In President Trump’s inaugural address, he described the United States’ relationship with the world as a zero-sum game, claiming that U.S. leaders had allowed other countries to become wealthy and powerful at the expense of American citizens.
“From this moment on,” he declared, “it’s going to be America first.”
His message was clear: America should thenceforth be guided only by self-interest. Trump is currently backing up his vision of “America first” with proposed cuts to foreign aid and federal agencies involved in international affairs. The administration’s 2018 budget includes a 28% cut to the State Department, which provides the bulk of U.S. resources to the United Nations.
According to reports by Foreign Policy, State Department staffers claim cuts to the UN could top a staggering 50%. Currently, U.S. funding for the United Nations constitutes only about 0.1% of the federal budget.
The dramatic gutting of United Nations funding would be a humanitarian catastrophe for millions of people worldwide and a disaster for both the United States’ security and position of global leadership. Let’s explore why slashing funding for the UN is a grave mistake.
1. The UN advances U.S. national security
Formed in the ashes of World War II, the United Nations has long enjoyed strong U.S. leadership and support. The UN’s foundational charter was signed in San Francisco in 1945 and its headquarters is based in Manhattan. The U.S. is a commanding presence within the organization: as one of five permanent members of the Security Council, the U.S. holds veto power over any resolution the Security Council passes. Although the UN thrives with strong U.S. leadership and robust financial contributions, the relationship is a productive, two-way street.
Through sharing burdens with other member states, the UN allows the United States to project its national security interests at a lower cost than going it alone. Currently, extensive UN political missions exist in fragile countries that are focuses of U.S. foreign policy, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. In these nations and others, UN agencies work to ensure free elections, combat narcotics trafficking, provide aid and development assistance, increase government transparency, and more. Defunding these efforts will assuredly lead to increased instability, handing power directly to groups that the U.S. has long considered national security threats.
Additionally, when the U.S. enters into an international treaty or agreement of some sort – say a nuclear treaty with Iran or an agreement to tighten sanctions against a rogue state – UN organizations often provide the institutional backing. With a nuclear treaty, for instance, this would involve taking charge of monitoring, inspections, and holding parties to account. Could the United States step in and administer every international agreement by itself? Maybe, but it would be massively more difficult and expensive.
2. UN peacekeepers are a budget option for world stability
Currently, the United Nations leads sixteen critical peacekeeping efforts in four continents. UN peacekeepers are a linchpin for global stability: a study by the RAND corporation found that post-conflict zones with peacekeepers are 50% less likely to descend back into chaos and warfare.
Peacekeeping operations directly benefit the United States. As we know from the rise of both Al-Qaeda and ISIS, unstable regions are fertile breeding grounds for groups directly hostile to the United States. Global stability is thus intrinsically linked to American security. Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George W. Bush & President Barack Obama, said “[United Nations] Peacekeepers… help reduce the risks that major U.S. military interventions may be required to restore stability in a country or region. Therefore, the success of these operations is very much in our national interest.”
Peacekeeping is also highly cost-effective for the United States. The U.S. Government Accountability Office calculates that a UN peacekeeping operation is eight times less costly for the United States than a unilateral, U.S.-led military venture. It’s also worth noting that other member states lend far more personnel to peacekeeping missions: of the 125,000 UN peacekeepers currently operating, only 126 are American.
3. The UN provides critical assistance to millions of refugees
Through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN
Refugee Agency (UNCHR), the UN provides crucial help to millions of refugees, migrants, and displaced people. Currently, there are around sixty million people uprooted by violence and conflict worldwide, a population akin to the vast movements of refugees during the carnage of WWII. The UNCHR works to provide protection, shelter, legal advocacy, healthcare, and job assistance for refugees displaced by conflict, often forming a crucial lifeline for people in dire circumstances. With more displaced people in transit than any time in recent memory, it would be a mistake to undercut UN resources that have already been stretched thin. Stripping agencies like the UNCHR of funds will worsen the global migration crisis that is currently gripping Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.
4. The United Nations is the first line of defense against global disasters
The United Nations is the one organization with the breadth and reach to tackle sweeping humanitarian calamities like famine and disease. The UN’s World Food Programme, for instance, is the world’s largest humanitarian organization and currently helps feed eighty million people in approximately eighty countries per year. Another UN agency, The World Health Agency (WHO), organizes and deploys responses to pressing international health emergencies. We’ve already seen the disastrous consequences of under-funding critical UN agencies. In 2015, the World Food Programme, suffering from a severe lack of funding, was unable to continue a food assistance program to displaced people inside of Syria. The collapse of this vital resource helped precipitate the massive outflow of refugees from Syria into the Western world.
Currently, the international community is facing four food-related humanitarian disasters: a full-scale famine in South Sudan and grave food crises in Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen. The UN can effectively respond to these events, but only if member countries are willing to contribute financially. Now is a particularly perilous time for wealthy states to disengage.
5. The UN is a leader in development efforts
For decades, the UN has successfully led long-term global health and anti-poverty efforts. In 2000, the UN created the Millennium Development Goals, a fifteen-year blueprint for building a better world. The MDGs consisted of eight development targets, such as eradicating hunger, achieving universal primary school education, reducing child mortality, and fighting HIV/AIDS. Each goal included quantifiable metrics to determine success. The MDG blueprint shaped and galvanized development efforts by governments and civil society for years and yielded some spectacular successes. By 2015, the number of people living on $1.25 a day had declined from a billion to 836 million, primary school enrollment had risen from 83% to 91%, and the rate of new HIV/AIDS infections had fallen by 43%.
In 2015, the UN drafted a new set of goals to be met by 2030, the seventeen Sustainable Development Global Goals (also called the Global Goals), a roadmap that included new environmental and economic indices for clean energy, infrastructure, the protection of marine life, and more. Both the MDGs and the Global Goals enjoyed resounding bipartisan support in the United States. The drafting of the new Global Goals was highly democratic and involved substantial input from U.S. citizens. Americans from a wide variety of sectors and backgrounds gathered in consultations held in fifty states to hash out which goals should be included, and 73,000 Americans participated in UN surveys online. If governments and civil groups continue to work together to achieve the Sustainable Development Global Goals, the future will be brighter for millions of the world’s citizens.
6. The UN provides a clear economic benefit to the United States
The United Nation is not just a high-minded organization, it’s also a profitable business partner for the United States. According to the NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, the UN contributes $3.69 billion to the city’s economy. The New York economy is not the only beneficiary. Currently, 212 American businesses located across thirty states hold lucrative contracts with the United Nations, everything from telecommunications to financial services to the production of military equipment. A recent study by the Better World Campaign calculated that the biennial value of these contracts exceeded $1 billion.
7. The United Nations fosters global cooperation like no other organization
The guiding purpose of the United Nations is to foster cooperation and collaboration between member states. Beginning with 50 members in 1945, the UN now brings together 193 countries. The basic intergovernmental structure of the UN includes the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Secretariat, the International Court of Justice, and the Economic and Social Council.
These structures shape much of the world’s diplomacy, debate, and consensus-building. Although the UN may not always prevent conflict between its members, it has been instrumental in allowing both allies and adversaries to communicate. Diplomacy and cooperation remain our strongest tools for combating international threats, be they terrorist groups, famine, climate change, or disease outbreaks. In such a complicated, interconnected world, the need for effective communication and cooperation between nation states is ever more urgent.
As Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the UN, said: “More than ever before in human history, we share a common destiny. We can master it only if we face it together."
Billy is the Co-founder & CEO of Lobbyists 4 Good.