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U.S. funding for the United Nations may not be as costly as you think

The United Nations logo, on a door in the Assembly Building at U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 18, 2015. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
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A draft executive order from the Trump administration, first reported by the New York Times on Jan. 25, proposed steep U.S. cuts to international organizations — including the United Nations. By late Friday, the administration clarified that “no executive orders on these subjects are expected at this time.”

Instead, the Trump administration will establish a committee to review U.S. support for the United Nations and other international organizations. According to the draft order, the end goal appears to be reducing voluntary contributions to international organizations by 40 percent, and terminating funding to institutions that provide full membership to the Palestinian Authority, or support family planning programs, along with other targets. It also states that the United States will look for “ways to reduce mandated U.S. contributions.”

The draft order is unusual in both source and scope, as proposals to withhold U.N. funding typically come from Congress. Presidents — including Republicans like George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush — have opposed such action.

Here are four things to keep in mind if the new Trump administration, in fact, does debate the U.S. commitment to fund U.N. activities:

1) What do U.N. members actually contribute?

U.N. members make mandatory contributions — a legal obligation of membership — to fund the U.N. Regular Budget, which supports the work of the Secretariat and the administrative costs, like staff salaries and office costs, of many U.N. programs. Mandatory funding also pays for U.N. peacekeeping missions — with a separate fund for each mission the Security Council approves. So the “ways to reduce mandated contributions” most likely refer to the U.N.’s regular and peacekeeping budgets.

Voluntary contributions, as I detail in a previous Monkey Cage post, fund the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and many other programs. Contributions from U.N. member countries pay for ongoing activities such as working to stop child trafficking, adapting to climate change, or emergency responses to natural and man-made disasters (think earthquakes and civil wars). By calling for a 40 percent cut to all voluntary contributions, the draft executive order would appear to target these programs.

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2) A 40 percent cut to all voluntary contributions would be unprecedented

U.S. complaints about U.N. costs are not new. Palestinian organizations and family planning, for instance, have been regular targets since the 1980s. The United States has also been engaged in a near-constant effort to reduce its share of the Regular Budget. But these previous efforts would pale in comparison with a 40 percent cut to all voluntary contributions.

As A. Burcu Bayram and I describe in a recent article, U.S. cuts typically target reforms, or reflect specific ideological or policy differences between Congress and U.N. governing bodies. With few exceptions, such cuts are small relative to the overall U.S. contributions. Donors typically earmark their contributions when they disagree with U.N. policies and priorities.

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So when the United States objected to providing any type of assistance to North Korea, it specified that the World Food Program could not use any U.S. contributions to provide food aid to North Korea. But a 40 percent cut across all U.N. programs could severely hamper a wide range of activities.

3) Americans seriously overestimate actual U.S. funding for foreign aid

Funding to international organizations actually represents a tiny portion of the U.S. government budget. Americans are mostly unaware of this.

Foreign-aid knowledge surveys demonstrate that Americans “vastly overestimate” the percentage of the federal budget dedicated to foreign aid — the mean estimate in these surveys is 25 percent. When survey participants were asked what an appropriate percentage of the budget would be, they gave a mean figure of 10 percent.

In fact, just 1 percent of the federal budget goes toward both bilateral and multilateral foreign aid. In short, voluntary contributions to U.N. institutions make up an exceedingly small portion of the federal budget.

Complaints that the U.S. share is “disproportionate” typically refer to the fact that the United States pays the largest share (22 percent) of the U.N. Regular Budget. The United States also pays an estimated 28 percent of U.N. peacekeeping budgets, due to its position as a permanent, veto-bearing member on the Security Council.

These shares are normally allocated based on the size of a country’s economy and its per capita income. However, based on just those criteria, the United States is underpaying. As of 2000, the U.S. share of the Regular Budget was capped at 22 percent, making it the only developed country not subject to the normal formula.

But the United States is not the top donor of voluntary contributions to many U.N. institutions. In 2015, Japan was the largest donor to the UNDP, contributing $355 million compared with $266 million from the United States. Western European states have long exceeded U.S. contributions in per capita terms, but increasingly they contribute more in absolute terms as well.

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The United States is the fifth-largest contributor to the U.N. Environment Program, providing $6.54 million, less than the Netherlands, Germany, France and Finland. At the U.N. Population Fund, the United States is the third-largest state contributor, after the United Kingdom and Sweden. Given the vast disparity in economic size — the U.S. economy is about eight times as big as Britain’s and 35 times the size of Sweden’s — other donors find U.S. complaints of “burdensome” contributions difficult to swallow.

4) Funding cuts will reduce U.S. influence at the UN

Being in good financial standing facilitates U.S. diplomacy at the United Nations. House International Relations Committee Chair Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) recognized this in 2001 when the House voted to pay U.S. arrears in the wake of 9/11, to facilitate cooperation on fighting terrorism.

Top donors also tend to get seats on U.N. governing bodies. In his memoir, former U.N. secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali recalled that it was difficult to get member states to elect an American candidate as UNICEF executive director when U.S. contributions were declining. The same was true at the UNDP, where then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright warned that cuts by Congress risked a loss of support for American leadership. She was right — the United States lost its monopoly in 1999 when the United Nations picked a British candidate to head the UNDP.

Finally, to the extent the United States cedes influence at the United Nations, other nations then have an opportunity to up their roles. This means rising powers, most prominently China, can step up as U.S. soft power declines.

Whether China, which to date has shirked voluntary contributions on par with its economic might, will do so remains to be seen. But any U.S. retrenchment within the United Nations could certainly pave the way for increased influence from rising countries more willing to open their checkbooks.

Erin R. Graham is an assistant professor of politics at Drexel University.