As the president‘s U.N. envoy warns against "slash-and-burn cuts," the Trump team prepares draft executive orders to impose steep U.N. budget reductions.
- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. He previously wrote FP’s Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He was also the silver medal recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for a three-part series documenting the U.N.’s systemic failure to protect civilians in Darfur, Sudan. Colum’s investigations have uncovered an American spy operation in Iraq, Russia’s monopoly of the $1 billion-a-year U.N. aircraft leasing market, and a Chinese diplomatic campaign to silence U.N. investigators scrutinizing Chinese arms deals in Africa. His deep digs into the U.N. bureaucracy have exposed sexual misconduct by U.N. blue helmets from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and documented monumental dysfunction in the U.N. office charged with rooting out misconduct and corruption. He now devotes his reporting chops to documenting President Donald Trump’s efforts to reorder the international system. Born in Los Angeles, Colum received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. Before moving to FP, Colum reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. He has appeared frequently on national news programs, including the Lehrer NewsHour, as well as on MSNBC, NPR, and the BBC.
For the past week, President Donald Trump’s U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley, has strained to head off “slash-and-burn cuts” by Republican lawmakers that could cripple the United Nations. In the end, though, the White House itself gut-punched Haley and the international community, drawing up draft plans to cut funding for critical programs and withdraw from international treaties.
Trump’s inner circle prepared a draft executive order that mulls 40 percent cuts in voluntary U.S. funding for key U.N. agencies, including UNICEF and the World Food Program, according to a copy of the five-page order obtained by Foreign Policy. Trump’s team also wants to see whether mandatory funding items like peacekeeping can be made voluntary and seeks to review U.S. membership in a slew of international treaties.
The disclosure, first reported Wednesday by the New York Times, came just a day after Haley was confirmed as Trump’s new U.N. envoy with broad bipartisan support. The former South Carolina governor had highlighted the virtues of U.S. contributions for U.N. food and refugee programs, calling them “immensely important.” But she may have been blindsided by the executive orders, just like Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo were Wednesday by reports that Trump plans to reopen CIA black sites and possibly return to using torture.
The development accelerated fears among foreign diplomats that the White House remains committed to withdrawing from the world and unraveling many of the vital international institutions that have underpinned the global order since World War II. Trump has taken aim at free trade, the World Trade Organization, NATO, and the U.S. commitment to pillars like human rights, democracy promotion, and nuclear nonproliferation. He has also shrugged off clear assaults on the existing order, such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea, even while China actively seeks to play a bigger leadership role around the world.
As French ambassador to the United States during the Barack Obama years and current French envoy to the U.N., François Delattre recalls his key message as ambassador to the White House being, “Let us breathe; don’t micromanage the world.” Now, Delattre says, “Our main message to the American administration is, ‘Please stay committed to world affairs, because we need America.'”
But U.N. watchers see Washington in full retreat.
“Trump may not know this, but he is fueling a growing narrative among diplomats and U.N. officials that the U.S. is ceding its leadership at the U.N. to China,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The draft order taps into a latent anti-U.N. sentiment that has simmered in Republican circles for decades and which has only been turbocharged by the Security Council’s recent resolution censuring Israeli settlements. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) threatened to cut off all funding to U.N. agencies if the U.N. didn’t reverse that denunciation. Trump himself offered a veiled warning before he took office. “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th,” he wrote on Twitter.
“The Israeli settlement resolution has been a game-changer; it provided ammunition to those Republicans [who] have been U.N. haters for a long, long time, and it provided a reason to lash out at the United Nations,” one European diplomat told Foreign Policy.
“The antipathy toward the U.N. among Republicans in Washington is more extreme than at any time I can remember,” said a veteran Democratic Senate aide.
It is unclear whether Haley was involved at all in drafting the executive order. The order called for the establishment of a committee of cabinet officials — including the Secretary of State, the Defense Secretary, the Attorney General, as well as the president’s National Security Advisor — to review spending at the U.N. and other international organizations, and present its findings to the president by January 1, 2018. Haley was not named as a member of that committee.
“I doubt anyone asked her opinion,” said the senior Democratic Senate aide. “It’s our impression that this is coming from the White House without a lot of consultation.” He said the proposed funding cuts would simply reduce U.S. leverage over issues that matter to its interests.
“One of the things money buys is influence,” the aide said. “If we withdraw, others with competing interests will rush to fill the vacuum.”
Although pulling out of the U.N. seems to fit Trump’s “America First” approach, it’s an inefficient way to meet foreign-policy goals, said Edward Luck, a U.N. historian at Columbia University.
“If you are going to do everything bilaterally, your own costs are going to go up enormously for taxpayers,” he said.
One area that could be immediately affected is the global migrant crisis, which has spooked many European countries and frightened the Trump administration into considering banning asylum-seekers fleeing terrorism.
Peter Yeo, the president of the Better World Campaign, a U.N. advocacy group in Washington, who has reviewed the draft order, said the cuts would imperil millions of children who receive vaccines and other vital medicines from U.N. agencies and impose extreme hardship on the world’s growing refugee population, including several million people who fled the war in Syria to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.
“What happens when families can’t educate and feed their children?” he asked. “They migrate. There are strong national security implications from this draft executive order.”
Haley had tried to limit U.S. legislative cuts to “targeted and selective” threats of financial withholdings. But even she hinted before lawmakers that the United States intended to review its membership in some international treaties, including the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The draft executive order — titled “Auditing and Reducing U.S. Funding of International Organizations” — calls for “terminating funding for any United Nations agency or other international organization” that offers full membership to the Palestinians, supports programs that fund abortion, or subverts sanctions against North Korea or Iran. It also called for a review of U.S. spending on peacekeeping operations, as well as a range of agencies, including the U.N. Population Fund, which supports maternal and reproductive health programs.
“While the United States’ financial support for the United Nations is enormous, the United Nations pursues and agenda contrary to American interests,” according to an introductory explanatory statement. “The proposed order would create a committee charged with identifying areas where U.S. financial contributions can and should be reduced in accordance with U.S. policy interests.”
A second draft order — “Moratorium on New Multilateral Treaties” — requests a sweeping review of U.S. adherence to international treaties and seeks recommendations on which treaties the United States should leave, according to the Times.
The Trump administration is not the first American government to enter office with a dark view of the United Nations.
George W. Bush frequently belittled the U.N. as an irrelevant institution after the Security Council refused to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. And he dispatched one of America’s most outspoken U.N. critics, John Bolton, as his envoy to the world body. But Bush ultimately came to find value in the United Nations, which helped to provide international legitimacy to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Ronald Reagan, who came into office with a dim view of the United Nations, ordered his own review to determine whether the United States should continue to support U.N. agencies. The review determined that the U.N. agencies, with the exception of UNESCO, served American interests, and the United States continued to fund them, according to Luck.
The historian noted arbitrary and vague elements of the draft orders. For instance, one calls for reviewing U.S. funding to the International Criminal Court. The United States is not a member of the treaty and pays no dues.
“I have to say, as a professor, if a student gave this [draft executive order] to me, I would say, ‘Why don’t you go back and prepare a more careful draft,'” Luck added.
Photo credit: WIN MCNAMEE/Getty Images
This story has been updated.