White House Seeks to Cut Billions in Funding for United Nations
U.S. retreat from U.N. could mark a “breakdown of the international humanitarian system as we know it.”
State Department staffers have been instructed to seek cuts in excess of 50 percent in U.S. funding for U.N. programs, signaling an unprecedented retreat by President Donald Trump's administration from international operations that keep the peace, provide vaccines for children, monitor rogue nuclear weapons programs, and promote peace talks from Syria to Yemen, according to three sources.
State Department staffers have been instructed to seek cuts in excess of 50 percent in U.S. funding for U.N. programs, signaling an unprecedented retreat by President Donald Trump’s administration from international operations that keep the peace, provide vaccines for children, monitor rogue nuclear weapons programs, and promote peace talks from Syria to Yemen, according to three sources.
The push for such draconian measures comes as the White House is scheduled on Thursday to release its 2018 budget proposal, which is expected to include cuts of up to 37 percent for spending on the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other foreign assistance programs, including the U.N., in next year’s budget. The United States spends about $10 billion a year on the United Nations.
It remains unclear whether the full extent of the steeper U.N. cuts will be reflected in the 2018 budget, which will be prepared by the White House Office of Management and Budget, or whether, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has proposed, the cuts would be phased in over the coming three years. One official close to the Trump administration said Tillerson has been given flexibility to decide how the cuts would be distributed.
On March 9 in New York, U.S. diplomats in a closed-door meeting warned key U.N. members, including wealthy donors from Europe, Japan, and South Korea, to “expect a big financial constraint” on U.S. spending at the United Nations, said one European diplomat. “There are rumors of big cuts to the State Department budget, but again, on our side, no figures,” the diplomat said.
The cuts would fall heaviest on U.N. programs, like peacekeeping, UNICEF, and the U.N. Development Programme, that are funded out of the budget of the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs. It remains to be seen whether other U.N. agencies popular with Congress, like the World Food Programme and U.N. refugee operations — which are funded out of separate accounts in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the State Department, respectively — will get hit as hard. But one source tracking the budget proposal said the Trump administration is considering cuts of up to 36 percent on humanitarian aid programs.
Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said cuts of this magnitude would create “chaos.”
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) received $1.5 billion of its $4 billion budget from the United States last year, he said. Cutting the U.S. contribution would “leave a gaping hole that other big donors would struggle to fill.”
“Multiply that across other humanitarian agencies, like the World Food Programme, and you are basically talking about the breakdown of the international humanitarian system as we know it,” he added.
The budget proposal reinforces a shift by the Trump administration from U.S. support for diplomacy and foreign assistance to increased financial support for the U.S. military. Late last month, the Trump administration argued that the proposed cuts in the budgets for the State Department, USAID, and other foreign assistance programs, including contributions to the U.N., would help offset a projected $54 billion increase in defense spending.
Those cuts, it now appears, are likely to fall disproportionately on the United Nations, which has less of a constituency in Washington than does the State Department.
U.S. officials in Washington and New York learned during the past week that they will be asked to find ways to cut spending on obligatory and voluntary U.N. programs by 50 to 60 percent from the International Organization Affairs Bureau’s account. State Department officials, for instance, were told that they should try to identify up to $1 billion in cuts in the U.N. peacekeeping budget, according to one source. The United States provides about $2.5 billion per year to fund peacekeepers.
The reductions in diplomacy and foreign assistance represent a blow to Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who repeatedly cautioned against “slash-and-burn cuts” during her Senate confirmation hearing.
Haley has already been undertaking a review of the U.N.’s 16 peacekeeping missions to see if she can find room for cuts. She has previously expressed concern about the value of the U.N. Mission in South Sudan, which lacks government support. The United States could end missions by not extending their mandate when they come up for renewal or could negotiate savings in budget talks scheduled for May and June.
Trump’s budget plans are encountering strong head wind in Congress, where Democratic and Republican leaders have voiced concerns about imposing steep cuts in the State Department budget. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the president’s budget is “probably not” going to be passed.
Peter Yeo, the president of the Better World Campaign, a U.N. advocacy group in Washington, said the budget is only an early salvo in what is likely to turn out to be a long, drawn-out battle.
“[Congress] is unlikely to go along with these strong and disproportionate cuts,” he said. “This is only chapter two in a very long book.”
The United States has to pay just over 22 percent of the U.N.’s $2.5 billion administrative budget. Additionally, Washington pays billions of dollars for peacekeepers and helps underwrite a swath of other programs that fight hunger, settle refugees, and battle climate change.
Brett Schaefer, a U.N. expert at the Heritage Foundation, said it would be a “hard stretch” to achieve cuts of more than 50 percent in peacekeeping costs. But he said several U.N. missions, including long-standing operations in Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Haiti, are already winding down, raising the prospect of significant cost savings.
And other troubled missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; South Sudan; and Darfur, Sudan, might be downsized. Two members of a U.N. panel investigating sanctions violations in Congo — Michael Sharp of the United States and Zaida Catalan of Sweden — were abducted near the village of Ngombe in Kasai-Central province, the Congolese government said Monday. Four Congolese nationals accompanying them on the trip were also kidnapped.
“Is Darfur still necessary in the way it is currently configured, or is it an opportunity to negotiate with Sudan to have a smaller mission?” Schaefer asked.
U.N. diplomats and foreign dignitaries say they expect the United States to seek to eliminate funding for some agencies unpopular with conservatives — including the U.N. Population Fund, which receives about $35 million a year from the United States for family planning programs, and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides aid to Palestinian refugees, has long been the target of Israeli and congressional criticism on the grounds that it has a pro-Palestinian bias. But one diplomat said UNRWA might be spared because it relieves Israel of the obligation to care for some Palestinians and because Israel sees the program as ultimately promoting stability.
The United States has broad discretion to cut voluntary funds to humanitarian agencies, including the World Food Programme and UNICEF. But those programs are popular among Democrats and Republicans, and any move to slash funding could undermine Washington’s case for leading those agencies.
If Washington fails to honor its funding commitments to the U.N.’s regular budget, which is obligatory, it could lose its voting rights in the General Assembly. U.N.-based diplomats say it is unlikely that other foreign donors would fill the entire gap in the event of massive U.S. cuts. For instance, European powers, including Germany, may step up funding to address the Syrian crisis, which has sent massive waves of refugees across European borders, but they are not likely to muster the funds to match American funding on a range of other programs, including international development and peacekeeping.
Anticipating cuts to family planning programs, Dutch Development Minister Lilianne Ploumen recently established a fund to solicit contributions to institutions that have faced a cutoff of U.S. assistance because they perform abortions.
But sub-Saharan Africa has plenty of crises that could only get worse if the United States throttles back its financial support. Bathsheba Crocker, who served as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs during former President Barack Obama’s administration, said steep cuts in the U.S. voluntary funding account could imperil programs responding to major humanitarian calamities, dealing with political crises, and combating terrorists.
“We have U.N. warnings of famine in four countries,” she said, referring to food crises in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. “It is only the U.N. agencies that have the scale and ability to get in and address these challenges.”
Meanwhile, a major U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali is “helping with the counterterrorism threats in the region. This is deeply in the national security interest of the United States,” Crocker said.
Photo credit: ANDREW BURTON/Getty Images
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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