Why you should care
Because peace isn’t cheap — but it does have its benefits.
President Donald Trump strode into the United Nations General Assembly in Midtown Manhattan this week with a skeptical view of the 193-member body, even though he likes the neighborhood: One of Trump’s own skyscrapers sits just across the street. He critiqued the organization’s bureaucracy and highlighted what he called the undue burden borne by U.S. taxpayers. The numbers are striking.
The U.S. government spent $2 billion on U.N. peacekeeping missions in 2016 — half a billion more than it spent on subsidies for Amtrak’s rail system.
The U.N.’s blue-helmeted soldiers are a neutral international force, typically requested by war-torn countries to maintain order and stability in fragile situations. According to State Department data, America’s biggest peacekeeping line item for fiscal 2016 was $456 million for the Congo, followed closely by $453 million for the Darfur region of Sudan. The U.S. is by far the biggest backer of the U.N., which it helped found in 1945.
The peacekeepers have plenty of critics. Genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia occurred on their watch.…
When Trump stormed into office on “America First” campaign promises, he sought to slash the U.N. budget. Train fans shouldn’t get excited; Trump wasn’t planning to funnel U.N. savings into national railways. In fact, America’s 45th president has proposed cutting the $1.5 billion Amtrak budget roughly in half by ending subsidies to money-losing long-distance routes. But his applied pressure on the U.N. worked, at least in part: New U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres agreed to chop the peacekeeping budget by $570 million, which would save America about $150 million a year. Though it was not as big as the Trump administration’s proposed cut, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley applauded the news.
"Just 5 months into our time here, we've cut over half a billion $$$ from the UN peacekeeping budget & we’re only getting started.” pic.twitter.com/LA7IKqupff— Nikki Haley (@nikkihaley) June 29, 2017
Stephen Schlesinger, of the Century Foundation think tank, calls the cuts “disgraceful.” The result, he says, is a “weakening of the U.N.’s ability to control the forces of mayhem in different countries — not only in Africa but around the world — in terms of stopping crises from spinning out of control.” Schlesinger says instead of placing the $2 billion next to any amounts of domestic spending, it’s better compared with the $600-billion-plus Pentagon budget. Backing other countries’ forces is far cheaper than deploying Americans to more global hot spots, and blue helmets are often better received.
That said, the peacekeepers have plenty of critics. Genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia occurred on their watch; they have been accused of sexual abuse in numerous countries, and missions in Lebanon and Cyprus, among others, have dragged on for decades without resolution. “The unprecedented scope of U.N. peacekeeping operations of the past decade has revealed serious flaws and weaknesses,” Brett D. Schaefer wrote last year in a report for the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
But there are ample success stories too. Jordie Hannum, of the Better World Campaign, says civilian deaths and the likelihood of conflict reoccurring drop dramatically when U.N. troops are deployed. And the economic returns for American taxpayers can be tasty. U.N. forces helped keep peace in the Ivory Coast after a nasty civil war, and it’s now Africa’s fastest-growing economy. Hannum says he recently did an event with Mars Inc., whose leaders pointed out that most of the world’s cocoa comes from Ivory Coast and its neighbors. “The point was: No peacekeepers, no chocolate,” Hannum says.
The funding debate remains wrapped up in complex questions about American power and international institutions. Though Trump’s U.N. speech will be most remembered for his fiery rhetoric on North Korea, he also specifically praised the blue helmets’ work in Africa. “The United States bears an unfair cost burden,” Trump said. “But, to be fair, if [the U.N.] could actually accomplish all of its stated goals, especially the goal of peace, this investment would easily be well worth it.” And don’t forget the chocolate.