The United Nations at a Tipping Point


The United Nations is at an inflection point, with a new Secretary General, growing disbelief in multilateral institutions among members of the international community, and wavering U.S. support for the organization under the new Trump administration.

A top concern right now is whether the White House will cut funding to the UN. A draft executive order, first reported by the New York Times in January, calls for a 40 percent decrease in U.S. funding to international groups, like the UN, that meet any one of several criteria. “Those criteria include organizations that give full membership to the Palestinian Authority or Palestine Liberation Organization, or support programs that fund abortion or any activity that circumvents sanctions against Iran or North Korea,” reported the New York Times.

New U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, noted at her Senate confirmation hearing, “We contribute 22 percent of the UN’s budget, far more than any other country. We are a generous nation. But we must ask ourselves, what good is being accomplished by this disproportionate contribution? Are we getting what we pay for?”

Japan is the next highest contributor, accounting for 9.68 percent of the budget. China contributes 7.92 percent, Germany 6.39 percent, France 4.86 percent, and the UK 4.46 percent.

The U.S. also funds 29 percent of the UN’s peacekeeping operations.

A U.S. funding cut to the UN could hurt American interests, says James Cockayne, head of the United Nations University New York office. “The danger there, from an American perspective, is that by reducing your equity in an organization, you’re also reducing your influence over it,” he tells The Cipher Brief.

Howard Stoffer, a former Deputy Executive Director in the UN Security Council, echoes this concern, noting, “President Trump has made strong border controls and effective counter-terrorism measures priorities for his administration. In both areas, the UN helps facilitate those goals.”

However, the UN has had its share of failures over the years. “We think of the ongoing tragedy in Syria, too many instances of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers, the introduction of cholera into Haiti, and – in many parts of the world – the longstanding presence of rather inert peacekeeping operations,” comments Cockayne.

Haley also said at her confirmation hearing, “Nowhere has the UN’s failure been more consistent and more outrageous than in its bias against our close ally Israel.”

President Trump has long criticized the UN for its dealings with Israel. In September 2011, Trump tweeted, “I am increasingly concerned with the UN’s ploy against @Israel.”

With issues involving Israel, “the UN has not necessarily been that useful,” former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad tells The Cipher Brief. “There is always kind of an automatic majority against Israel that we have tried to work around or diminish in order to increase Israel’s role in the UN,” he says.

But at the end of December last year, the U.S. abstained from a vote condemning Israeli settlement building and, therefore, allowed a resolution against settlements to be passed.

Trump tweeted, “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the US, but not anymore.”

Organizationally, the UN is also under pressure. Former Canadian Permanent Representative to the UN Paul Heinbecker says a strategic failure of the UN has been not reforming the Security Council to reflect the current composition of the international community.

With regards to the budget, Khalilzad notes, “a lot of resources get wasted because the UN General Assembly passes mandates, which are very difficult to get rid of, even if they are no longer relevant.”

Although these failures can cast the UN in a bad light and further encourage those in the U.S. administration who want to cut UN funding, the institution claims many successes. These include “fighting polio and measles and tuberculosis, nuclear nonproliferation, the reduction of civil wars in the 1990s and the 2000s, the way that UN treaties underpin global telecommunications, bringing international criminals … to justice,” says Cockayne.

The UN has also been instrumental in combating climate change, meeting its millennium development goals, and reducing poverty around the world.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the UN played a major role in “handling elections [and] dealing with development issues,” says Khalilzad.

Although critical of the institution, Haley noted the value of the UN, saying, “Its health and food programs have saved millions of lives. Its weapons monitoring efforts have provided us with vital security information. Its peacekeeping missions have, at times, performed valuable services.”

And even though the UN has had less success resolving hot conflicts within the UN Security Council, the institution has arguably prevented conflicts due to both its work in the development, economic, and social spheres, and its existence as an international forum for negotiation and conflict resolution.

There is widespread agreement that the UN requires structural reform and needs to be more efficient and better represent a new international landscape, especially within the Security Council. But there is also acknowledgement that the UN remains an important institution in dealing with the big issues that require multi-nation collaboration, and currently, there’s no substitute. 

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.