This article was first published in FriEnt Impulse.
The arrival of the Trump administration, with its “America First” outlook and skepticism of multilateral institutions, gave rise to fears of a breakdown in relations between the United Nations and its most powerful member state. Those fears were confirmed last week when the White House submitted its 2018 budget blueprint proposing to “reduce or end direct funding for international organisations whose missions do not substantially advance U.S. foreign policy interests, are duplicative, or are not well-managed,” and to slash the budget of the State Department, which funds most of the US’s assessed and voluntary contributions to the UN. In particular, the White House reportedly seeks to cut US contributions to UN peacekeeping by 40 percent and eliminate all funding to the International Organizations and Programs (IOP) account, which provides a large share of US voluntary contributions to UN agencies that care for children and women affected by war, promote development in conflict-affected settings, coordinate the UN’s humanitarian operations, and monitor human rights violations. If Congress approves deep cuts to the UN – a plausible scenario given many Congressional Republicans’ longstanding efforts to defund the organisation – the world body’s role in conflict resolution, peacebuilding and humanitarian assistance would be dealt a staggering blow. To ensure the UN’s continued ability to help people affected by conflict, Guterres will face some hard choices.
Among the many parts of the UN system that are at risk are humanitarian and development agencies that rely on the US as one of their top donors. At a time when the world is facing the highest number of displaced people since World War II, cuts to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which is already severely underfunded and depends on the US for around 37 per cent of its funding, could spell disaster for millions of people uprooted by conflict. In recent years, UNICEF has relied on annual contributions of between 500 million and 1 billion US dollars, much of which comes from the IOP account, from the US to carry out its work, much of which involves caring for children affected by war. The US is one of the top donors to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which spends about a quarter of its roughly 5 billion US dollars in annual global program expenditure on crisis prevention and recovery work. Unless other donors plug the gaps, the UN’s humanitarian and development operations will be thrown into deep disarray. Salting the wound, the White House’s budget singles out the World Bank and other multilateral development banks, which contribute to long-term conflict prevention through the promotion of economic development, for cuts worth roughly 650 million US dollars over three years.
The White House blueprint also threatens unspecified cuts in its contributions to the UN’s regular budget, which funds Secretariat departments and twelve field-based political missions supporting political transitions in places as diverse as Colombia, Somalia, and Afghanistan. However, the US cannot unilaterally reduce its assessed contributions, which are negotiated every three years by a General Assembly resolution. It is thus likely that we will see a strong push by the US to see its share of the UN’s finances reduced when the UN General Assembly’s Committee on Contributions next convenes in 2018 to negotiate the apportionment of the UN’s budget expenses. As precedence, the Trump administration may look back to the early 2000s, when Washington did successfully wrest a lower assessment rate as part of a deal that included repayment of a significant share of US arrears that had built up over the prior decade.
Also affected would be UN peacekeeping, which deploys over 100.000 troops and some 20.000 civilians across 16 operations. In addition to maintaining peace and security in post-conflict contexts, many peacekeeping missions engage in a range of peacebuilding activities, such as assisting with the implementation of fragile peace agreements or supporting the demobilisation of ex-combatants. The White House’s budget calls for reducing US contributions to UN peacekeeping from 28.75 per cent to 25 per cent, reflecting a Congressionally-imposed funding cap on peacekeeping contributions dating back to the mid-1990s. The cap was not enforced during the Obama years, but remains popular among Congressional Republicans today. While a 3.75 per cent reduction may seem little, it would create shortfalls of at least 300 million US dollars a year.
However, as the White House is seeking to cut 1 billion USD in funding to UN peacekeeping, we can expect the US to scrutinise ongoing peace operations and exert its influence in the Security Council to reduce their size and number when mission mandates come up for their annual renewal. These rollbacks could coincide with a rise in demand for peacekeeping, resulting from a three-fold increase in the number of civil wars over the past decade. Notwithstanding the many shortcomings of UN peacekeeping, study after study has shown that these missions have been effective in stabilizing many post-conflict countries while operating at much lower costs than Western armies.
The Trump White House has also displayed, at least so far, a marked disinterest in Africa, despite strong engagement in the region having been a hallmark of recent Republican administrations, including that of George W. Bush. Washington’s disengagement from Africa, where over 80 per cent of peacekeepers are deployed and much of the UN’s peacebuilding activity is concentrated, would deflate support for the UN’s conflict management there. The White House’s proposed cuts to foreign aid indicate a likely reduction of the State Department and USAID’s bilateral programmes in African post-conflict countries that have long helped create environments conducive to the UN’s stabilisation efforts.
The US drawdown comes at a time when the new Secretary-General is embarking on a big push to reorient the UN toward a focus on conflict prevention. Reduced US funding will force other donors to redirect most or all of their cash to plug humanitarian emergency gaps, leaving less money to support the UN’s woefully underfunded current prevention capacities, many of which – such as the Mediation Standby Team or the Peace and Development Advisors which assist UN Country Teams in conflict-sensitive programming – rely entirely on voluntary contributions. Paradoxically, abrupt cuts will likely clip the Secretary-General’s wings as he tries to push the UN toward a more cost-effective preventive posture.
Against this backdrop, Guterres faces a difficult balancing act. He and his team will be hard-pressed to reinforce their case to the new administration and to Congress that the UN’s conflict management work measurably advances US interests in cost-effective ways. In doing so, he might want to resist the temptation to recast UN efforts to sustain peace in terms of counter-terrorism, which would risk distorting peacebuilding to serve member states’ self-defined national security interests.
Guterres might also consider moving away from his predecessor’s dictum to “do more with less” and instead embracing doing “less with less.” Living up to his image as a reform-minded leader who is willing to take a cold and hard look at the UN’s strengths and weaknesses, prioritizing the former while cutting down on the latter would earn him helpful credit in Washington DC.
On peacekeeping, Guterres might want to move ahead of the curve and find ways to cut back on his own terms, rather than wait for those terms to be dictated by Washington. The scheduled draw-down of missions in Liberia and Haiti will help ease pressure on the budget, but Guterres could review room for cuts in some of the other big missions with comparatively low track records of success, such as those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Darfur. At the same time, he will want to be clear in his interactions with cost-conscious Member States that resources will need to be in line with ambitious mandates. The 2000 Brahimi Report on the reform of UN peacekeeping urged the Secretariat to decline dangerously under-resourced mandates that could create unrealistic expectations of the UN among threatened populations. That recommendation remains as valid today as ever.
Guterres will also need to rely on other donors to fill some of the gaps left by a US drawdown. While Europe might be able to do more, its own budgetary woes will impose limits on its generosity. The Secretary-General might consider more actively engaging emerging donors, such as China, other BRICS, and Gulf states. After decades of apparent disinterest, China is now a prominent troop and financial contributor to UN peacekeeping, and in 2015 committed to donate 100 million US dollars to the African Union to establish a peacekeeping standby force. More spectacularly, China in 2015 pledged to establish a 10-year, 1 billion US dollars China-UN Peace and Development Fund, although details regarding actual contributions to this fund remain unclear. Saudi Arabia donated 100 million US dollars to support the UN’s capacity-building efforts on the counter-terrorism field. While these are encouraging signs of a broadening of the UN’s donor countries, Guterres will want to ensure that their growing influence will not chip away at the normative elements of the UN’s conflict management framework, such as human rights and good governance.
A US retreat from the UN leaves Guterres with few good options. At best, he can use it as an opportunity to cut slack, push through difficult reforms, and develop a more diverse and sustainable funding base. He may also be able to capitalise on this moment to support his plan to shift the UN’s peacebuilding architecture to a more preventive, less reactive posture, both to avoid the immense human costs of war and reduce the international community’s financial burden of dealing with its fallout. However, even if he achieves these points, the UN’s ability to help conflict-affected people around the world will inevitably suffer if Congress approves the President’s proposed funding cuts. The noxious and increasingly globalised effects of conflict will no doubt worsen with a US that is less invested in the UN.
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