Donald Trump’s proposal to slash UN funding: a threat to international peace and security

Originally published on 24 March 2017 at Open Democracy. Here.

On April first the United States assumes the rotating monthly presidency of the United Nations Security Council amid widespread alarm over talk from US President Donald Trump that his government is considering drastically reducing its financial contributions and involvement in the UN. This could pose a serious blow to the global body tasked with international peace and security.

In mid March, the Trump administration released its “America First” budget proposal. The full budget will not be released until May and will still need to be approved by congress. While the budget proposal has met with bipartisan criticism, longstanding mostly-Republican hostility toward the United Nations and tough talk from the administration gives rise for serious concern. In nearly Orwellian vocabulary, the Trump budget calls for the pursuit of ‘peace through strength,’ while attacking the very institutions working to preserve peace.

In nearly Orwellian vocabulary, the Trump budget calls for the pursuit of ‘peace through strength,’ while attacking the very institutions working to preserve peace. It calls, inter alia, for the elimination of funding for the United States Institute of Peace and a 28 percent reduction in funding to the Department of State. This despite a letter from over 120 retired military leaders addressing the security imperative of diplomacy and development. The budget also calls for unspecified reductions to the United Nations and a cap on US contributions, to not exceed 25 percent of the total peacekeeping budget.

Taken as a reflection of the administration’s priorities, this budget proposal might as well be the pyre upon which peace is sacrificed to strength.

At present, the United States contributes around $2.5 billion, nearly 29 percent of the total $7.87 billion peacekeeping budget. The other top five contributing countries are China (10.29 percent), Japan (9.68 percent), Germany (6.39 percent), and France (6.31 percent).

The UN regular budget for 2016-2017 is $5.4 billion, of which the United States pays 22 percent, around $1.2 billion.

Voluntary contributions cover the humanitarian, development, and human rights work of the United Nations. This includes the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the High Commissioner for Refugees. These are vital functions for the preservation of peace and security and yet a draft executive order leaked in January 2017 hinted at a 40 percent cut in US voluntary contributions.

The “America First” budget proposal is vague in exact reductions to the UN. However, in what Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy describes as an unprecedented retreat from international operations, State Department officials have reportedly been instructed to slash up to 60 percent of all assessed and voluntary contributions, including a $1 billion reduction in peacekeeping contributions.

Meanwhile, in a clear signal of priorities, the Trump administration has called for a $52 billion increase in defense spending, the United States already spending nearly as much on defense as the next 14 countries combined.

Explain that

The Trump administration is attempting to legitimize its unprecedented retreat from the UN with claims that its present contributions are disproportionate, a hollow argument. As Rosa Freedman, professor of law and conflict at Redding University, argues, “given that the US makes up more than 24 percent of the world’s total GDP, it’s actually contributing less than it should.”

Member State contributions, established by the UN Charter, are apportioned by the General Assembly based on a formula taking into account such things as the size of economy and per capita income. The five permanent members of the Security Council (US, UK, France, Russia, and China) are furthermore required to pay additional shares for peacekeeping given their responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. However, as pointed out by Anjali Dayal at Political Violence at a Glance, “an existing Congressional cap already sets the US’s annual contribution to the peacekeeping budget below the assessed contribution the US is required to make as a UN member.”

Budget cuts on the magnitude threatened by the United States will have the biggest impact on voluntary contributions, particularly important for supporting humanitarian and development efforts. But what is also at stake is the impact on needed reforms already under way, including the mainstreaming of human security, which will require leadership and diplomatic support alongside financing.

An imperfect system

The UN is not perfect. Perhaps two of the most damning examples of recent UN failure are negligence by Nepali peacekeepers in Haiti in 2010 – over 700,000 people were infected and more than 8,500 died from cholera – and a pattern of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers, especially in the Central African Republic since 2013.

In large part, the pattern of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeeping forces across missions has been prolonged by the past hesitation from the UN to name and shame countries whose forces are guilty of such crimes. This, of course, has been a product of political expediency. But this is slowly changing, as the UN is increasingly likely to publically name countries whose troops perpetrate such atrocities and to send guilty contingent commanders or whole contingents home. It is moving to encourage troop-contributing countries to conduct trials in domestic courts, although this remains a challenge, and to refuse future peacekeepers from those countries that fail to uphold human rights obligations. Scholars are also contributing great work to tackling such peacekeeping failures, for example Sabrina Karim and Kyle Beardsley propose a comprehensive gender-sensitive approach to reform in Equal Opportunity Peacekeeping.

There are real concerns but they require reform and leadership by powerful Member States, not abandonment.

Improving the UN now is especially needed in the face of what some UN officials are describing as the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II. The threats of terrorism, the destabilizing effects of climate change, poverty, and gross discrimination that trigger conflict and drive mass displacement, are all serious tests to the preservation of peace and security. But they require more than engorging military budgets.

To tackle such challenges, the new Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has pledged comprehensive reforms of UN strategy to build and sustain peace. Guterres has also pledged management reform, including accountability, the protection of UN whistleblowers, and gender parity at higher-level positions.

In February 2017, Guterres announced the creation of an internal review board that will move forward with reforms to UN peace and security strategy. The result of this review is expected in June and will produce recommendations that may have financial implications, the implementation of which could be severely limited by the withdrawal of US funds and other support.

The new US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has issued similar calls for reform, especially over corruption and accountability for sexual abuse. But her government’s hinted reduction or ending of support for “international organizations whose missions do not substantially advance US foreign policy interests” risks holding the global body hostage to the nationalist interests of “America First” that prioritize American military might over multilateralism and human security.

Rather than approaching peace through strength, as the Trump budget shortsightedly proposes to do, the new administrations’ approach to peace and security must be peace though prevention.

Peace through prevention

In April 2016, the General Assembly and Security Council adopted a joint resolution establishing the concept of ‘sustaining peace.’ The resolution is a reflection of four reports, including the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations and the report on the implementation of resolution 1325 women, peace, and security. Arguably, in drawing together a variety of concepts the year before both the new Secretary General and US President were to assume office, the resolution served as a placeholder for a conversation about the future of the UN in peace and security.

Seeking to operationalize prevention, the resolution calls for “activities aimed at preventing the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence of conflict, addressing root causes… and emphasizing that sustaining peace is a shared task and responsibility…[that] should flow through all three pillars of the United Nations.” The three pillars are human rights, peace and security, and development. They are interconnected and interdependent.

It emphasizes the importance of a comprehensive approach through the prevention of conflict and its root causes, poverty eradication, social and sustainable development, inclusive dialogue, rule of law, transitional justice, gender equality, and the protection of human rights.

Such comprehensive measures by definition require more than the strict reliance on military might and narrow national interest-based approach to international peace and security as put forward by the US Government.

Speaking at the annual high-level panel discussion on human rights mainstreaming in February 2017, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, assistant secretary general for peacebuilding support, highlighted the need for inclusive cooperation between Member States.

The problem with the US fetish for a bloated defense budget, threatening to retreat from international diplomacy, or constrict funds to the UN is what that would mean for cooperation toward more comprehensive peacebuilding approaches. It could well lead to the opposite, limiting peace operations to stabilization and a minimal approach to peace and security that disregards governance, human rights, or development.

The other big factor, says Ian Johnstone, professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, is countering violent extremism (CVE). If this becomes the principle motivator to establishing peace operations, we are likely to only see significant political support for new missions where there is the threat or perceived threat of terrorism. CVE needs to occur but, again, narrow military solutions and unilateralism are ultimately self-defeating.

The threat of violent extremism presents a dilemma for traditional peace operations, because CVE is generally outside of established mandate parameters. But, as Johnstone writes at Peace Operations Review, drawing from the 2015 Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, addressing the challenges of CVE within peacebuilding efforts calls for adaptability and creativity. This is precisely where a peace through prevention approach has value, to not only address insecurity but also its root causes through poverty reduction, inclusive dialogue, and the mainstreaming of gender and human rights concerns. Unfortunately xenophobic rhetoric from the Trump administration signals in the opposite direction.

Ultimately, the impact of the Trump administration on the ability of the UN to develop a more comprehensive and preventative approach to peace and security will be based as much on signaling as on financial constraints.

Looking forward

President Trump’s “America First” budget proposal, in name and stated financial commitments, reads as an indictment of multilateralism. The alarming reduction of budgetary contributions to the United Nations will certainly be amended in congressional review, although general hostility toward the UN among the Republican controlled congress indicates some reduction in US contributions is almost certain. However, whatever the ultimate figure it is less likely to derail reform or have as devastating an impact as the signaling of a US no longer interested in the UN.

Cooperation and support from powerful Member States is vital for the UN to serve its function of preserving international peace and security, promoting development, and protecting human rights. This requires diplomacy. Of course, this is not to completely discount the significance of being a membership-based body reliant on dues to hire personnel and support aforementioned peacebuilding efforts.

With the United States assuming the April presidency of the Security Council, notably before the White House issues its formal budget proposal in May, it presents an opportunity for the US to reevaluate its priorities and leadership role in line with the trend of peace through prevention. How the US uses its Security Council presidency, what thematic meetings it convenes in New York for example, will offer further clarity on administration priorities and may provide chances for the other members of the Security Council to negotiate those priorities. Arguably, it also provides non-Security Council government and non-governmental representatives the opportunity to lobby the United States regarding peace through prevention.

A US withdrawal now stands to upset the reforms in theory and practice currently underway and to potentially derail the future of international peace and security.

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About michaelcaster
Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and civil society consultant. He holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University. He has worked in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

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