The list of political institutions and norms that I have taken for granted and which are now under threat seems to grow by the day. High on the list are the multilateral organizations that have formed the core of the postwar liberal international order. President-elect Trump has been vociferous in his criticism of NATO, which has now gone well beyond campaign rhetoric about other countries not paying their share and is now alarming critical U.S. allies as he enters office. He has also praised the fracturing of the European Union, saying that “people want their own identity.” In addition, Trump has threatened to unravel the international agreement on nuclear research reached with Iran, to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, and to engage in an “arms race” with Russia that would undo the work of decades of treaties to reduce nuclear stockpiles. At his confirmation hearing last week, Gen. James Mattis, the prospective secretary of defense, told members of Congress that “when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.” His commander in chief clearly disagrees.
Trump has rightfully been inundated with criticism for undermining the basic structures of diplomacy that have maintained U.S. power, including from members of his own party like Sen. Lindsey Graham. But—unfortunately—there is one multilateral institution on which Trump and Graham seem to agree: the United Nations.
Last week, Graham and Sen. Ted Cruz introduced a bill that would halt all U.S. funding to the United Nations until U.N. Security Council resolution 2334 is repealed. The resolution, which criticized Israel’s continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank but took no action, was adopted by a unanimous 14-0 vote in December after the United States abstained.
As I discussed in this week’s Middle East Ticker, there are precedents for the United States cutting a portion of its funding to protest U.N. policies or actions to which the U.S. Congress objects. “In some cases, Congress withheld a proportionate share of funding for U.N. programs and policies of which it did not approve,” the Congressional Research Service reported in May 2015. “It has, for instance, withheld funds from regular budget programs, including the U.N. Special Unit on Palestinian Rights and the Preparatory Commission for the Law of the Sea.” In 2011, the United States decided to halt funding to UNESCO after it granted full membership to Palestine. These policies have consequences; after withholding funding for two years, the United States lost its voting rights in UNESCO.
In her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is the Trump administration’s nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, cited the precedent of defunding specific programs and suggested “leveraging” U.S. funding. In particular, she pointed to the 2011 UNESCO decision, and noted that she thinks the U.S. Congress should consider similar measures with regard to the U.N. Human Rights Council. In her remarks, Haley time and again advocated targeted measures and repeatedly rejected what she described as a “slash-and-burn” approach to defunding the United Nations.
But that is exactly what Cruz and Graham’s proposal is. The bill, which now has 20 other cosponsors, doesn’t quibble with a “proportionate share”—it would defund all U.S. assessed and voluntary contributions to the United Nations. Here is the operative language:
The United States Government may not make any voluntary or assessed contributions to the United Nations or any United Nations organization, including any United Nations specialized agency, fund, or program and any other body or entity affiliated with the United Nations or funded by a United Nations treaty, convention, or agreement, until the President certifies to the appropriate congressional committees that United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 (2016) has been repealed.
No exceptions, no clauses allowing presidential waivers, just unilaterally slashing 22 percent of the U.N. base budget. The language of the bill would prevent any U.S. funding from going to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees, the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. Children’s Fund, and potentially many other organizations the United States partners with around the world depending on how affiliation or funding from the United Nations is interpreted.
The U.S. contribution to the United Nations has been a Republican bête noire for years, and the debate was revived with vigor after the passage of resolution 2334 in December. But even in the context of this debate, Cruz and Graham's position is extreme. Even in an article entitled “Defund the United Nations,” National Review’s Rich Lowry acknowledged, “There are individual U.N. agencies that do good work, and we can continue to support those.” Cruz and Graham’s bill would preclude this minimal support.
Being a superpower comes with costs. One of those costs since World War II has been underwriting the operating costs of the multilateral organization tasked with preventing war and propagating human rights and international norms. The United States pays for approximately 22 percent of the U.N.’s resources each year; reports last week put the number at about $8 billion each year, which tracks with the White House’s last memo on U.N. funding posted on its website, issued in 2011. That report put the figure at $7.69 billion, the lion’s share of which was drawn from the budget for the State Department and USAID. For scale, the State Department and USAID’s total resources last year was $69.3 billion, and the Defense Department’s budget was close to $600 billion. In short, the U.S. constribution to the United Nations is a significant expense, but not an extravagance.
There are some immediate returns on that U.S. investment: each year, U.N. operations around the world provide safety and security to people displaced by conflict, food to people affected by draught and famine, and inoculations and medical care to children who otherwise would not have access. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank promote economic development and monetary cooperation around the world through diplomatic coordination and loans tied to structural reforms. The IAEA monitors nuclear proliferation and is responsible for verifying Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—a pretty important task if you believe, as I do, that it is in the U.S. and international interest that Iran not obtain a nuclear weapon. These programs augment and far exceed what the United States could do on its own and operate in areas where the United States is unwelcome.
The more important reasons to support the United Nations are more esoteric. At its core, the United Nations provides a framework and international forum for diplomacy predicated on human rights and fundamental principles. The organization’s promise has always been aspirational, but that hasn’t made its role less important. Without it, there would be no comparable arena for substantive debates, whether about fundamental principles like the limits of sovereignty and the right to protect or about conflicts of national interests that go beyond bilateral negotiation.
Yes, there are many criticisms that can justifiably be leveled at the United Nations. Security Council resolutions on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Iran’s ballistic missiles, and Israel’s construction in the West Bank have gone unenforced, and China and Russia’s violations of their neighbors’ sovereignty have been ignored. Peacekeeping forces have committed terrible crimes and hurt the civilians they were deployed to protect. The U.N. Human Rights Council has been overrun by the countries that deserve its scrutiny most. The International Criminal Court has been bogged down by a handful of cases drawn largely from the third world while prominent, documented war crimes go unpunished. China and Russia have used their positions to erode the global norms the United Nations was established to protect and their Security Council veto power to protect their hypocrisy.
But these aren’t arguments against the United Nations; these are arguments for U.S. leadership and a strong United Nations. The international law and norms enshrined in the U.N. Charter and its seventy years of treaties and conventions are more essential than ever and the United States cannot afford to undermine them by abdicating its responsibilities to the organization tasked with upholding them. They have not achieved world peace, but with the world already feeling like its tending toward entropy, the prospect of diminishing this basic framework is terrifying. And nothing would give countries like Russia and China, which want greater license to violate these international norms, a freer hand than the United States withdrawing from principled international engagement.
The irony, of course, is that this isolationism is precisely the sort of thing Graham often rails against. He has been outspoken about his concerns about Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and has called for the United States to be more forceful in its response. My impression is that Graham and Cruz do not intend to actually cut U.S. funding and withdraw from the United Nations. Rather, this is a threat to strong-arm the 14 other members of the U.N. Security Council to reconsider their vote on resolution 2334, similar to the Saudi government’s threat to withdraw funding from the United Nations if it was not removed from a report on nations violating the rights of children last year.
But this is more than just a political stunt. What if the bill passes and the U.N. Security Council calls Cruz and Graham’s bluff? Russia and China probably wouldn’t mind the optics of preserving the integrity of their vote while the United States does every conceivable thing it can to make itself diplomatically irrelevant.
There are substantive debates to be had about what resolution 2334 meant, what its effects will be, and what the United States should do now that it was allowed to pass. Some of that debate has occurred here on Lawfare. The bill that Cruz and Graham are now pushing is something else. This is a destructive and myopic attack on the basic framework of the liberal order—but in a year when the very idea of American democracy needed defending in the president’s farewell address, I don’t know why I’m still surprised.