Tomorrow, President Trump will address the United Nations for the first time in what is sure to be a spectacle of high-drama. Trump and his administration have made no secret of their disdain for the U.N. and for global cooperation in general, including by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement in June.
The President famously dismissed the U.N. as “just a club” for people “to talk and have a good time.” It’s true that the U.N. can seem like an over-politicized bureaucracy where progress moves at a frustratingly slow pace, but despite its flaws, there is no substitute for the convening power and life-saving work of the U.N.. Every day the U.N. is working to alleviate hunger, to provide humanitarian assistance to victims of war, and to stabilize conflict zones. The diplomat Richard Holbrooke once said that blaming the U.N. when things go wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly. As a member with unrivaled influence, the U.S. could be a powerful player for good at the U.N..
Yet due to the nativist and isolationist impulses of the Trump team, they have treated the U.N. as a foe. The administration has sought drastic cuts to U.N. peacekeeping, its humanitarian aid budgets, and has threatened to withdraw from some of its key institutions at a time when the world faces serious conflicts and humanitarian crises. Trump officials have said cuts to the U.N. will be redirected to military spending as part of the President’s “America first” policy. But what the Trump administration fails to understand is that ceding America’s role at the U.N. will only weaken U.S. influence in the world.
Cuts to peacekeeping
Trump’s ambassador to the U.N. – Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor, has garnered praise from Republicans for her tough stance on the U.N. Upon entering office, she told a group of conservative backers at a conference held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that she wears heels at the U.N. “not for a fashion statement. It’s because if I see something wrong, we’re going to kick them every single time.”
U.N. peacekeeping has stood firmly in the crosshairs of the administration’s cuts. Its blue helmets are one of the most visible and defining operations of the U.N. Peace operations in countries such as South Sudan, Mali, CAR, and the DRC work to stabilize countries torn apart by conflict by protecting the most vulnerable civilians from violence, helping disarm and reintegrate former combatants, and assisting authorities reform their judicial systems. Research shows that U.N. peacekeeping works, giving countries a chance to stabilize and prevent the spread of conflict.
Ambassador Niki Haley has insisted that the administration isn’t just seeking cheaper peacekeeping, but smarter and more effective peacekeeping. Yet, actions say otherwise. In a recent tweet, Haley bragged about cutting 600 million from U.N. peacekeeping and announced that the U.S. “is just getting started.” Instead of focusing on the urgencies of peacekeeping reform – such as combatting sexual abuse by peacekeepers and doing the diplomatic legwork to find political solutions to crises, the administration has focused on slashing funding.
Nikki Haley is right when she says that many missions are overstretched and need clear exit strategies – peacekeeping reforms are needed. What is disconcerting is that the drastic cuts Trump is seeking could have serious consequences for civilians on the ground. Sometimes, the presence of U.N. troops is the only thing preventing atrocities from being committed against civilians. Peacekeepers have already been precipitously withdrawn from the Darfur mission where civilians are still under threat.
President Trump’s misguided war on the U.N. betrays his own business sensibilities. The fact is that U.N. peacekeeping is a bargain for the U.S. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that U.N. peacekeepers are eight times cheaper than the U.S. acting alone. At the price of two B-2 bomber jets, the U.S. is investing in peace in many areas where the U.S. intervention may be required if left unaddressed. The Obama administration recognized the benefit of peacekeeping both for U.S. security interests but also for America’s soft power. By investing in peacekeeping, the U.S. is showing that it is a country that stands for peace and human rights for those most afflicted by conflict. Former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power pushed for reforms, such as ensuring that peacekeepers do a better job of protecting civilians. Now with peacekeeping on the chopping block, civilians have lost the U.S. as their champion.
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has quietly conveyed to Washington the risks of disengaging from the U.N., suggesting that the power vacuum left by the U.S. could be filled by America’s competitors, especially China which has set its sights on peacekeeping. It is speculated that China’s growing contribution to peacekeeping is more motivated by its determination to protect its economic interests in Africa rather than any humanitarian concerns.
Threats to withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council
The Trump administration has also threatened to withdraw from the Human Rights Council (HRC) – the central human rights body of the U.N. Since the HRC was established in 2006, it has grown into the main investigatory and fact-finding body of the U.N. Its findings lay the groundwork for accountability measures, such as sanctions and criminal trials.
Niki Haley has called the HRC “so corrupt”, accusing it of anti-Israel bias and criticizing it for allowing countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela to hold seats. Haley has signaled that the U.S. may withdraw from the Council if certain preconditions are not met, such as membership reform and removing the permanent agenda item on Israel.
The HRC is imperfect, but it’s carrying out important work. It would be a mistake for the U.S. to withdraw. For one, it’s the only U.N. human rights body responsible for conducting serious investigations into human rights abuses. Secondly, being on the Council has given the U.S. the opportunity to significantly shape its agenda. With U.S. influence, the HRC has mandated commission of inquiries into the human rights situations in Syria, South Sudan, Burundi, and North Korea. The U.S. was also influential in getting the HRC to pass resolutions on LGBTQ rights, which faced fierce opposition from African and Arab blocks.
If the U.S. withdraws, it will lose a say on critical human rights situations around the world. As a former U.S. ambassador to the Council put it, “the idea of withdrawing so that the agenda reflects what the U.S. wants is backward. It’s completely nonsensical.”
Cuts to U.N. humanitarian agencies
For years, the U.S. has been the U.N.’s top emergency donor, a position which has enhanced America’s reputation. Yet at a time when the world faces the biggest humanitarian crises in 70 years, the Trump administration has threatened to cut funding to U.N. humanitarian agencies. Four countries are on the brink of famine -Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan – putting more than 20 million people at risk. In March, U.N. Secretary-General Guterres made an emergency appeal for $6.1 billion for famine aid. So far, less than half of the money has been raised.
Normally, the U.S. spends about 1% of its budget on humanitarian aid, which due to the size of the U.S. economy makes the U.S. the largest contributor in dollar terms. However, in terms of percentage of GDP, the U.S. ranks near the bottom of western countries on the generosity scale.
In its proposed 2018 budget, the Trump administration sought to eliminate funding for a whole host of U.N. agencies. During a hearing with the House Foreign Relations Committee in June, Nikki Haley defended the cuts. Several representatives questioned the wisdom of cutting funding to agencies whose missions serve American security interests, including UNICEF which is providing emergency aid to children displaced by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But Haley argued that the White House budget proposal was a good “conversation starter” and was useful in “putting the U.N. on notice.”
This is not leadership. Pursuing an agenda of U.N. reform through a policy of intimidation is no way for the U.S. to conduct itself. Luckily, Trump’s proposed cuts have not passed muster with Congress. On 7 September, the Senate Appropriations Committee rejected Trump’s steep cuts to the U.N. and allocated nearly $1 billion above the administration’s request. As Senator Leahy said, “Underfunding many critical programs – from U.N. peacekeeping to climate change to humanitarian relief for victims of war and natural disasters – is unacceptable for the world’s wealthiest, most powerful nation.”
In the end, retreating from the U.N. would only harm U.S. interests. A poll taken after the 2016 election found that 88% of Americans agree that it is important for the U.S. to maintain an active role at the U.N. The U.S. needs the U.N. and global cooperation to address the complex issues of our time such as climate change, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. These are global problems that require global solutions. Moreover, U.S. disengagement from the U.N. would also have a devastating impact on the global human rights movement, which was shaped in large part by the U.S. The world needs the U.S. to be a powerful and active member at the U.N. – to stand up for victims of human rights abuses and to use its wealth and power for the good of humanity. This is what will make America great again.