United Nations Archive 1

US and UN: On a Slippery Slope?

By Bill Miller

Over the past several years America has relied more so on the UN’s help in Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur and many other hot spots around the world. Since the UN has been a major ally in combating terrorism, rebuilding Afghanistan, promoting democracy and market economies, why would the US consider returning to its deadbeat status of the 1990s by not paying its legal dues to the international organization?

The US is nearly $2.8 billion in arrears on its legal obligations to the UN. Of this total, $1.2 billion are for UN dues that were assessed at the beginning of 2008. President Bush’s FY 2009 budget request may have a projected shortfall of $600 million which would adversely impact UN peacekeeping operations.

A major irony is that the US benefits overall more from the UN than does any other country. Take peacekeeping as an example: The UN peacekeeping missions operating in 17 dangerous areas around the world strive to promote peace and security, reduce violence, and help people get their lives back on track. UN peacekeeping operations are normally conducted without US troops on the ground, the financial burden is spread among several of the 192 UN member states, and the US has veto authority to approve each mission. The missions are not forced on a subservient US.

Other facts highlight the UN’s value in these operations. For example,

-- the total cost of UN peacekeeping dues to the US is equivalent to what we spend in three days in Iraq, a small investment for a major return; 
-- a Rand Think Tank Report shows that when the UN can conduct a peacekeeping mission, it is more successful than when the US military takes on a unilateral peacekeeping assignment;
-- a US Government Accountability Office (GAO) study indicated that UN peacekeeping costs US taxpayers only one-eighth of what a US military mission would cost.

If the UN did not have a 9,000 member peacekeeping mission in Haiti, a country strategically located near Florida, the US would have to deploy American troops to this dangerous area and pick up the entire tab.

Many foreign policy observers are confused as to why, as the US relies more on the UN, President Bush is repeating a major mistake of the Reagan-Bush-Congressional Era in the late 80s and early 90s: not complying with US’s legal obligations to pay its UN dues.

By withholding, the US dramatically damaged its credibility, international leadership, and security in refusing to pay its legal assessments until the UN complied with its demands to make internal management reforms and reduce the US assessment from 25 to 22%, as well as lower the peacekeeping assessment to 25%. Fortunately, in 1999, Senator Joe Biden (D-RI) and Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), both of whom recognized that the US was injuring itself, cobbled together an agreement that agreed to pay back over $900 million of the $1.2 billion bill.

Some political leaders on Capitol Hill and the White House proffer that the cost of the Iraq War, a weakening economy, alleged UN mismanagement and the US shouldering an unfair burden of the UN budget are coalescing to make it impossible to fund the UN adequately. This is a bogus argument since the US is actually paying less than its fair share that should be based upon its percentage of international wealth (which is closer to 28%).

The UN has improved its internal management quite dramatically over the past 8 years. Arguably, although the UN should continue internal reforms, many UN programs are more cost-effective, less wasteful and more efficient than some US Government programs, such as FEMA’s mismanagement in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraqi Economic Assistance Project where tens of billions of dollars have been misspent or stolen.

As Iraq slides into a failed state, the US is quietly drafting a strategy on how, perhaps not when, to extricate itself from the quagmire of the Iraqi sand. As the power equation changes in Iraq, the UN, which has been the backbone of development programs in Kosovo and Afghanistan and setting up elections in Iraq, will be even more crucial in helping rebuild the Iraqi society, which has been decimated. President Bush, US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad and other Administration officials have encouraged the UN to get more involved in Iraq.

President Bush and Congress (which to its credit has increased the UN appropriation) must move quickly to shore up one of its most important partners and pay its full and legal bills to the UN. If not, the counterproductive moniker of “international deadbeat,” which was so prevalent during the 80s and 90s will be back in vogue. It is more beneficial to the US, and a more effective investment, to pay $4.00 for each American to cover the legally-owed UN dues, as opposed to squandering it in a war in Iraq that, from all indications, is not going to achieve the Administration’s original goals of promoting democracy, enhancing economic and social development, installing a pro-American government and controlling the oil fields.

For the past 62 years, public opinion polls have consistently indicated that the vast majority (a recent poll was at 75%) of the US public wants the American government to work through international bodies, primarily the UN, in dealing with the myriad of intractable international issues and problems. These problems range from combating terrorism, drugs and climate change; promoting peace and security; eliminating diseases such as SARs, AIDs and polio; reducing poverty, hunger and illiteracy; and helping move aircraft, ships, mail and weather information safely around the globe, to mention just a few. Now is not the time to cut funding for these vital services.

Supporting the UN is more critical for the US since it has had its superpower status tarnished over the past seven years by ignoring the Kyoto Protocol, undermining the climate change debate, negating the 1972 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty with Russia, and passively sitting on the sidelines while the North Koreans developed at least 10 nuclear weapons and the Israelis and Palestinians stared into the abyss of open warfare. The major faux pas, of course, was launching what is now widely perceived as an illegal invasion and occupation of a sovereign Iraq, ironically a country that posed neither a threat to the US nor Israel.

A large number of international relations experts and historians view this as the worst foreign policy debacle in the history of the US. The Bush Administration undertook a preventive, not preemptive which is legal under international law, strike against Iraq. Conclusive evidence has proven that there were no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), Saddam had no operational links to Al-Qaeda and was not involved in the attacks on September 11, and Iraq was not an imminent threat.

After this disastrous blunder, the US does not need to make one more embarrassing mistake and weaken its world standing by failing to fund a major ally that is indispensable in helping to carry out major US foreign policies. The US, which should continue to push for reform at the UN, should immediately pay its legal UN dues in full and on-time, which is in the US’s best interest. The UN needs the US; however the US needs the UN perhaps more than at any other point in its history.


Bill Miller, former Chair of the UN Association of the USA's Council of Chapter and Division Presidents, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN and is the Producer/Moderator of “Global Connections Television.”