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Trump wants to cut U.N. funding — but peacekeeping saves money, as well as lives

U.N. peacekeepers from Senegal on an early-morning patrol in Gao, Mali, in January. (Jane Hahn for The Washington Post)

On March 29, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley discussed cuts to the U.N. peacekeeping budget, noting, “Everyone knows there’s fat at the U.N.”

Earlier this month, President Trump’s budget proposed to cut U.N. funding by nearly 40 percent, targeting U.N. peacekeeping specifically. The United States pays 28.5 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget, or about $2.2 billion per year.

During her confirmation hearing in January, Haley stated, “We are a generous nation. But we must ask ourselves what good is being accomplished by this disproportionate contribution.”

So what does political science research say about the benefits of U.N. peacekeeping for the United States? Here are three key takeaways:

1) Peacekeeping dollars are well spent — Civil wars around the globe tend to produce first-order threats such as terrorists, as well as refugees. Civil wars and the breakdown of order also give rise to illicit trafficking in drugs, weapons and humans. Sending U.N. peacekeepers costs significantly less — maybe even 100 times less — than sending U.S. troops to stabilize states and end civil wars. As I detail in my book, the United Nations has been very successful at stopping civil wars, overseeing transitions to peace, and exiting countries, all at a very low cost.

The U.N. peacekeeping budget has been about $7 billion per year for 16 operations since the early 2000s. In that time, the United States has spent nearly $5 trillion on two operations, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The $2.2 billion that the United States pays per year for U.N. peacekeeping is about the cost of two B-2 bombers — the U.S. Air Force has 20 of these. The United States can afford to pay for peacekeeping, and deploying U.N. peacekeepers rather than U.S. troops saves money.

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

2) U.N. peacekeepers remain under the microscope, but on balance they have been effective at resolving conflict — U.N. peacekeeping is experiencing justified criticism because of sexual exploitation and accusations of abuse involving peacekeepers, and their role in bringing cholera to Haiti. The social science evidence, however, overwhelmingly shows that peacekeeping, as a whole, is effective. When peacekeepers deploy during conflict, there are fewer civilian casualties, fewer military deaths and a geographical containment of violence. When fighting breaks out, conflict episodes are shorter when U.N. peacekeepers are present.

Rape is often used as a weapon in civil wars, and disease is a common, lasting problem in war. When peacekeepers help to decrease war, in turn, rape and disease  also diminish. Peacekeepers are undergoing necessary investigations and reforms to punish and prevent crimes of sexual abuse and exploitation, and to stem the spread of diseases potentially carried by peacekeepers.

For many people in conflict zones, peacekeepers represent “The Last Station before Hell.” Peacekeepers stabilize conflicts, allow time for negotiation, and help to keep societies from slipping into the inferno of war. Although in recent years peacekeepers have been less effective at implementing their mandates and exiting the post-civil-war country, and there are problems of a tone-deaf peace-building culture, peacekeeping remains a crucial and effective tool.

Is U.N. peacekeeping under fire? Here’s what you need to know.

3) Peacekeeping serves U.S. geopolitical interests — Through its U.N. contributions, the United States can shape much of the direction of peacekeeping policy, at a very low cost, to help ensure that states and regions recovering from civil wars remain friendly to U.S. interests. In recent years, China has expressed a new interest in U.N. peacekeeping. China is now the second-largest U.N. funder and has pledged to become the largest troop contributor. China has also laid claim to eventually take over the leadership the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations. By backing away from its longtime role, is the United States needlessly ceding ground to China?

70 years of United Nations voting in one graph (and two apps)

Absent solid U.S. funding for peacekeeping, we can expect to have less stability, more war and thus more threats to the U.S. homeland. Retreating from peacekeeping leaves the door open for China to step in. Given the relatively modest price tag for U.S. participation in this mostly effective tool for peace, U.N. peacekeeping seems a good deal.

Lise Morjé Howard is an associate professor of government at Georgetown University. She is the author of “UN Peacekeeping in Civil Wars” (Cambridge University Press, 2008).