The U.S. needs to protect its freedom, security, and prosperity. This need compels it to interact in the world through bilateral relationships, strategic alliances, and international organizations. The U.S. belongs to dozens of international technical, regional, diplomatic, military, and financial organizations, but member states often fail to assess whether these organizations have remained focused on their original goals and are fulfilling them. The membership of these organizations is often composed of nearly 200 nations whose interests are commonly at odds. This means that actions and decisions too often fall victim to a lowest-common-denominator process, inaction due to political differences, or result in desirable outcomes only after the U.S. applies diplomatic and other pressure out of proportion to the issue at hand. Moreover, the organizations tend to be poorly managed and lack independent oversight and accountability.
The most prominent international organization is the United Nations. Created in 1945 to maintain international security and promote basic human rights, the U.N. performs some useful tasks—it is a convenient venue for multilateral diplomacy and has at times facilitated joint action to address humanitarian crises, conflicts, or international threats like Ebola—but has often failed to fulfill its primary responsibilities. The world has witnessed hundreds of wars since 1945, yet the U.N. has authorized the use of force in response to aggression only twice: to respond to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, and to repel Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Its response to humanitarian crises has been erratic—authorizing a NATO intervention in Libya while standing idle in the cases of Rwanda or frozen by political discord in cases like Syria. The 71 peacekeeping missions deployed by the U.N. since 1948 have a mixed record of success and at times have been beset by mismanagement, fraud, procurement corruption, and incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse of vulnerable populations by U.N. peacekeepers. U.N. procurement and management have also proven susceptible to corruption and mismanagement, as evidenced by the Iraq oil-for-food scandal.
Meanwhile, the U.N.’s aid-focused development plans have a poor record of success. An independent academic study by William Easterly and Claudia R. Williamson that assessed best and worst practices among aid agencies ranked U.N. agencies among the worst.
The U.N. Human Rights Council, created in 2006 to replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights, has exhibited persistent bias against Israel, partiality and politicization in its examination of human rights, and an inability to exclude from membership states with appalling human rights records. The council’s record in these areas has not improved significantly since the U.S. joined it in 2009.
The failure to implement reform of the U.N. system is particularly disturbing for the U.S.—the U.N.’s largest financial contributor. Countries opposed to U.S. policies and leadership use the U.N. and other international organizations, in which they are on a more equal footing with the U.S. in terms of decision making, to assert their influence. U.S. allies are often unreliable partners in these organizations. Voting as a single bloc enables the EU and other regional and ideological groups, such as the G-77, to counterbalance U.S. leadership and constrain U.S. actions.
Withdrawal from the U.N., which is sometimes suggested by those frustrated with the deep and persistent flaws of the organization, is shortsighted. Other nations will continue to value the U.N. for advancing their purposes, and the U.S., as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, is in a position to veto actions and resolutions in that body that are contrary to U.S. interests. It should be noted, however, that the U.N. is not a monolith; it is comprised of dozens of specialized agencies, funds, and programs. Membership in the U.N. does not require U.S. participation in all of these organizations, and the U.S. should withdraw from those whose costs outweigh the benefits of membership. In all cases, the U.S. should not be shy about using the tools available to it, including financial withholding, to bolster its efforts to address problems and advance U.S. interests.
End or Decrease Funding for International Organizations that Do Not Advance U.S. Interests. The Administration’s FY 2018 budget proposal indicates that the Administration will conduct a strategic review of funding and participation in international organizations to determine where reductions can be achieved while maintaining national interests. This is appropriate and necessary. The U.S. should honestly assess whether each organization works as it was intended to work, and whether its mission is focused and attainable, advances U.S. interests, and provides benefits commensurate with U.S. funding. The U.S. should end funding and withdraw from those, like the U.N. Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) from which the Clinton Administration withdrew in the 1990s, that are ineffective or that work against U.S. interests.
Maintain and Enforce the U.S. Law that Prohibits Funding for U.N. Organizations that Admit Palestine as a Member State. The Palestinian push for statehood absent a negotiated agreement with Israel would deal a major setback to Israeli–Palestinian peace prospects. The Palestinians have for decades pursued this objective by seeking full membership in international organizations. In response, the U.S. enacted legislation in the 1990s to withhold funding from international organizations that accord “the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states” or grant “full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.” These prohibitions have no waiver provision, and the U.S. suspended all funding to the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2011 after the Palestinians were granted membership. A similar prohibition should apply to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that granted the Palestinians full membership in 2016. The Obama Administration maintained funding for the UNFCCC through disingenuous legal arguments and sought to change the law to allow renewed U.S. funding of UNESCO. In order to discourage international organizations from granting membership to the Palestinians before a mutually agreeable peace agreement with Israel is concluded, Congress and the Trump Administration must enforce U.S. law.
Use America’s Influence, Including Financial Leverage, to Press for Key U.N. Reforms. These reforms include giving major donors greater say in budgetary decisions and on how to spread the burden of the v of assessments more equitably; shifting voluntary funding of international organizations to support activities the U.S. deems worthwhile, and defunding lesser priorities or ineffective programs; allowing unfettered member-state access to all audits, internal documents, and other relevant information on the U.N. and its agencies; making oversight and accountability more robust and independent; strengthening protections for whistleblowers; reconstituting the Mandate Review to eliminate outdated, irrelevant, or duplicative activities; and enforcing real, consistent consequences for corruption, sexual exploitation, and abuse by U.N. peacekeepers.
Review Current U.N. Peacekeeping Operations to Ensure that They Meet Their Mandates, and Be More Judicious in Approving New Operations. The Trump Administration has followed through on initial steps by the Obama Administration to close or significantly ramp down U.N. peacekeeping operations in Liberia, the Ivory Coast, and Haiti. It has also challenged the Security Council to scrutinize the mandates of other operations, which led in part to slight reductions in the size of the troop contingent for the peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Similar scrutiny should apply to other operations as they come up for renewal. If a mission has not achieved its objective, or made evident progress after a lengthy period, the Security Council should reassess that mission, and end the mission or shift its expenses to the nations seeking to continue it for political reasons, as is partially the case with the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). The pressure to “do something” should not override sensible consideration of whether a U.N. operation will improve or destabilize a situation or whether it has established clear and achievable objectives, matched resources to requirements, and secured pledges for the necessary resources before the operation is authorized.
Resist Expansion of the U.N. Security Council. Expanding the council would contribute to existing gridlock, dilute U.S. influence, and likely result in less support for U.S. priories and interests.
Demand Reform of the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC). The HRC has failed to fulfill its mandate to address serious human rights situations in an unbiased and objective manner. The U.S. should challenge all U.N. member states to adopt reforms to address the problems that prevent it from fulfilling its responsibilities, including requiring competitive elections for HRC seats, elimination of the separate agenda item focusing on Israel, and improved transparency and accountability.
Facts and Figures
FACT: The United Nations and its affiliated organizations can be useful and contribute to U.S. interests, but not all are equally important, and most suffer from serious flaws and are in urgent need of serious reform.
- The U.S. was instrumental in the founding of the U.N. and should remain in the organization to support and encourage positive actions and to oppose the negative actions that U.S. adversaries seek to advance.
- There are more than three dozen specialized agencies, funds, programs, commissions, and other related organizations and entities in the United Nations system. A number of these organizations do valuable work, such as the World Health Organization’s efforts to combat pandemics or the International Civil Aviation Organization’s work to advance universal standards and practices to make air traffic safer. Not all are equally important, however, as the Clinton Administration concluded in 1995 when it decided to withdraw from UNIDO.
- Most U.N. organizations lack robust, independent oversight and accountability mechanisms, and have a history of mismanagement. The U.S. has historically used its financial leverage to press for reforms. A current example is a requirement that 15 percent of U.S. contributions to individual organizations be withheld unless the Secretary of State reports to Congress that the organization is “effectively implementing and enforcing policies and procedures which reflect best practices…for the protection of whistleblowers from retaliation.”
FACT: The U.S. is by far the largest contributor to the United Nations and its affiliated organizations.
- The U.S. is a member of and contributes voluntary or “assessed” (mandatory) funding to most organizations in the U.N. system.
- Total U.S. contributions to the U.N. system exceeded $9.9 billion in 2015 according to the U.N. Chief Executives Board—more than three times the total provided by the U.K., the second-largest contributor.
- The U.S. is the U.N.’s largest financial supporter, responsible for 22 percent of the regular U.N. budget (over $600 million in 2017). Each of the least-assessed countries is charged about $28,000 per year.
- The U.S. is assessed nearly 28.5 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget (over $2.2 billion in 2016 and 2017). Each of the least-assessed countries was charged approximately $7,874.
- Two-thirds of the General Assembly’s members, which in the aggregate in 2017 are assessed only about 1.6 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget, can approve budget increases over the objections of the U.S. under the rules outlined in the U.N. Charter.
FACT: Peacekeeping can be a useful option for addressing crises, but has serious problems and weaknesses that must be addressed.
- One of the United Nations’ primary responsibilities is to help to maintain international peace and security. Peacekeeping missions can be a useful option to address crises in places where the U.S. and other governments have minimal interests, or where unilateral interventions are not an option.
- At the end of May 2017, U.N. peacekeeping had 112,207 personnel (including 95,301 uniformed personnel, 15,319 civilian personnel, and 1,587 volunteers) involved in 16 U.N. peacekeeping operations overseen by the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The approved budget from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017, was $7.87 billion. Nine of the 16 peacekeeping operations, including the largest and most expensive operations, were located in Africa.
- In recent years, U.N. peacekeeping operations have had problems with corruption and mismanagement, sexual exploitation and abuse, unwillingness by peacekeepers to protect civilians as they are charged to do, and unintended tragic consequences, such as introducing cholera to Haiti.
FACT: Repressive governments are able to secure prominent positions in the U.N. system and exert harmful influence.
- A majority of the U.N.’s 193 member states are not politically free according to Freedom House, nor economically free according to The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.
- Saudi Arabia, which strictly denies equal rights to women, was elected in 2017 to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women whose mission is to promote “gender equality and the empowerment of women.”
- China, Cuba, Venezuela, and other oppressive governments that deny their citizens basic human rights have won election to and currently sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.
- Membership of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament, which is charged with combating proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction, includes known proliferators, such as Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and Syria.
Selected Additional Resources
Brett D. Schaefer, “Key Issues of U.S. Concern at the United Nations,” testimony before Subcommittee on Multilateral International Development, Multilateral Institutions, and International Economic, Energy, and Environmental Policy, Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, May 6, 2015.
Brett D. Schaefer, “A U.N. Human Rights Council Reform Agenda for the Trump Administration,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4674, March 29, 2017.
Brett D. Schaefer, “United Nations Peacekeeping Flaws and Abuses: The U.S. Must Demand Reform,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3131, August 2, 2016.
Brett D. Schaefer, “The U.S. Should Enforce the Law to Improve U.N. Whistle-blower Protections,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3199, April 10, 2017.
Brett D. Schaefer, “Withdraw from Paris by Withdrawing from the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3220, May 25, 2017.
Brett D. Schaefer and Anthony B. Kim, “Congress Should Link U.N. General Assembly Voting and Foreign Aid,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4270, September 2, 2014.
Brett D. Schaefer and James Phillips, “Time to Reconsider U.S. Support of UNRWA,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2997, March 5, 2015.
Brett D. Schaefer, “A U.N. Human Rights Council Reform Agenda for the Trump Administration,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4674, March 29, 2017.