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UN Reform by the Numbers


The United Nations (UN) is a polarizing institution. To liberals, it is essential to peacekeeping and development. To conservatives, it is an ineffectual talk shop that infringes on American sovereignty while standing on American soil. One finds greater agreement, however, when pointing out the disparity that exists between the UN’s post-World War II structure and today’s international system. Most agree that for the UN to reflect today’s world accurately, reform of both of the Security Council permanent membership and of underlying national contributions to the UN Budget would be necessary.

Without the political capital of victory in war that governed the Atlantic Alliance in the UN’s initial creation, however, substantial reform is an intractable political problem. So substantive UN reform is a fantasy. For the moment, assume that is true. What harm did fantasizing ever do anyone? Thinking about what the UN would look like if it were created today to represent the current balance of global power may be instructive. So, let’s fantasize.

Permanent Security Council Membership is often the focus of UN reform discussion. The five permanent members—U.S., U.K., France, China and Russia—reflect the influence of the victorious Allied powers following World War II. Although other countries join the Security Council for rotating terms, its permanent membership is Euro-centric and ignores rising economic powers in Asia and Latin America. With India and Pakistan rival nuclear powers in Southeast Asia, it also no longer exclusively represents the world’s nuclear arsenals.

However, with the Soviet Union an enemy of the West at the UN’s inception—and Russia and China now rival powers to it—the Security Council has never functioned smoothly. To serve its function as “talk shop”, in the best sense, it does not need to; the current UN is a global diplomatic forum that catalyzes collective responses to global crises and helps frame the terms of debate and push incremental progress on global issues. As the recent Paris Agreement on Climate Change attests, that is a net positive.

Better indicators of what a “reformed” UN would look like lie in the UN Budget. Member countries are assessed contribution levels to the budget based on UN Resolutions (the 2016 country contribution levels were set in a December 2015 resolution). Below is a chart outlining the UN Budget contributions of select UN member countries, compared to defense spending by those countries as a percentage of their GDP, and their relative size in the global economy.

Country2016 UN Budget Contribution (%)National Defense Spending (2015; %National GDP)Global Rank by GDP (World Bank, 2015)
United States22.03.31
United Kingdom5.22.05
South Korea2.02.611
Saudi Arabia0.913.720

Sources: UN Secretariat; Stockholm International Peace Institute; The World Bank

Contributions from Japan and Germany are at levels that reflect both their economic standing and their status as defeated powers that were de-militarized following World War II and that maintain restrictions on their ability to project military power. The combined UN Budget contribution of these two countries amounts to 81% of the annual U.S. contribution. Yet, if Germany’s internal struggle to take over the de-facto leadership of Europe in the wake of the Eurozone crisis is any indication, neither country is necessarily comfortable with advancing its strategic power to be commensurate with its economic power. In the case of case of India in particular, a desire for a greater voice within the UN has so far not been matched with any contribution on par with its economic standing.

The list also includes regional powers—Russia, India, Saudi Arabia and (to a lesser extent) South Korea, who spend substantially more on defense as a percentage of their GDP than they do on UN contributions. These disparities between defense spending as a percentage of GDP and levels of UN contributions, while imperfect (UN spending encompasses more than military operations), may be the best data point to illuminate where UN structures have grown out of step with current global realities. This is particularly true when one compares the size of India’s economy (the world’s seventh-largest) with the amount of the UN’s budget it pays (less than one percent.)

The matter of what nations step forward in UN leadership, however, is a sensitive one. In some cases, powerful countries are reluctant to take a bigger strategic place on the world stage (e.g., Germany); other countries have resources but autocratic characteristics that preclude them from leadership in the eyes of the international community (e.g., Saudi Arabia).

The biggest headwind the UN and Bretton Woods institutions face is the same one NATO currently faces. It is simpler, politically, to form new institutions than to reform outdated ones. Asia, led by China, is not looking to increase its standing within current international institutions; rather, it is building its own network of rival institutions. Old global institutions do not die, then, they just fade away. This is a common line of thinking but a divisive one. The UN and the Bretton Woods system were designed to unify and reduce the potential for strategic and economic strife between nations.

The world may have outgrown their structures, but is a dangerous time to allow them to atrophy or to let sets of rival regional institutions emerge in their place. There is a great deal of discussion about renewing America’s global leadership. That should start with the renovation of the post-World War II international system it built.



Michael Crowley

Mike Crowley received his MA with distinction from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in American Foreign Policy and European Studies in 2003 and his MFA in Classical Acting from The Shakespeare Theatre Company/George Washington University in 2016. He has worked at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Akin Gump, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. He's an actor working in Washington, DC and a volunteer at the National Gallery of Art, and he looks for ways to work both into his blog occasionally.