooge could not have done better. The budget cuts will make it that much harder for UN agencies to prevent wars, help millions of people displaced by conflicts, feed and clothe hungry children, fight emerging diseases, provide safe water and sanitation, and promote access to education and health care for the poor.
President Donald Trump and Haley make much of the bloated costs of UN operations, and there certainly is room for some trimming. But the world receives an astounding return on its investments in the UN, and member countries should be investing far more, not less, in its organizations and programs.
Consider the sums. The UN regular budget for the two-year period 2018-2019 will stand at around $5.3 billion, $285 million less than the 2016-2017 budget. Annual spending will be around $2.7 billion. The US share will be 22%, or around $580 million per year, equivalent to around $1.80 per American per year.
What will Americans get for their $1.80 per year? For starters, the UN regular budget includes the operations of the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the Secretariat (including the Secretary-General’s office, the Department for Economic and Social Affairs, the Department of Political Affairs, and administrative staff). When a dire threat to peace arises, such as the current standoff between the US and North Korea, it is the UN’s Department of Political Affairs that often facilitates vital, behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
In addition, the UN regular budget includes allocations for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Development Program, the World Health Organization, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN’s regional bodies (for Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America), the UN Environment Program, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (for disaster response), the World Meteorological Organization, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UN Women (for women’s rights), and many other agencies, each specializing in global responses to crises, conflicts, poverty, displacement, environmental hazards, diseases, or other public needs.
Many of the UN organizations receive additional “voluntary” contributions from individual countries interested in supporting specialized initiatives by agencies such as UNICEF and the World Health Organization. After all, those agencies have a unique global mandate and political legitimacy, and the capacity to operate in all parts of the world.
The silliness of the US attack on the size of the UN budget is best seen by comparing it to the Pentagon’s budget. The US currently spends around $700 billion per year on defense, or roughly $2 billion per day. Thus, the total annual UN regular budget amounts to around one day and nine hours of US military spending. The US share of the UN regular budget equals roughly seven hours of Pentagon spending. Some waste.
Trump and Haley are squeezing the UN budget for three reasons. The first is to play to Trump’s political base. Most Americans recognize the enormous value of the UN and support it, but the right-wing fringe among Republican voters views the UN as an affront to the US. A 2016 Pew Survey put US public approval of the UN at 64%, with just 29% viewing it unfavorably. Yet the Texas Republican Party, for example, has repeatedly called on the US to leave the UN.
The second reason is to save on wasteful programs, which is necessary in any ongoing organization. The mistake is to slash the overall budget, rather than reallocate funds and increase outlays on vitally needed programs that fight hunger and disease, educate children, and prevent conflicts.
The third, and most dangerous reason for cutting the UN’s budget is to weaken multilateralism in the name of American “sovereignty.” America is sovereign, Trump and Haley insist, and therefore can do what it wants, regardless of opposition by the UN or any other group of countries.
In her recent speech to the UN General Assembly session on Jerusalem, where member states overwhelmingly rejected America’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Haley told the rest of the world: “America will put our embassy in Jerusalem. That is what the American people want us to do, and it is the right thing to do. No vote in the United Nations will make any difference on that.”
This approach to sovereignty is exceedingly risky. Most obviously, it repudiates international law. In the case of Jerusalem, resolutions adopted by the General Assembly and the Security Council have repeatedly declared the final status of Jerusalem to be a matter of international law. By brazenly proclaiming the right to override international law, the US threatens the edifice of international cooperation under the UN Charter.
Yet another grave danger is to the US itself. When America stops listening to other countries, its vast military power and arrogance often lead to self-inflicted disasters. America Firsters like Trump and Haley bristle when other countries oppose US foreign policy; but these other countries are usually giving good and frank advice that the US would be wise to heed. The Security Council’s opposition to the US-led war in Iraq in 2003, for example, wasn’t intended to weaken America, but to protect it, Iraq, and indeed the world, from America’s rage and blindness to the facts.
“Bah! Humbug!” said Scrooge. But Charles Dickens’s point was precisely that Scrooge was the great loser from his arrogance, miserliness, and insolence.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
By Jeffrey D. Sachs