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Making the UN Great Again?

Making the UN Great Again?

President Donald J. Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 19, 2017.

President Donald J. Trump has a few ideas about how to make America great again. They’re not very good. In fact, they’re counterproductive and, more likely than not, will promote the long-term decline of the nation. Now, it seems, he plans to apply comparable ideas to the United Nations as well.

Making America Great Again?

The United States remains the strongest country in the world, both militarily and economically. Our post-recession economic recovery, frustrating as it has been, has been stronger and faster than that of Europe (which engaged in GOP-style austerity, suffered a double-dip recession, and is only now getting a firmer, if still uneven, footing) and is among the longest-lasting in U.S. history. Yet Trump has convinced himself and many others that the country is in dramatic need of rescue.

Corporate America, for example, has abundant cash on hand—and interest rates are still near historic lows for those companies that don’t. Yet Trump and the Republican-led Congress devised a tax plan that consists of redirecting money from the general public to corporations and affluent Americans who already have funds that they are not using. (The plan actually advantages the superwealthy over the merely wealthy and those who live off dividends or inheritances over the wealthy who rely on salaries.) The plan is guaranteed to produce enormous deficits, which Speaker Paul Ryan believes should be paid for with cuts to Medicare, even though the retiree population is growing and includes many Trump voters. Arguably, if the economy needs anything, it could use a boost of market demand to prompt corporations to mobilize their available funds for productive investment. Unfortunately, the time for that may have already passed. It certainly would have been much more effective, say, back in 2011, when the economy was weaker, but the House Republicans killed such a stimulus proposal then. (For decades, Republicans in Congress have been against deficits under Democratic presidents and for deficits under Republican presidents without evident regard for what contemporary economic conditions called for.)

Beyond that, the administration is pushing to reduce immigration—both legal and illegal—which will also undermine long-term growth prospects, especially at a time when the working-age population is shrinking and the retiree population is growing. Moreover, Trump’s goal of reducing immigration clashes with his goal of reducing imports. If companies are not able to produce goods overseas and then import them, they will return to their older practice of demanding freer immigration of cheap labor. In addition, the administration is cutting basic research, the wellspring of innovation, and it demonstrates a general disdain for science or, for that matter, expertise of any sort. All this is topped off with a growing penchant for undermining political norms and institutions for the sake of short-term partisan gain; Trump epitomizes this trend, but the Republican Party has been experimenting with it for decades. .

Regarding his governmental apparatus, Trump holds the record for the number of government positions—including both critical positions and routine positions, domestic policy positions and foreign policy positions—still empty so far into his term. As of November 2017, 33 ambassador posts still lacked a nominee (11 more had nominees still awaiting confirmation), and nearly all under secretary and assistant secretary positons in the State Department remained vacant. Trump also holds the record for the amount of turnover among top White House advisers. And, of those who were still around as of November 2017, more than 130 officials in the White House and the Executive Office of the President had been unable to acquire full security clearances, including Jared Kushner (who, regardless, has regular access to the President’s Daily Brief from the Intelligence Community), Ivanka Trump, the White House Counsel, more than 40 percent of the people listed as working for the National Security Council, 10 out of 30 people with the title “assistant to the president,” and of course the recently fired staff secretary, whose job was to monitor and control the flow of documents—both classified and unclassified—through the White House.

Making America Great in the World?

Regarding the outside world, Trump seems intent on developing a reputation for parochialism, unreliability, and self-interest. He assures us that the post–World War II global economic order devised by the United States is really a scheme by unnamed others to drain the United States of resources. While the United States has indeed been generous in supporting general prosperity and stability, it has also benefited greatly from the conditions created. Simply undermining every arrangement that does not offer an immediate monetary payoff will not make anyone great again.

In foreign policy Trump relies heavily on the use of economic sanctions, yet he has sidelined State Department experts on the subject and permitted a withering of capacity at both State and Treasury, including the recent resignation of the multilateral-sanctions coordinator at the U.S. Permanent Mission to the United Nations. Secretary Rex Tillerson has shut down the State Department’s sanctions coordination office and transferred that responsibility to the Policy Planning Staff, which is not normally an operational body. Plans calls for further cuts to the sanctions budget and staff at Treasury.

Making the UN Great Again?

Trump is concerned about the size of the U.S. contribution to the UN budget, as many administrations have been, to be sure. The U.S. share of the UN’s general budget, in absolute terms, is the largest of any country’s because the dues are based the given country’s ability to pay as determined by the size of its economy. The U.S. share is 22 percent, which may actually be a bit of a bargain; according to the World Bank, the U.S. share of the global economy is 24.32 percent. Also, it is worth noting that in per capita terms, the U.S. contribution ranks 20th. Norway, which accounts for 0.52 percent of the global economy, ranks first, contributing $399 per person, roughly nine times as much as the United States’ $44 per person. (To be sure, per capita GDP is higher in Norway than in the United States, but it is not nine times as high.) In many categories of voluntary contributions, the United States is not the largest contributor in either relative or absolute terms. To be sure, Americans view foreign spending as a burden on the United States and the source of U.S. deficits, but they are generally unaware that the total U.S. spending on foreign operations—that is, the money to run the State Department, pay diplomats and other staff, secure embassies abroad, provide foreign aid to other countries, and fund international organizations (although not U.S. military operations, which come under the Pentagon’s budget)—amounts to only about 1 percent of the total federal budget.

Aside from the amount of the contribution, the administration seems to conceive of it as a gift to undeserving others as if the United States gained no benefit from the United Nations and its activities. There are benefits, however, in addition to the common benefits of general stability and prosperity, and they come at a reduced cost. According to Georgetown University’s Lise Morjé Howard, for example, the cost of UN peacekeeping operations is about 1 percent of the cost of U.S. military operations, and they help reduce the threat of terrorism and drug trafficking beyond the borders of the countries concerned. The U.S. contribution to the annual peacekeeping budget, about $2.2 billion, is roughly what the country spent every week in Iraq and Afghanistan at the height of those wars, and unlike those wars, UN operations do not create new enemies for America. UN operations do not always prevent new outbreaks of violence, but there are benefits even when they don’t. Howard states: “When peacekeepers deploy during conflict, there are fewer civilian casualties, fewer military casualties, and a geographical containment of violence. When fighting breaks out, conflict episodes are shorter when U.N. peacekeepers are present.”

Early in its term, the Trump administration considered seeking reductions in mandatory contributions (i.e., the UN general budget and peacekeeping), cutting voluntary contributions (i.e., all other UN-related agencies, such as UNDP, UNICEF, UNHCR) by 40 percent, and eliminating funding for any organization that granted full membership to the Palestinian National Authority or engaged in family planning. While past administrations have sometimes targeted particular programs or refused to fund specific activities, no U.S. administration had previously opposed international institutions across the board. Foreseeing the challenges, Secretary-General António Guterres worked with Ambassador Nikki Haley to reduce spending and to do so as much as possible in ways that would not undercut the institution’s core functions. The peacekeeping budget was cut by $500 million and the general budget by $285 million. Haley and the Trump administration were permitted to take credit for the cost savings (leading some news reports to imply that this was purely a U.S. action, which probably played well among Trump supporters). Still, the ambassador has foreshadowed demands for further cuts.

Aside from monetary issues, the Trump administration’s attitude toward the United Nations stresses the centrality of sovereignty but seems to understand sovereignty in zero-sum terms. Judging by his actions, the president believes that if the United States is to be sovereign, then no one else can be. Apart from the negotiated budget reductions, on at least four occasions in a single week in December the administration linked continued U.S. financial support for the institution to members’ compliance with American demands in their voting behavior.

A key example of the Trump attitude was the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the U.S. embassy there. The final status of Jerusalem—which is considered a holy city in all the region’s major religions; is claimed as the capital, all or in part, by both the Israelis and the Palestinians, and is a major focus of conflict—was one of the matters to be settled by negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Trump appears to believe he deserves both sides’ gratitude for making the decision (in favor of one side) on their behalf and thus making their lives easier. The administration has presented the decision as a purely sovereign American choice of no concern to anyone else, including the people most affected by it. To be fair, Trump has as much right as any president to be incompetent and pursue destructive policies without consideration of the consequences. In this case, it seems, he felt free to throw a fragile corner of the world into even greater turmoil for the apparent purpose of providing a certain degree of satisfaction to a subset of U.S. voters who have little real interest in the issue and even less understanding of the region’s dynamics.

When the UN Security Council voted (14-1), at the Palestinians’ behest, to condemn the decision, the United States, of course, vetoed it. When the UN General Assembly voted (128-9) to condemn the decision, Ambassador Haley reported that the vote was a personal affront to President Trump, which raises the question of exactly what she thinks the purpose of votes in the United Nations is, a form of presidential therapy perhaps.

Although the General Assembly vote was nonbinding and essentially symbolic, the administration determined that a price had to be paid. Within the administration, Haley and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner argued to withhold a scheduled $125 million payment to UNRWA, the UN agency that aids Palestinians, including those living in refugee camps that were first established in 1948. (The refugees’ ultimate fate is another of the “final status” topics to be negotiated between the Israelis and the Palestinians.) They argued that withholding the funds would force the Palestinians to negotiate (although their refusal to negotiate is itself a result of the Jerusalem decision). They were opposed in this debate by the State Department Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, the Department of Defense, and the Intelligence Community, who all argued that the move would backfire and feed extremism. Secretary Tillerson proposed splitting the difference and providing $60 million. That is the view that prevailed, with the remainder to be held for future consideration. (Incidentally, the U.S. contribution to UNRWA in 2017 was more than $364 million. The United States has occasionally delayed UNRWA payments in the past but eventually paid them, usually at the insistence of Israel.) Weeks later, the United States failed to deliver a promised $45 million for emergency food rations, which UNRWA had already purchased based on the U.S. promise. This was separate from the earlier funds. The State Department now insists that any reduction in funding is intended solely to encourage UNRWA to undertake management and financial reforms that the department apparently has not specified. UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness commented: “The U.S. government has consistently commended our high impact, transparency and accountability. This was reiterated, once again, during the latest visit to Washington in November 2017, by our Commissioner-General, when every senior US official expressed respect for UNRWA’s role and for the robustness of its management.” Gunness also said that UNRWA is now facing its “worst financial crisis” in its 70-year history.

It should be clear by now that trying to coerce other countries into being (or at least acting like) our friends can backfire. It is troubling when this is being done to coerce certain votes on symbolic, nonbinding resolutions. It is true that a lot of UN General Assembly votes do not go our way. (One American University professor classifies countries as “friendly” if they vote with the United States at least 25 percent of the time and as “hostile” only if they vote with the United States less than 12 percent of the time.) Yet these countries have reasons for voting the way they do, and these votes do not preclude cooperation on matters of greater importance to us. Yet wasting political capital, and potentially inciting new hostility, for the sake of meaningless atmospherics seems to be a hallmark of the Trump administration.

Relations at the UN are fraught in other areas as well. Our European allies are so distressed by Trump’s frequent and unsubstantiated denunciations of the Iran nuclear deal (which is monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN affiliate) that when Haley brought up unrelated Iranian activities in the Middle East during a Security Council meeting, they became defensive and changed the subject to the need to uphold the Iran deal. The meeting—an attempt to single out and isolate Iran for its direct and indirect roles in various local conflicts—became a diplomatic embarrassment for the United States. Any effort to actually undermine or revoke the deal without an extremely strong reason is likely to find our allies aligning with Russia and China against us. Some analysts have predicted that it could have deep and lasting repercussions for U.S. relations with Europe, which is already beginning to see the United States as a disruptive force in the Middle East.

Finally, it is worth noting that in the past the United States has generally been able to guide UN actions when it really has wanted to. It is not fair to say that the United States has totally neglected the UN in the first year of the Trump administration. It has turned to the Security Council, in particular to organize sanctions against North Korea. In other areas, however, the administration has stood back and permitted others to take the lead. Russia has created its own Syrian peace process, largely ignoring the established UN process as well as the goals that the UN and the U.S. had been promoting. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has taken the lead in matters concerning Yemen, cutting off access to UN humanitarian aid shipments at will. Even with regard to North Korea sanctions, the United States has actively pushed China into a leading role, a role that the Chinese government had not necessarily sought. At the same time, China is seeking an increased role in UN peacekeeping and in running peacekeeping operations. In and of itself, it is not a bad thing to let others play an important role in multilateral organizations. In these particular cases, however, the countries concerned are not guided by U.S. interests or either U.S. or UN values, and this or later administrations may come to regret the failure to take a more active role.

In U.S. politics, Trump has a tendency to attack fundamental institutions, be it the FBI, the news media, or the electoral system, whenever things fail to go his way. This is a recipe for chaos and eventual disaster. His approach to the United Nations seems similar. If Trump’s view of the UN as a means of achieving immediate gratification of U.S. goals—or partisan goals—prevails, he could well contribute to its undermining as well. This would most likely turn other countries away from the institution and undermine its usefulness for anyone.

Overall, as Elizabeth N. Saunders of George Washington University recently commented: “Diplomacy, trade, and alliances—all things that Trump disdains—have benefits that can be hard to see until they’re gone. But like an insurance policy, they are missed only when they are needed. Trump’s weakening of these foreign policy tools leaves the United States ill prepared for the crises that inevitably challenge presidents.” And as Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has said: “The good news is that the costs of promoting global order tend to be less than the costs of not; the bad news is that this truth does not seem to be recognized by many Americans, including the 45th president.”



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.