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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Campaigning for a Woman UN Secretary-General: A Conversation With Shazia Rafi

I spoke with Shazia Rafi of the The Campaign to Elect a Woman UN Secretary-General, about the selection of a woman Secretary-General to take over for Ban Ki Moon. Below is the interview, originally published at the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs on 16 May.

Before joining The Campaign Rafi served as Secretary-General of Parliamentarians for Global Action, a nonprofit organization of elected legislators in over 140 countries that works to promote peace, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and gender equality. Rafi is a 1983 graduate of The Fletcher School.

Michael Caster: The previous process for selecting a Secretary-General came under criticism for a lack of transparency in how the Security Council made a decision in private and forwarded a single recommendation to the General Assembly for approval. How transparent do you expect the new process to be? Will it still defer to the same power players even if it’s done more in the open?

RAFI: There is a reality in the world now: everybody is constantly on social media, everyone is a known category, there are no hidden players anymore and everything else is taking place in a sort of fishbowl.

So when it comes to the UN Secretary-General, it has been the only one out of every inter-governmental institution where there haven’t been open candidates campaigning. The change to a more open process was long overdue. The push has come from everybody. Even the P5 have become increasingly uncomfortable with their role as the ones producing the candidates.

The player who has played quite a role in making this transparent has been the president of the General Assembly, former speaker of the Danish parliament [Mogens Lykketoft]. He wanted to give the General Assembly more power under something called the Revitalization of the General Assembly, a sort of rebalance of the UN power system.

He took the reins in both hands and insisted on holding hearings in April 2016 in which the candidates were forced to send in their nominations with their written vision statements and had to come to a meeting with members of the General Assembly.

I don’t know how transparent it really is. While Member States could ask questions from the floor, civil society managed was forced to put questions prerecorded by people they had preselected and it wasn’t clear half the time who these people were. I wasn’t too pleased with that because those of us with civil society are capable of asking from the floor as well. Also, each male candidate had two questions from civil society; each female candidate had three. This difference in treatment didn’t make any sense.

The decision will still be made by the Security Council and they haven’t set themselves a hard deadline. There’s a soft deadline, that by July they hope to open all dossiers that have been received, which means that those who want to be Secretary-General of the UN should have indicated their interest by July.

MC: What happens in September?

RAFI: The process itself is going to take a few months. Their deliberations will start in July, which is when Japan is president of the Security Council.

Then it goes back to the same process as has been previously used. The Security Council will do their internal straw polls as always. The P5 have different color coded-cards from the E10 [elected members of the Security Council] to indicate “encourage,” “discourage,” and “no opinion.”

The winning candidate has to have at least no “discourage” votes from the P5 meaning that they have not vetoed the final candidate. They need four to five of the rest because it still has to be a majority of the Council that agrees with the candidate and sends that name to the General Assembly. Even though there’s a push to try and get two names, so far the Council has said they will send one name.

New Zealand has the presidency of the Security Council in September and then Russia in October. Russians want to see the decision done in October.

MC: With Ban Ki-moon’s selection, when it was Asia’s turn in the regional rotation, most of the negotiations took place between the United States and China. Now with Eastern Europe under review, is it likely to boil down to negotiations between the U.S. and Russia?

RAFI: The region that is up this time is the Western European and Others Group (WEOG), but within that Eastern Europe has never had a Secretary-General. They have made it very clear that this time it’s their turn, which is why you see so many Eastern Europeans among the candidates.

Yes, this time it will be between the U.S. and Russia. I would not read too much into [the current Russia-U.S. relationship in terms of how much it will affect the process]. Countries are capable of having different compartments for their dialogues with each other. So they may not be on good terms related to some part of the world in which they are clashing right now but there are other things they can talk to each other about. These negotiations are a lot about, “If I agree with you on X, what am I going to get on Y?”

MC: How much resistance would you expect from Russia if the regional rotation system were abandoned?

RAFI: I don’t know what the final position of the Russians will be but so far it is very clear that they are still pushing for it to continue to be an Eastern European. The problem with the Eastern Europe group is that unlike the African Union Group or the Asian Group they are a region that is both within the European Union and not, which confuses the matter for the Russians. They may cherry-pick within the Eastern European region which countries they are willing to go for and which countries they are not. I think there’s a lot of fine negotiation that will take place on that basis.

MC: What about the so-called Group of Four (G4)? How have Brazil, India, Germany, and Japan weighed in on the process as part of Security Council reform and other structural issues in the UN?

RAFI: If you listen to the hearings, the question did come from the G4 to every candidate as to whether the candidates were willing to take up Security Council reform, which has kind of been a dead elephant. Candidates were very cagey, all of them, in terms of answering this one because obviously none of the P5 want to give up their power. This is unlikely to go very far.

MC: Your organization has held events and done a lot of advocacy. What have been some of the most valuable or results-oriented activities so far?

RAFI: I think the most important thing that we’ve achieved is that when we started out last year in the spring people were still referring to the next Secretary-General as he and then they started saying he or she and now they are saying she or he. So there is quite an expectation that, all things being equal, the Council will go for a woman. And we intend to continue to push that.

MC: Women in positions of power, either in the private sector or in political roles, are generally burdened with gendered double standards in which the same qualities that are seen as positive attributes in their male colleagues earn them negative perceptions and scorn. How do you see this playing out with a female head of the United Nations?

RAFI: These negative perceptions are the hurdles that we have. If we are strong, we are seen as, pardon me, bitches. If we are not, we are seen as too weak. I think this race is one where the women who are currently going for the job are already at the head of the agencies, foreign ministries, or whatever. They’ve already crossed certain parts of these burdens where their mettle has been tested. The issue here is going to be much more for Member States as to whether they can cross that mental hurdle when finally there are two candidates at the end that meet all criteria. Can they bring themselves to say this time they will weigh in favor of the woman? Because in an institution that’s never had a woman in the job you need that mindset.

It doesn’t mean the woman is less qualified. It means you have to cross that hurdle in an affirmative action mindset as an institution. And that requires a cross-regional coalition. Now there is a coalition of 56 countries, lead by Columbia, that is a General Assembly group of friends in favor of a woman Secretary-General. Some of them are from the Council but none of the P5 are members because they don’t want to commit one way or another yet.

If it turns out that the final short list is a woman and a man, then it will require that gentle push, and our organization intends to push.

MC: What do you think about the influence of having a woman as the Secretary-General on global gender inequality and women’s rights?

RAFI: The UN is the global institution of peace and security and the bulk of the victims of peace and security are women and children. Women are not a minority. They are almost 51 percent of the world’s population. If you adjust for the fact that China and India take steps to mess with the natural gender balance by aborting female fetuses, the majority of the world’s population is women. They are not reflected in economics. They are not reflected in the positions of power in the same way. But having this job in the hands of a woman I think would be a very strong message to the rest of the world.

MC: There are quite a few countries that have demonstrated their lack of willingness to address discrimination against women. Do you anticipate pushback from countries with bad records on women’s rights?

RAFI: No, I don’t think this will be reflected. For example, the United States is one country that has not ratified Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It’s the only Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country that hasn’t. I don’t think that will affect the U.S. vote. The two are not connected. This is part of their diplomacy, not part of what they do in their own countries.

MC: In terms of the escalating challenges that will confront the UN in the future, what would you like to see as the priority for the new Secretary-General?

RAFI: I want to see preventive peace making as the focus of the UN. That is an area which has been neglected in the past. I want to see the mediation role of the UN expanded because that is where we should have been putting our efforts and our funds and our best people in all of these crises that we are now scrambling to deal with.

MC: Do you have any advice for people at Fletcher who want to get involved at any level of this campaign?

RAFI: Fletcher is a leading think tank on a global basis. It’s also one that has enormous connections within the U.S. administration, State Department, and President’s office. There are Fletcher students in almost all the countries that are on the Security Council. I used the Fletcher directory when I was working in every country around the world. It led me to the right people. I think you have within both your current student body and within the alumni people who can be very influential on their government’s decisions on this. I would particularly say the ones from the countries on the Security Council should push in whatever interaction they have for there to be transparency in the process, even within the Security Council, and I would like them to push for there to be a woman.