Cutting UN Funding Will Cost the US

January 26, 2017

The New York Times reported yesterday that the Trump Administration is considering a new Executive Order on “Auditing and Reducing US Funding of International Organizations.” It mandates cutting all funding to bodies that give full membership to the Palestinian Authority and fund abortion amongst other categories, but also suggests the to-be-established International Funding Accountability Committee recommend “at least a 40 percent overall decrease” in remaining US voluntary funding for international organizations. The draft order creates a committee to look at where these cuts could come from, and suggests a particular focus on peacekeeping operations; the International Criminal Court; development aid to countries that “oppose important United States policies”; and the United Nations Population Fund.

It is unclear if the Executive Order is designed to encompass international financial institutions including the World Bank and IMF (if it did, that would be another big reason for concern). But focusing in on the United Nations and related agencies, the proposed cuts would do almost nothing to reduce the deficit while weakening US national security and international leadership. Cuts to peacekeeping in particular would increase the risk the administration has to put US troops in harm’s way. International peacekeeping operations were singled out as requiring examination by the Committee. However, as some peacekeeping operations are voluntary, and others are assessed, it is unclear whether the Committee would recommend a 40 percent cut in all peacekeeping operations or just those involving voluntary contributions. Of course, the Committee is also required to recommend strategies to transition mandatory assessments to voluntary contributions (though this will almost certainly violate treaty obligations if acted on), so this is perhaps moot.

US funding for the United Nations and its agencies under the State Department International Organizations and Contributions to International Peacekeeping accounts amounts to a little over $4.5 billion a year—equal to a little over 0.1 percent of the total US federal budget, about two B-1 bombers or about one sixth the amount Americans spend each year on pet food. Over half of that sum goes to peacekeeping operations, about $600 million to UN operations and $1.4 billion to international bodies including the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency. (Other US government departments make additional payments to a range of international organizations inside and outside of the UN family—the biggest beneficiaries are the World Food Program and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The total across the US government is $10.8 billion).  Most State Department contributions are based on treaty obligations, but the worst punishment the UN could likely mete out if the US refused to pay its assessed share of costs is to deny America a vote in the General Assembly. The real reason to keep up payments is that, for all its failings, the United Nations works.

UN organizations play a considerable role in everything from agreeing statistical measures through peace negotiations (like helping to end the civil war in Guatemala) to ensuring planes don’t crash into each other in international airspace and inspecting nuclear power stations. Again, it is the United Nations—not the US or the European Union—that is leading the response to Syria’s refugee emergency. And the UN also saves lives far away from war zones. The United Nations Children’s Fund currently supplies vaccines reaching more than a third of the world's children. The agency is one factor behind rapidly declining child mortality worldwide: the number of under-five deaths fell from more than 12 million in 1990 to 7.6 million in 2010.

Regarding the UN activities singled out by the draft Executive Order, the US doesn’t fund (and isn’t a member of) the International Criminal Court, so there are few savings to be had. And it isn’t clear how the US could cut development aid via to UN Agencies in a way that was specific to countries that “oppose US policies” (it might be easier, if morally suspect, with emergency aid, but appropriately the draft excludes that). Meanwhile, the UN Population Fund gets about $57 million of US funding for UN agencies. Clearly there isn’t much to cut here (which isn’t to say it should be cut regardless: access to family planning is a human right and a powerful force for development).

That leaves payments for peacekeeping operations as the most plausible target of significant cuts. But the evidence is particularly strong that peacekeeping works. From Sierra Leone and Liberia to Mozambique, El Salvador, and Cambodia, UN missions have helped end bloody civil wars and return countries to peace. Looking across all cases where blue-helmeted UN troops were deployed after a civil war, Virginia Fortna of Columbia University suggests the record is far from perfect, but peacekeeping usually works. Allowing for other factors such as the duration of the war and the development level of the country involved, she suggests when the international community deploys peacekeepers the risk of civil war reigniting drops by almost 70 percent. Madhav Joshi of the University of Notre Dame finds a similar result and adds evidence that UN missions contribute to durable peace in post–civil war states by promoting democracy. Lisa Hultman and Megan Shannon of Uppsala and the University of Colorado at Boulder also suggest that the presence of peacekeepers dramatically reduces civilian deaths. And lowering conflict worldwide makes America safer—it denies terrorists safe havens, limits refugee flows, and reduces the risk that US forces will need to intervene.

The United Nations is currently involved in 16 different peacekeeping operations from Cyprus through Lebanon to Haiti and along the India-Pakistan border. It does all of this at an annual expenditure to the US equal to about 0.015 percent of the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In part that’s because the US pays $2.1 million a year per American serviceman deployed to war zones compared to $24,500 per deployed UN peacekeeper—about 86 times as much. And the UN operates using just 72 Americans out of a force of 100,376. If you are worried about other countries pulling their weight when it comes to international security, UN Peacekeeping should be your instrument of choice. And if the US doesn't want its troops to be the world's policemen, it needs UN peacekeepers.

Overall, it is hard to argue that US expenditure on UN institutions is anything but a great deal—which isn’t to say there aren’t more or less efficient parts of the organization. A US exercise like the UK’s Multilateral Development Review could help in determining where America is getting the most back from its investment in international organizations. And such an exercise can be used to negotiate reforms—and get more for our money. Again, even effective parts of the organization need reform: peacekeepers have spread cholera in Haiti, and engaged in sexual abuse of children elsewhere. Paralysis in the face of Security Council division has left the organization powerless to bring peace to Syria. The UN’s reputation is not improved by giving the chair of a human rights committee to Saudi Arabia, or making Zimbabwe’s despot Robert Mugabe an international tourism ambassador.

But these problems are reasons for further engagement, not abandonment, including pressure for better oversight and accountability that the US Congress backed last year. And America has considerable influence over the UN family to push needed reforms—not only because it is the largest contributor (as befits its status as the largest economy worldwide in market terms), but also because the US and its closest allies are still hugely over-represented in the UN bureaucracy. Western Europe, North America, and Australia and New Zealand between them held 45 percent of top positions as recently as 2005—that compares to a 13 percent share of global population. Contrast China: despite a 23 percent share of world population, they held about one percent of senior positions. In addition, it is a fantastic deal for the US that the UN sits in New York: For every $1 the US contributes to the UN it receives $1.60 back in contracts for US-based businesses & benefits to the economy.

The United Nations is a flawed organization but it is still effective, comparatively cheap, and an irreplaceable tool of US foreign policy. Cutting funding to some of its most cost-effective elements would be a loss to American leadership, values, and security.

Update 1/30/2017: There are reports the Administration is holding off on issuing this Executive Order and that it is under review by the State Department and other agencies. And one draft of the order currently circulating suggests that the 40 percent cut would only apply to voluntary contributions to UN organizations, not assessed contributions that the US is obliged to pay as part of organization membership. The Order creates an International Funding Accountability Committee that is required to recommend strategies to transition mandatory assessments to voluntary contributions as well as recommend the cuts to voluntary contributions. US contributions to Peacekeeping involve both assessed and voluntary contributions. Assessed contributions are made to the UN peacekeeping missions on the ceasefire line between Syria and Israel, in Southern Lebanon, Kosovo, Liberia and elsewhere. Other peacekeeping contributions include to the Multinational Force and Observers operating on the Egypt-Israel border in Sinai (although this is mandated by the Egypt-Israel Treaty of Peace).

Note: This post was updated on Jan 30 at 12:05pm to reflect new information as described above, and on Jan 27 at 9:37am to correct errors. It originally excluded contributions to International Organizations from outside the State Department's core international organization accounts. These have now been added in. And the amount received by the UN Population was amended to $57 million, not $33 million as originally stated. Thanks to Sheba Crocker for alerting us.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.