The rear wall of the United Nations Security Council chamber in New York is graced by an intricate mural, a gift from Norway, and the work of artist Per Krohg. The mural depicts the phoenix rising from its ashes, symbolising the future hope for peace and freedom. The U.N. is an organisation born in the aftermath of World War II, in hopes of creating a forum for international discussion that could avoid the next great calamity. The world is now far different from the one Per Krohg knew as he painted that beautiful work, a more complex and interconnected world with new issues, new leaders, and a new agenda for the future.
While many criticise the U.N. for its many failures over the decades, inability to prevent the Vietnam war for example, and the ineffective nature of many peacekeeping missions, the U.N. has had its share of successes along the way. The world has not had another World War, and the Millenium Development Goals achieved truly incredible results in key areas like access to clean drinking water and better than halving the number of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.20 a day).
The United States has always been an integral member of the U.N. having a permanent seat on the Security Council and being the largest single nation donor of official development assistance (ODA). Part of this is due to the sheer size and economic might of the U.S. while it ranks 20th in aid as a percentage of Gross National Income (GNI).
The greatest vulnerability of the United Nations is perhaps the voluntary aspect of all decisions. U.N. resolutions are in no way binding on member states unless they choose to, although sanctions and other measures can be used to coerce states to comply on important matters. The U.S. has a history of sidestepping U.N. resolutions and treaties whenever it feels, and throwing it’s economic weight around when the UN makes decision it opposes.
For example, the UN withdrew funding from UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) after that body accepted the Palestine Authority as a member. The US is also currently one of the few nations to have not ratified the Rome Statute, the treaty that makes a nation a member of the International Criminal Court.
Far beyond the U.S. traditional hot and cold relationship with the United Nations, the new U.S. Administration has stated its intent to drastically reduce funding to the U.N. as well as shifting the United States’ priorities. With many conservative leaders and pundits calling for a complete divorce from the U.N., the future of America’s relationship with the world’s primary intergovernmental agency is unclear.
The recently submitted Trump budget plan calls for cuts to USAID, a lower cap to peacekeeping mission contributions, and various other health and development programs. The plan does, however, exempt aid to Israel from cuts, showing one of the priorities of the Trump administration.
Despite all of the talk about how much the U.S. pays to the U.N., the United States has actually been in arrears to the U.N. for much of recent history. As of 2010, the U.S. government owed $1.182 Billion, with president Barack Obama vowing to pay off the remainder of the country’s debt “in full and on time.” Congress has often withheld funding for the U.N. over concerns that the organisation is biased against the U.S.
In another shift in policy, the Trump administration is sending two groups to the 61st annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women that actively oppose expanding women’s rights. One of these organisations, The Center for Family and Human Rights, has been labelled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The sharp change in U.S. policy to the United Nations worries many observers, as does the apparent increase in reliance upon military power over diplomacy that the Trump administration seems to be pushing for. The recent developments prompted U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres of Portugal to release a statement saying,
“Abrupt funding cuts can force the adoption of ad hoc measures that will undermine the impact of longer-term reform efforts. The Secretary-General stands ready to discuss with the United States and any other Member State how best we can create a more cost-effective Organization to pursue our shared goals and values.
The Secretary-General fully subscribes to the necessity to effectively combat terrorism, but believes that it requires more than military spending. There is also a need to address the underlying drivers of terrorism through continuing investments in conflict prevention, conflict resolution, countering violent extremism, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, sustainable and inclusive development, enhancement and respect for human rights, and timely responses to humanitarian crises.”
With the United Nations just beginning the work of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, the successor of the Millennium Development Goals, the immediate withdrawal of large portions of funding could place the program on a path to failure. The SDG’s are continuations and refinements of the previous goals that incorporate many important climate issues. While we must, for the time being, wait and see exactly what course the Trump administration takes with regards to the U.N., the current “America First” stance seems to indicate at least a partial hostility to the mission and spirit of the United Nations.