It's Not Perfect, But the U.N. Is a Good Deal for 'Merica

It's Not Perfect, But the U.N. Is a Good Deal for 'Merica

By Charles Kenny


Because defunding the U.N. would be self-defeating — and end up costing the U.S. bigly.

By Charles Kenny

The author is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. 

The Trump administration is reportedly seeking to slash contributions to the United Nations by hundreds of millions of dollars — pulling out a whopping billion dollars from U.N. peacekeeping alone. That $54 billion in added defense spending has to come from somewhere, and the U.N. has long been a tempting target for budget hawks in Washington. Not least, its assemblies and councils often support ridiculous resolutions that make good fodder for bad press coverage. Remember the International Year of Quinoa?

But when it comes to many of the things the U.N. actually does — things like peacekeeping, nuclear inspections and vaccinating children — the organization can achieve things the U.S. never could alone. And it does so at a fraction of the cost of unilateral U.S. efforts to stop wars, reduce proliferation or save lives. Defunding the body would be self-defeating.

In the U.S., the United Nations is subject of fear and derision from isolationists, frustration and antagonism from the foreign policy establishment and bemused indifference from almost everyone else. Its reputation is not improved by the endless debating in New York or the resolutions filled with turgid prose. More substantively, there is widespread agreement that parts of the U.N. family are in dire need of accountability and reform. A U.K. review of funding a few years ago led to Britain slashing support to the International Labor Organization and UNESCO (the arm of the U.N. in charge of education), for example. And the U.N. itself has weathered a number of damning scandals: overseeing a corrupt oil for food program in Iraq when it was under international sanctions, looking the other way at human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, U.N. peacekeepers spreading cholera in Haiti and engaging in sexual abuse of children, and failing to keep the peace and protect civilians in conflicts including the former Yugoslavia and South Sudan. 

All that said, the United Nations remains a powerful, irreplaceable tool of U.S. foreign policy. Start with the peacekeepers: Some operations fail, but on average they still dramatically reduce casualties and the risk of war. Virginia Fortna of Columbia University suggests that U.N. peacekeeping operations reduce the risk of civil war reigniting by nearly 70 percent. And in Africa, the presence of a large U.N. peacekeeping force reduces civilian deaths by over 98 percent, compared to conflicts where there is no U.N. presence, according to Jacob Kathman of SUNY Buffalo and his colleagues.

At a cost to the U.S. of $2.5 billion a year — or about one-one-thousandth of the cost to the U.S. of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — the U.N. runs peacekeeping operations in 16 countries from Liberia to India. It does so involving just 72 American troops out of a total global deployment of over 100,000. For an administration keen that other countries pull their weight when it comes to defense, U.N. peacekeeping should be seen as a very good deal.

And as the examples of Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate, going it (more or less) alone not only costs immensely more in both blood and treasure, but it doesn’t guarantee better outcomes, or the avoidance of human rights abuses. And the United Nations is the only international body that can give credibility to military engagements  — and so evade the immense diplomatic and reputational costs the U.S. incurs when it operates without the U.N. imprimatur.

The importance of international credibility spreads beyond peacekeeping to a range of other security issues. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency monitors the safety of nuclear power plants worldwide and tracks the use of nuclear material. Because it is a U.N. body, it has far better access to nuclear facilities than would the U.S. acting unilaterally.

And the U.N. family of agencies and organizations supports international cooperation and agreement, in areas from transport to fishing, that saves lives, protects global commons and fosters commerce in ways that the U.S. wouldn’t want to or simply couldn’t do by itself. The United Nations Children’s Fund supplies vaccines reaching more than a third of the world’s children. U.N. agencies are leading the effort to stave off famine in East Africa and are providing assistance to 5 million refugees from the conflict in Syria (compare that to the 12,587 who came to the U.S. in 2016). The World Health Organization sets global standards around pandemic preparedness. The International Civil Aviation Organization regulates global air transport, helping ensure planes don’t crash into each other, while the International Maritime Organization does the same for ships at sea. The World Intellectual Property Organization protects U.S. patents and copyrights planetwide, and the Universal Postal Union helps ensure your holiday postcards get to their destination. To tackle global challenges and to regulate global networks, there is little choice but to turn to global institutions.

The U.N. is bureaucratic, dysfunctional and in constant and chronic need of reform. It is also vital, irreplaceable and an incredibly cost-effective tool of U.S. foreign policy. The Trump administration doesn’t want to bear the financial burden of acting like the sole global superpower but constantly highlights that threats abroad can become threats at home. And that means the only choice is to embrace multilateral solutions to those threats — which means embracing the United Nations.